Lance Sijan’s fighter jet memorial to receive new venue, improved visibility
December 1, 2016
By Katherine Keller
The F-4C Phantom jet that has long been a landmark on College Avenue just east of Howell Avenue will find a new home next year at the Sijan Memorial Plaza, 5500 S. Howell.
The jet is a replica of Air Force Captain Lance Sijan’s plane.
Bay View native Lance Sijan (Redcat Class of 1960) was a Vietnam War veteran who died in a Hanoi prison in 1968. Sijan flew combat missions with the 366th Fighter Wing of the 480th Tactical Fighting Squadron stationed at the Da Nang Air Base in southern Vietnam. In November 1967, Sijan’s plane exploded when the bombs he was carrying malfunctioned and detonated, leading to his capture and imprisonment.
Sijan suffered a fractured skull, mangled right hand, and compound fracture of his left leg, injuries caused by his landing after he ejected from his aircraft. Unable to walk and without food and water, he evaded capture until December 25, whereupon he was moved to a holding compound in Vinh, North Vietnam. He was 25 years old.
Despite beatings and torture, he refused to give the North Vietnamese information other than his name, date of birth, service, rank, and serial number. He was transferred to the infamous Hòa Lò Prison, the “Hanoi Hilton,” where he died of pneumonia on January 22, 1968.
President Gerald Ford posthumously awarded Sijan the Air Force Medal of Honor in 1976.
The Air Force gave Sijan numerous honors, including the memorial plaza on College Avenue. It funded the effort to locate, move, restore, and mount the replica Sijan F-4C.
Sijan’s sister Janine Sijan-Rozina said members Air Force 440th Air Lift Wing, which was stationed at General Mitchell Field from 1957 to 2008, performed the restoration work.
Milwaukee County owns General Mitchell field and the land beneath it. But after the 440th base relocated to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina in 2008, the county began to redevelop the abandoned land and buildings for a business park.
The memorial plaza was no longer maintained by the Air Force and it showed. As Sijan-Rozina watched the site deteriorate, she became more and more disheartened. The land beneath the plane “had become desolate, overgrown, unkempt, not honored. It was heartbreaking, as years went by, to see the disarray. It looked really abandoned,” she said.
She decided she must move the plane to a more prominent location where more people would see it. She wanted to place it where it was easy to reach and more of a destination than it had been on College Avenue.
That decision led to her on an epic eight-year quest.
Sijan-Rozina said she had no idea how to begin, where to start, or with whom. It took her months of research and countless phone calls, for example, to simply learn who owned the plane.
The Air Force National Museum owned it, she discovered, and it was on loan to Milwaukee County.
When she learned that Air Force museum officials would grant her permission to move the aircraft, she was overjoyed. And then she was stunned when they told her she would have to fund the project.
She started making calls. She would have to raise $195,000 to pay for the removal of the plane from its mount, construction of a new plaza with a new 20-foot pier, the move from College Avenue, and the remounting.
She said she thought, “How am I going to find nearly $200,000?”
She looked at the last three weeks of her brother’s life and saw it as a metaphor, one that she would emulate.
“So the metaphor was how am I going to physically, mentally, financially move that aircraft? How am I doing to be able to do that? Lance’s determination in the last three months of his life was to never give in, to never quit. Lance was an example throughout his life of someone who defied the odds over and over again,” she said.
She set her mind to her task. More dogged persistence was required to learn who held the authority to grant permission to move the jet. Because the plane was located on Mitchell Airport land, airport director Ismael Bonilla would have to authorize the move. He did.
But move it where? She and Bonilla worked together and chose greenspace at the entrance to the post office on Howell Avenue, also located on airport land. Milwaukee County would have to give its consent to use the greenspace for the memorial plaza. They did.
Then, finally, nearly eight years after she started, things began to turn around. When contractors learned of the project, dozens came forward to volunteer and donate their services. Hemmings Daily, an online marketplace for car collectors, learned of the project and informed its readers of the project, which resulted in donations that totaled $10,000. Scores of others locally and nationwide have donated to help finance the project.
“I believed in the value of Lance’s message,” she said. “I believed in it so strongly. I didn’t know how it was going to happen. But it did. But not by myself.“
Sijan-Rozina links the generosity and service of the contractors and donors and all those who helped her to those who join the military and sacrifice for a greater good.
“I continue to tell people to serve in any way they can, in and out of the uniform. There all kinds of ways they can serve. This story to me is also a metaphor for what happens when people gather as like-minded spirits and are trying to accomplish a goal together,” she said.
The project helped her understand that “at a time when we’re divided in our nation with gender and race and politics and religion, we can work together when there is a common purpose or common goals for us to walk toward together that doesn’t have any connections to those things that divide us.
“The contractors are all, “Shucks, I don’t want to be recognized.’
“I say, I want you to consider the larger message. I know we don’t want to be recognized but we didn’t do it for that,” Sijan-Rozina said. “I asked them to help people understand what we all can do. In small, medium, and large ways, there are all kinds of things we can do.
“So let me tell this story about how we accomplished this, let’s tell about how you did this.”
Sijan-Rozina hopes to complete the move and celebrate the opening of the new Lance Sijan Plaza on Memorial Day 2017.
The original location of the Lance Sijan Plaza and F-4C aircraft on College Avenue was at the entrance to the Air Force 440th Airlift Wing at General Mitchell Field. The 440th was established in 1943 at Baer Field near Ft. Wayne, Ind.
It played a key role in World War II. On June 6, 1944, the 440th’s first operational airdrop mission was behind the Omaha and Utah landing beaches at Normandy, France. The unit also took part in the invasion of southern France, resupplied troops during the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium, and carried gasoline and supplies to General George Patton’s Third Army in France and Germany in 1944 and 1945.
Five and a half decades later, the 440th transported prisoners from Afghanistan to Guantanamo Naval Station in Cuba.
The 440th participated in support operations for Nobel Eagle, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom, deploying aircraft, crew, and support personnel.
On June 5, 1965, a C-119 under the command of Maj. Louis Giuntol and nine others disappeared with no trace in the Bermuda Triangle.
Source: U.S. Air Force fact sheet, “History of the 440th Airlift Wing.”
To learn more about Lance Sijan, consult lancesijan.com or read his biography, Into the Mouth of the Cat: The Story of Lance Sijan, Hero of Vietnam by Malcolm McConnell.
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