Into the Mouth of the Cat: The Story of Lance Sijan, Hero of Vietnam by Malcolm McConnell. W. W. Norton & Company (http://www.wwnorton.com), 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10110, 1985, 253 pages, $13.95(softcover).
Lance Sijan is currently the only graduate of the US Air Force Academy to win the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately for him, like the majority of recipients of this award, he received the decoration posthumously.
During a mission over Laos in 1967, a faulty fuse caused a bomb to detonate just after release, downing his plane. Rescue attempts failed, and Sijan spent six weeks crawling through the jungle with a compound fracture before the North Vietnamese army captured him passed out in the middle of a dirt road. Despite a number of serious injuries, made worse by malnutrition, he escaped before being captured a second time. He died a few weeks later in captivity. Before he died, he told other prisoners of war what he had done, and North Vietnamese guards would later independently confirm his story.
The author of this book, journalist Malcolm McConnell, was a high school classmate of Sijanís, but he had very little to work withóboth in the sense of story and of source material. Sijan was only 25 years old when he died, and there was no direct witness to his escape and evasion efforts. Instead of trying to produce a traditional biography, McConnell instead focuses on the events of 1967 and 1968 that made Sijan a legend, and at various points along the way incorporates other elements of the story.
The source material for this book would seem at first blush to be quite weak. McConnell conducted a series of interviews with Sijanís friends, family, and fellow prisoners of war. The story of Sijanís struggle is based entirely on secondhand accounts, which usually have clear limits to their utility and reliability. Memory, though, is a tricky thing. Sijan reported his experience with his fellow prisoners, and people with little to do can focus on and incorporate into their long-term memory an amazing amount of important items. McConnell pushes his sources to their limits, but they stand up on close investigation.
The result is an impressively good read. There is no denying the heroic nature of Sijanís behavior after his plane was downed. The story is quite powerful on its own and sells itself. In short, any member of the US Air Force going near combat should read this book. It is sobering, but also inspiring.
Dr. Nicholas Evan Sarantakes
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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