Into the Mouth of the Cat: The Story of Lance Sijan, Hero of Vietnam, is a touching story that recounts the courageous struggle of Lance Sijan after he is shot down while performing duties between Laos and Vietnam. During his struggle, he constantly thought about his family, country, and escaping from his captors. Sijan’s (Sigh-jawn’s) story is told by his high school classmate, Malcolm McConnell, through research, and interviews with family and fellow soldiers.
This story outlines how Sijan showed loyalty, duty, respect, self-less service, honor, personal courage, and integrity, which ultimately lead to him being awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. Sijan was a loyal young man. He showed his loyalty in many ways throughout the book. One of the more obvious ways was with his decision to join the Air Force and help to defend the country. During his tour overseas he grew a mustache (p. 229) to show his allegiance to country, Constitution, and efforts in Vietnam, and protest the dissension and claims of soldiers being called “baby killers” back in the United States.
His strong and loyal character was claimed to be due to his Serbian and Irish heritage. Sijan’s family was close knit. He was a mentor to his siblings, and provided guidance to his sister. He was an avid letter writer, and message recorder. Showing his care and loyalty to his family. Sijan fulfilled his obligations as a soldier. According to the Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States, Section III, “If I am [the soldier] captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape,” (p. 9).
After Sijan’s plane crashed in 1967, he did everything within his means to not be caught by the North Vietnamese Army. He made sure to collect his knife and gun following his parachuting escape from the crashing plane, preparing himself for potential battle with the enemy. Though his pain was horrible, and lost the chance of the rescue from his comrades, he did not let the thoughts of being captured and cared for to allow him to disobey the code of conduct. Instead, he dragged himself through the trails of the animals, through vines, thorns, and jagged limestone, all infested with leeches.
Over forty days after the failed rescue, he was captured, though he tried to remain out of the hands of the enemy, he was brought to a temporary area, and cared for medically (p. 124). He assessed the situation, and knocked out his captor, and made a “run for it” with his broken leg, and disheveled, injured body (p. 154-157). Respect was shown for the way he treated his superiors, and cared for his family, as well as his girlfriend Lenora. Throughout the beginning of the recantation of Sijan’s bravery, we are shown how he respects- though persists with Lenora.
He showed respect towards her by not pushing the relationship issue, and allowing her to come to the conclusion about where they were going in their lives, despite the cruelty of the world around them. Another example of respect is recounted by McConnell of Sijan’s days in the academy. There were young recruits having problems with carrying their packs at the end of a grunt march, and he aided them. His superior did not like this, but due to his respect for his fellow cadets, he continued to help those lagging behind, ultimately preventing those young men from sure torture, and possible loss of position in the school.
Though Sijan, did offer to march with packs at any time with his superior who was clad in shorts and a t-shirt. The best example in the book of selfless service and honor, is after Sijan is captured the second time. At this point, though he is badly wounded, and tortured, he refuses to divulge any information beyond the requisite allowed information any soldier is allowed to give. Name, rank, serial number was all he was willing to share. His comrades Guy Gruters and Bob Craner were impressed with his willingness to take on beatings, when he could have easily broken down and shared information or made up a story as they had.
Both Craner and Gruters encouraged him to take part in their farce of Robert E. Lee and Stoney Jackson, but he refused. He wanted to prevent the North Vietnamese from getting any additional information that could be the welfare of the Air Force, Army or the country in danger, as well as his comrades for providing altered information. High moral integrity is obvious in Sijan. A story is related of the trials and tribulations that he faced while attending school. He was an all around athlete, highly involved in extra-curricular activities, and keen on getting excellent grades. Unfortunately the stress of all this became too much.
At first he restricted sleep, instead of resorting to cheating or shirking off his responsibilities. Ultimately, after seeking guidance, he decided to pass on one sport, though he had worked especially hard that year, to make it to the senior varsity team of football like he had in high school. Dragging himself through the limestone karsts, and living off the land, showed personal courage. Until he could find fresh water, he lived off of ferns, rainwater, and the leeches that sucked on his appendages. Sijan also continued to focus on getting out of enemy captivity, despite his horrible wounds and succumbing to pneumonia.
His personal courage helped to provide Gruters and Craner with the strength and courage to survive their time locked up by the North Vietnamese. Lance Sijan was an amazing man. His story sounds fantastical, though it is the struggle of a man, who held loyalty, duty, respect, honor, selfless service, integrity, and personal courage above his personal welfare. It was only in his last moments, when he realized that he was not going to make it out of captivity, did he ever cry out for help from his father far away in Wisconsin. For these reasons, Sijan was honored with the Medal of Honor, and a hall named after him at the Air Force Academy.