Below is a story about an aviator that I always think about on Father’s Day. Sijan’s name and story are well-known to many aviators, particularly people who served in the USAF. However, there is one small part of the story that always comes back to me on Father’s Day.
If you have not heard of him, take a few minutes to read his story on Wikipedia at this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lance_Sijan It is a small introduction to the life of a man who had willpower and bravery seen in perhaps one out of a million people.
In the past 20 years I have passed through Mitchell airport in Milwaukee many times. Without fail, I always go to the little museum upstairs. There is a lot of good aviation stuff in there, but I go in to look at only one thing. In the back there is a small glass case with a few items from Lance Sijan. Milwaukee was his hometown, and someone carefully and lovingly put together this small case to house a few things from his brief life.
I would like to tell you that I find Sijan’s story inspirational, and that returning time and again to the glass case is uplifting, but I don’t feel that way. For reasons that are difficult to explain, I have the profound feeling that I could understand something very fundamental about the value of human life if I just looked close enough with an open mind and heart. To me Lance Sijan was the human embodiment of pure, un-alloyed courage. When I was much younger, I thought mostly of his heroic actions, but I came to understand that his death was a tragic loss, not just for our country, or the USAF, or his fellow airmen, but particularly for his family. This change in perspective came from reading the memoirs of the two airmen who were present on Sijan’s last day.
Guy Gruters and Robert Craner did everything they could to care for Sijan in the Hanoi Hilton as his life ebbed away from the beatings, torture and neglect he suffered from the North Vietnamese. While every POW who encountered Sijan spoke of his fearless resistance to his captors, only these two men were present to hear the last words that Lance Sijan said. Both men stated that Lance lapsed in and out of consciousness all day while they cradled his head. In his last hours he came to just once and clearly said: “Oh God, it’s over…. Dad, I need you.”
This single sentence humanized Lance Sijan. Prior to knowing this, it had been much easier, and frankly convenient for me to think of him as a super human hero. Putting people in such a category insulates us from having to really consider their suffering and courage. Coming to understand Lance Sijan as a human being, understanding that he had the same loves and fears as all of us, and that he had no special immunity, forces us to contemplate his real suffering, and the courage that it took to never give in to his captors. He was not granted heroic qualities at birth, he was made of the same material as the rest of us. What made him a real hero is the courage he was able to summon and the willpower he brought to bear.
In the past 20 years, I have not passed a single Father’s Day without thinking about the last words of Lance Sijan. I think they are the most profound expression of the bond between fathers and sons. Many sons, even ones of incredible courage, have wished only for the presence of their Father when they reach the limits of human endurance. What allows some sons to exercise indomitable will and pure courage? Where do such people come from? I have looked into the little case in Milwaukee many times over the years, but I have never found an answer. It remains a mystery, and I can only offer my humble awe at the courage of a son who died with a last wish to be with his Dad, 44 Father’s Days ago.
Lance Sijan’s parents at his grave. I found this photo in a Serbian newspaper. His family roots were from Serbia, and to this day he is regarded as a heroic figure there. His father Sylvester died Friday, September 9, 2011, age 92 years. – He outlived his son by 43 years.