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Who Was Lance Sijan? Efforts Underway To Expand Milwaukee War Hero's Legacy

If you live in Milwaukee, you may have driven past Sijan Field on Kinnickinick Avenue in Bay View or the F4C Phantom Jet near the airport on College Avenue. Both of these landmarks are dedicated to Milwaukee native Lance Sijan.

He served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and received a Medal of Honor posthumously.

Credit Image courtesy of Janine Sijan-Rozina
Image courtesy of Janine Sijan-Rozina
Lance Sijan

While on a night mission over Laos in late 1967, a bomb Sijan was set to deploy exploded prematurely, taking the airplane with it.  He successfully ejected from the plane, but sustained a concussion, a broken leg and broken hands. A helicopter rescue attempt was unsuccessful, and Sijan crawled through the jungle for 46 days before he was captured by the North Vietnamese on Christmas Day. 

Sijan escaped capture once, returning to the jungle before being recaptured, interrogated and tortured in two POW camps. He followed his oath to the military Code of Conduct - avoiding capture when possible, and once captured, gave no information other than his name, rank and serial number. Despite his determination, Sijan eventually died of pneumonia in early 1968.

However, it’s his story before his capture that Jeanine Sijan-Rozina, his sister, wants people to know. She, along with New York writer Steven Miller are writing a biography of Sijans life, titled This Life - The Lance Sijan Story

With five years of correspondence in letters and tape, Miller and Sijan-Rozina hope to tell Sijan's complete story.

"Any writer who wouldn't want to write Lance's story is crazy," says Miller. "It's a perfect story to write...I'm writing through the eyes of somebody who's actually memorialized as such a hero. And I'm obviously not trying to sully his memory, but there's a part of his life where he's actually a human being. He's not a Greek god, he's not a deity, so to see some of his...other sides is fascinating. He was such an amazing individual."

Sijan-Rozina adds, "We really are trying to focus on what happened up to that point in his life. Because justifiably so, he's recognized, it's well documented. But how does a young man become that? How do any of us become great leaders in things we engage in and are passionate about?"

Credit Image courtesy of Janine Sijan-Rozina
Image courtesy of Janine Sijan-Rozina
Lance Sijan as the King in a Bay View High School production of "The King and I."

Lance Sijan grew up in Bay View in a close-knit family. He excelled in high school sports and was also the president of student government, president of his class and was involved in the arts. It was Sijan's intention to go to school to become an artist and utilize music, sculpting and painting.

"Much to people's misunderstanding of what somebody that is recognized as he is for the last three months of his life, he had this very soft artistic side," says Sijan-Rozina.

No matter what he pursued, his sister says, Sijan demonstrated that his decisions and responsibilities were driven by the will to do his very best. His leadership and legacy has continued to inspire others, particularly in the military. The Lance P. Sijan USAF Leadership Award is one of the highest military honors one can receive, and you cannot travel in a military base without seeing the name Sijan on a street sign or building.

Credit Image courtesy of Janine Sijan-Rozina
Image courtesy of Janine Sijan-Rozina

However, it's only been of late that Milwaukee has rallied around its hometown hero. Sijan-Rozina attributes this partially to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War.

"It's difficult for individuals to separate who Lance was as an individual as opposed to the war itself," she explains. "So I think it was just uncomfortable for people to talk about that time. And because of their inability to separate that story, it didn't often get recognized."

For the past seven years, Sijan-Rozina has worked to get approval and funding to move Sijan's Phantom Jet from the abandoned business park to the center drive of Mitchell International Airport.

She hopes the upcoming book and other projects, like the documentary and jet relocation, will reacquaint people with Lance Sijan and inspire people from Milwaukee and beyond.

"The fact that (Lance) survived the 46 days, and then another month after that to inspire those in the prison camp, and ultimately to inspire so many of us...It's going to be an incredible vision and journey within yourself to say, 'If he could do that, than I can do this,'" Sijan-Rozina says.

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.