Obituary: Col. Bud Day / Vietnam War hero survived life as POW

Feb. 24, 1925 - July 27, 2013

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Col. Bud Day, an Air Force fighter pilot who was shot down in the Vietnam War, imprisoned with John McCain in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton," and defiantly endured more than five years of brutality without divulging sensitive information to his captors, earning him the Medal of Honor, died Saturday in Shalimar, Fla. He was 88.

His death was announced by his wife, Doris.

Col. Day was among America's most highly decorated servicemen, having received nearly 70 medals and awards, more than 50 for combat exploits. In addition to the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the highest combat award specifically for airmen.

In a post on Twitter on Sunday, Mr. McCain called Col. Day "my friend, my leader, my inspiration."

Col. Day's life was defined by the defiance he showed in North Vietnamese prison camps, where, besides Mr. McCain, the future senator and Republican presidential candidate whose Navy fighter had been downed, his cellmates included James B. Stockdale, also a Navy pilot, who became Ross Perot's running mate in his 1992 presidential campaign.

When he volunteered for duty in Vietnam and was assigned to a fighter wing in April 1967, then-Maj. Day had flown more than 4,500 hours in fighters.

On Aug. 26, 1967, he was on a mission to knock out a surface-to-air missile site 20 miles inside North Vietnam when his F-100 was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He suffered a broken arm and eye and back injuries when he ejected, and he was quickly captured.

Col. Day was hung upside-down by his captors, but after his bonds were loosened, he escaped after five days in enemy hands. He made it across a river, using a bamboo-log float for support, and crossed into South Vietnam.

He wandered barefoot and delirious for about two weeks in search of rescuers, surviving on a few berries and frogs. At one point, he neared a Marine outpost, but members of a Communist patrol spotted him first, shot him in the leg and hand, and captured him.

This time, Col. Day could not escape. He was shuttled among various camps, including the prison that became known as the Hanoi Hilton, and was beaten, starved and threatened with execution. His captors demanded that he reveal escape plans and methods of communication among the prisoners of war as well as information on America's air war.

In February 1971, he joined with Stockdale, the ranking American in the prison camp, and other prisoners in singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" while rifle muzzles were pointed at them by guards who had burst into a prisoners' forbidden religious service.

He was released on March 14, 1973, having supplied only false information to his interrogators. He was promoted to colonel during his captivity, and on March 4, 1976, President Gerald R. Ford presented him with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony in which Stockdale, by then a rear admiral, was also awarded the medal.

Col. Day received the medal for his escape and evasion, brief though it was, and his refusal to yield to his tormentors.

"Col. Day was totally debilitated and unable to perform even the simplest task for himself," the citation read. "Despite his many injuries, he continued to offer maximum resistance. His personal bravery in the face of deadly enemy pressure was significant in saving the lives of fellow aviators who were still flying against the enemy."

"He was a tough man, a fierce resister, whose example was an inspiration to every man who served with him," Mr. McCain recalled in his memoir "Faith of My Fathers," written with Mark Salter.

Telling how Col. Day, in wretched condition himself, comforted him when he was near death from beatings, Mr. McCain wrote that he "had an indomitable will to survive with his reputation intact, and he strengthened my will to live."

George Day, known as Bud, was born on Feb. 24, 1925, in Sioux City, Iowa. He quit high school to join the Marines in 1942 and served with an anti-aircraft battery on Johnston Island in the Pacific during World War II.

He graduated from Morningside College in Sioux City, obtained a law degree from the University of South Dakota, then received an officer's commission in the Iowa Army National Guard. After transferring to the Air Force Reserves, he was recalled to active duty in 1951 and received pilot training. He flew a fighter-bomber, tracking Soviet planes off the coast of Japan, during the Korean War, then remained in military service.

After coming home from Vietnam, Col. Day underwent physical rehabilitation, regained his flight status and served as vice commander of a flight wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He retired from the military in 1977 after being passed over for brigadier general, then practiced law in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

Col. Day represented military retirees in a federal court case aimed at securing what they said were health benefits once promised by their recruiters. He campaigned for Mr. McCain when he challenged George W. Bush for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

When Mr. Bush sought re-election in 2004, Col. Day worked with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth organization in sharply attacking Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, over his anti-war activities after coming home. Col. Day backed Mr. McCain's presidential bid in 2008.

A full list of survivors was not immediately available.

In looking back on the torment he endured as a prisoner, Col. Day expressed pride over the way he and his fellow prisoners of war conducted themselves.

"As awful as it sounds, no one could say we did not do well," he told the AP in 2008.

Being held prisoner "was a major issue in my life and one that I am extremely proud of," he said.

"I was just living day to day."

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