George “Bud” Day is one of the most highly decorated service members in U.S. military history. He’s a legend. He received the Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, but that came toward the end of an already storied career.
During 35 years in the military, Day served with various service branches during three major wars – World War II, Korea and Vietnam – and spent nearly six years as a prisoner during the latter conflict.
Day was only 17 when he entered the Marine Corps at his hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, in 1942. He spent nearly three years fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War II before returning home. He joined the Army Reserve during that time, went to college and got a law degree.
In 1950, Day joined the Air National Guard and was called up to active-duty service a year later, where he trained to be a fighter pilot during the Korean War. From that time on, he worked his way up the ranks in the Air Force.
The pinnacle of Day’s career came during Vietnam. On Aug. 26, 1967, Day – now 43 years old and a major – was in command of a squadron of F-100s, famously known as the Misty forward air controllers, who were flying a top-secret mission over North Vietnam and Laos.
His plane was shot down by ground fire, and as he ejected, he broke his right arm in three places. The second airman in the plane with him was rescued, but enemy forces were waiting for Day when he landed. He was questioned and tortured – a process that would happen continually over the next several years of his life.
Five days into his initial imprisonment, Day managed to escape the camp at which he was being held. Despite injuries and a lack of boots, he managed to evade enemy patrols for days by hiding in the dense jungle and eating berries and frogs.
Day made it about 25 miles from the camp – even crossing the demilitarized zone back into South Vietnam – before he was discovered by Viet Cong, shot in the thigh and hand, and recaptured. At the time, he was only about two miles from the Marine base at Con Thien.
Day was taken back to the camp from which he’d escaped and further tortured before being sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” a prison for American POWs that was known for its inhumane conditions and treatment. For more than five years, Day was singled out and tortured. His wounds were never treated and his weight went down to about 100 pounds, but he never gave up any useful information to the enemy.
During one now-famous incident, when guards with rifles burst into an area where the Americans were holding a forbidden religious service, Day started down the barrel of one of the guard’s rifles and began to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The other POWs joined in.
On March 14, 1973, after the U.S. agreed to withdraw from the war, Day was released. He had spent 67 months in captivity and had even been promoted to colonel while he was there.
Despite the physical devastation of his imprisonment, Day fought hard to get well. A year after his release, he was back on flight status, having qualified as an F-4 pilot. He became the vice commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
In March 1976, three years after his release from prison, Day was presented with the Medal of Honor by President Gerald Ford. He retired from active service about a year later and spent the rest of his life advocating for military medical benefits.
Day died in July 2013. U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who shared a cell with Day during their POW days in Vietnam, spoke at the colonel’s funeral.
August 1, 2013 - Pallbearers, made up of Airmen and Marines, carry the casket of retired U.S. Air Force Col. George "Bud" Day during his funeral service at Barrancas National Cemetery on Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. Day, a Medal of Honor recipient and combat pilot with service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, passed away July 27, 2013 at the age of 88. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John Bainter)
“I had the privilege of being Bud’s friend for almost five decades of his 88 years,” McCain said. “He was a hard man to kill and expected the same from his subordinates, but more than that, he taught me how to save my self-respect and my honor, and that is a debt I can never repay.”
Having received nearly 70 military decorations and awards throughout his career – more than 50 of which were earned during combat – Day is often cited as being the most decorated U.S. service member since World War II’s Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He is still the only person to have been awarded both the Medal of Honor and Air Force Cross.
By Katie Lange
George Day's Medal of Honor Citation | Video | Comment on this article