May 27th, 2013

“We faced the dragon. And we came out of it.”

[BUMPED UP]

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.

16 Responses to ““We faced the dragon. And we came out of it.””

  1. Steve Says:

    Yeah, that made me cry.

  2. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    The greater the sacrifice, the greater the hero.

  3. soupcon Says:

    That’s just beautiful.

  4. Sgt. Mom Says:

    Knowing all this, can you wonder that military veterans despise Jane Fonda with a passion which makes our teeth actually hurt? And I haven’t ever met another veteran in this town who didn’t also despise John Kerry, when he chose to run on his record as a proud veteran. (Yeah, floods in this place are a customary thing, we’re all used to it, this is why the dangerous places in city limits have those flood-gauge meters by the roadside. Ignore them at your peril.)
    Me, I am just grateful that Obama didn’t pick Kerry for Secretary of Defense, as was the rumor for a couple of weeks. That would have been an insult beyond all bearing. He would not have been able to appear before a gathering of veterans without some serious disrespect being shown.

  5. Corn head Says:

    Explain Bengazhi in light of this story.

  6. DaveindeSwamp Says:

    Bottom line , the little bastards murdered Sijan .

    The Obama voters and their ilk aren’t even good enough to lick the dirt on Sijan’s grave, nor is the rat eared Messiah .

    Sijan personifies manhood. Kerry, Obama, never ever ,even in the wildest imaginings of the New York Times .

    Yeah, I still carry a grudge

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Corn head: yes, I though about Benghazi when I read about the efforts made to rescue Sijan before he was captured.

  8. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    While looking for something else, found this about Siljan and Gruters:
    about:reader?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.af.mil%2Fnews%2Fstory.asp%3Fid%3D123346506&readingList=0&tabId=1

  9. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    Sorry,
    http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123346506

  10. OhioRiver Says:

    Amazing story. Here is a real live old Vietnam veteran walking across America, carrying the American flag from San Diego to D.C. I met him today outside of Phoenix on Hwy 60.

    http://www.WalkDaddyWalk.us

    He’s passing out pamphlets of the U.S. Constitution to people, but he needs help with a few bucks.

    This is one cause, or man, who is 65 & still fighting for our freedoms. Amazing!!

  11. JJ formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Well, I hadn’t teared up this weekend until I read this one.

    Three of my friends spent seven years as POWs in NVN. In 1973, with an anti-military, anti-war atmosphere, we were doing a “strategic withdrawal.” My outlook was very downbeat because I knew we were quitting a war we could have won. However, it looked like the POWs might get to come home and that was hopeful. Their release to freedom turned out to be a powerful emotional experience for me. I watched the TV program of the first ones getting off the airplane in Honolulu and just started whooping with joy. I was so happy! I couldn’t stop laughing and whooping for a long time. (My wife thought I had gone off my rocker.) I couldn’t believe it. There they were – the men who had disappeared over the North, faced the dragon, and lived to tell about it. What a joyful thing it was.

    They lived through HELL and what preserved them was supporting one another and a belief in God. They have a bond like no other, and you can see it in the videos. But I know what Al Alvarez is saying. They’re dying and the reunions are getting smaller. May we all give thanks for such good and courageous men who served this nation.

  12. PapaMAS Says:

    The Air Force also has an annual award for leadership in Sijan’s name.

    Anyone wanting to read about him can find “Into the mouth of the cat” on Amazon. Decent book; I read it many moons ago.

  13. blert Says:

    I had two clients ex of the Hanoi Hilton. The damage to their jaws and teeth was similar to that of Senator McCain.

    It doesn’t get much press, but the NV treated all of their captives in the same rude manner as the SS did death camp inmates… those unlucky enough to be wearing Red triangles. (anti-Nazis/ spies/ traitors/ out-of-uniform combatants)

    ============

    Another item that didn’t get much press: our ejection seats were ill designed. No man could stand to fly in them while properly cinched down.

    If you weren’t cinched in during the ejection — you’d break countless bones — perhaps even your neck.

    This was not at all understood until AFTER the whole war had gone by. The USN and USAF never put it together. Unlike WWII pilots, virtually every single Vietnam era pilot was a casualty as a result of his ejection seat.

    The other guys were dead outright. Modern munitions carry so much punch that a body hit normally kills you. Either you’re dead instantly… or you ride the craft into the ground… just seconds away.

    Today’s ejection seats won’t fire until the straps are automatically re-cinched from the ordinary flight position. This action is so fast that pilots are trained to get their arms and legs close in — with the activation mechanism itself inducing the correct posture.

    Both of my clients had broken legs due to their ejections.

    Such injuries really cut down on the whole E&E project.

  14. Oldflyer Says:

    The story puts Panetta’s pitiful statement in stark perspective.

    This is not the only episode in which great effort was expended to rescue a down crewman. When the military had free reign, rescue was attempted as long as there was a chance.

    While stationed at NAS Lemoore, the Navy’s west coast base for attack squadrons, an old A-1H went down, and it was thought that the pilot was on Hainan Island, Chinese territory. It was learned through the grapevine that there would be no attempt to recover this pilot due to political sensitivity. A neighbor of ours, whose husband was in the squadron, was a family friend of Senator Carl Albert of Oklahoma. My wife heard her on the phone with the Senator personally begging him to intervene. Nothing happened. The fate of the pilot was never learned by his squadron mates, at least. Political considerations prevailed. Shades of Benghazi.

  15. Bernard Says:

    My cousin was an Army Counterintelligence Agent who served one year in Vietnam and wrote of his experiences (see http://www.asphinx.net).

    From the dust jacket: “In A Sphinx, author John Burdick recounts a powerful and emotional narrative following his duty in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. It uncovers behind-the-scenes footage of a military intelligence agent and his quest to help more American soldiers come home alive.”

    With little guidance but plenty of chutzpah, my cousin took on both the Army bureaucracy and the Vietcong. Demonstrating great resourcefulness and imagination, he was able to accomplish more in his one year of duty than most career officers do in a lifetime. Exhibiting amazing bravery, he often went out of his way to court danger when executing important missions. Thank you for your service to our country, John.

  16. Tater Says:

    In 1977 I spent my first cadet year in Sijan Hall. It was brand new back then, with a full size picture of Sijan in his flight gear on the wall at the entrance. Back then we all had to learn the story of Lt. Sijan with dates, awards etc. As a cadet it seemed kinda spookie, we knew in a couple of years that we would be Lts–could we measure up???

    Retired out back in ’09 after 32 years, a fighter pilot myself (flew both A-10s & F-16s). Sent to war a couple of times in the process, but was never shot down. After all my experiences, I still wonder, could I measure up?

    Rest in Peace Lance.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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