I saw a moving piece about the 40th reunion of the Vietnam prisoners of war, who were reunited last Thursday at the Nixon Library on the anniversary of their welcome home celebration at the White House. It was not long before Nixon himself had to leave the office, but to these guys he’s a hero who brought them home:
What a difference 40 years makes.
Here’s a beautiful video of one of the original reunions with family on the initial return, that of Capt. Guy D Gruters. I challenge you to watch it without a tear coming to your eye (he had apparently been reunited with his wife earlier. This features the rest of the family; I believe a brother is first in line.):
Gruters is still around, still married (father of eight kids), and after a civilian life as a successful businessman, is now engaged in giving inspirational speeches. He’s got a website, too, and on it is a video that tells the story of fellow fighter pilot and Air Force officer Lance Peter Sijan, who unfortunately didn’t survive captivity. I’d never heard of Sijan before, although he received a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award. Here’s his story from Gruters’ perspective:
For those who don’t feel like listening to the video, here’s the story of Sijan’s capture:
On the night of November 9, 1967, for his 52nd combat mission, Sijan and pilot Lt. Col. John Armstrong were tasked with a bombing mission over North Vietnam. As they rolled in on their target to release their ordnance, their F-4C was engulfed in a ball of fire, due to the bomb fuses malfunctioning and causing a premature detonation on their release. The Phantom then entered a banking climb before plunging into the jungle. Sijan managed to eject from the aircraft, and a search-and-rescue crew radioed him that they were attempting a rescue. After almost a whole day was spent locating his position and softening up air defences in the area, the SAR forces were finally able to get one of the big Jolly Green Giant helicopters roughly over Sijan’s position. During this operation over 20 aircraft were damaged by anti-aircraft fire and had to return to base. One aircraft was shot down, though its pilot was rescued by a helicopter on station. Sijan, refusing to put other airmen in danger, insisted on crawling into the jungle and having a penetrator lowered by the helicopter, instead of sending down the helicopter’s Para-Jumpers to carry him. However, the helicopter crew could not spot him in the jungle and after 33 minutes the rescue team, which faced enemy fire and the growing darkness, had to withdraw. Search efforts continued the next day, but they were called off when no further radio contact was made with Sijan. He was placed on MIA status.
Sijan had suffered a fractured skull, a mangled right hand, and a compound fracture of the left leg from his rough landing. He was without food, with very little water, and no survival kit; nevertheless, he evaded enemy forces for 46 days (all the time scooting on his back down the rocky limestone karst on which he landed, causing more injuries). He was finally captured by the North Vietnamese on Christmas Day, 1967. Emaciated and in poor health, he still managed to overpower his guard and escape, but was recaptured several hours later.
Sijan was transported to a holding compound in Vinh, North Vietnam, where he was placed in the care of two other POWs, Air Force Colonel Robert R. Craner and Air Force Captain Guy Gruters. In considerable pain from his wounds, he suffered beatings and extensive torture from his captors, but never gave any information other than what the Geneva Convention allowed. Suffering from exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease, he was sent to Hanoi. In his weakened state, he contracted pneumonia and died in Hoa Lo Prison (the notorious Hanoi Hilton) on January 22, 1968…
Because Sijan was the first graduate of the United States Air Force Academy to receive the Medal of Honor, a cadet dormitory, Sijan Hall, was named after him. The dormitory was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1976. As part of their training, all new cadets at the Air Force Academy are required to learn Lance Sijan’s story.
Not everyone came out of the dragon alive.
A hero of the highest degree.