America is a poorer place today, a place whose reservoir of valor and determination has been depleted, because George “Bud” Day passed away over the weekend at the age of 88. He was a synecdoche for heroism, a military man’s military man. At Medal of Honor get-togethers, his fellow recipients, all of whom had accomplished legendary feats of bravery of their own, would pay special attention when Bud Day appeared.
Bud was at war on behalf of America most of his life and never called a truce even as age and infirmity slowed him down. He was a 17-year-old high school junior in Sioux City, Iowa when he dropped out to join the Marines in 1942. He spent nearly three years in the Pacific as a member of a 130 mm gun battery, then came home to get his diploma, attend college and get a law degree. He passed the bar in 1949, but felt that the weak, piping time of peace would be a brief interlude. He joined the Iowa Air National Guard and after pilot training was called to active duty during the Korean War as a fighter jock. After two tours, he decided to become a “lifer” in the Air Force.
In the spring of 1967, Day, by then just a year away from retirement, decided to volunteer for a tour in Vietnam. In June, he became commander of an all-volunteer fighter wing operating out of the Phu Cat Air Base. He and his men were flying F-100 Super Sabres as part of a top secret program to act as Forward Air Controllers for U.S. fighter bombers operating over North Vietnam, selecting targets and calling in air strikes on them.
On August 26, Day, who now had 65 missions, was directing a flight of F-105s striking an enemy surface-to-air missile site near the DMZ in North Vietnam. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, destroying its hydraulics and sending it into a death spiral. As he ejected, he smashed into the fuselage, breaking his arm in three places and injuring his back. North Vietnamese militiamen below watched his parachute bloom and were waiting for him when he landed. They marched him to a camouflaged underground shelter and began a violent interrogation. When Day refused to answer their questions, his captors staged a mock execution, then hung him from a rafter by his feet. After several hours, the North Vietnamese, believing him to be so badly hurt that he wouldn’t try to escape, let Day down and tied him up with a loosely knotted rope.
Four days later, as a pair of distracted teenaged soldiers stood guard, Day managed to untie himself and escape. He headed south at the beginning of one of the most remarkable episodes of resistance and survival of the Vietnam war.
On his second night on the run, Day, feverish from his wounds, was dozing in thick undergrowth when a renegade bomb or rocket landed nearby. The concussion left him bleeding from his ears and sinuses and lanced one leg with shrapnel. Day collected himself and continued to hobble south, eating berries and frogs he trapped while successfully evading the enemy patrols on his trail.
Sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth day after his escape — by then Day had lost track of time — he heard helicopters and stumbled toward the sound. It was U.S. choppers evacuating a Marine unit and he limped toward the landing zone. But the helicopters left before he got close enough to get their attention. The next morning, still heading south, the delirious Day was spotted by an enemy patrol. He tried to hide in the jungle, but was shot in the hand and leg. He was recaptured within a mile or so of the U.S. Marine firebase at Con Thien.
Taken back to the camp from which he had escaped, he was subjected to starvation, staged execution and torture; his right arm was rebroken. He was held in an archipelago of camps as he was moved north, finally reaching the “Hanoi Hilton.”
When he arrived at the prison, his untreated wounds were infected, and he was suffering from malnutrition and unable to perform even the most rudimentary task for himself. The fingers on both hands had curled into fists; he regained some motion by peeling them back, flattening them against the wall of his cell and leaning into them with all his weight. His cellmate was John McCain, who himself had recently been nursed through his own physical nightmare. McCain, who would routinely refer to Day as “the bravest man I ever knew,” put together a homemade split to help heal Day’s damaged arm.
Over the next five years, Day earned his reputation as one of the Hanoi Hilton’s hard men by offering maximum resistance 24 hours a day for all the days of his imprisonment. Subjected to unremitting torture, he gave his captors only false information. He provided leadership to the other POWs by his example and by his words, helping create the patriotic elan that would see them through their captivity and immunize them against anti-American despair when they came home. On one well-remembered occasion in 1971, when rifle wielding guards burst into the cell where some of the prisoners were holding a forbidden religious service, Day moved closer to stare into the muzzles of the guns and began to sing The Star Spangled Banner. The other men, including James Stockdale, ranking U.S. officer in the prison, joined him. They always credited him with sharpening their own will to resist and to survive.
Bud Day was released on March 14, 1973. Three years later President Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Honor. By then he was one of America’s most highly decorated servicemen.
His service to his country and its military men never stopped. Working as an attorney after his retirement from the Air Force, he filed a class action suit against the U.S. in 1996 on behalf of retired servicemen who were stripped of medical benefits at age 65 and instructed to apply for Medicare. It was a fight he ultimately won.
In 2004 Bud Day returned more explicitly to the battle when he joined others in Swift Vets and POWs for Truth in attacking John Kerry’s slander of the military in his unrelenting campaign for public office after Vietnam and for his dishonesty in characterizing the war. And in the years that followed, Day continued to warn about Islamic extremism and against the efforts to disarm the U.S. in the fight against the jihad whose sole objective, he said, was to “make America kneel.”
A warrior and a patriot, Bud Day has now joined John Stockdale, his comrade in defiance at the Hanoi Hilton, and Alvin York, Jimmy Doolittle, Audie Murphy, and all the others, fallen now, who also wore the Medal of Honor and for whom, as Admiral Chester Nimitz said, uncommon valor was a common virtue.
Among Peter Collier’s works is Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty (Workman Publishers) where he writes about Bud Day and other Medal recipients.