Uncommon Valor part six: Colonel George "Bud" Day

Retired Col. George "Bud" Day, Medal of Honor recipient and former prisoner of war, poses in Midland, Texas, in 2007 after being inducted into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame. (Photo courtesy of Joe Caruso)

Retired Col. George "Bud" Day, Medal of Honor recipient and former prisoner of war, poses in Midland, Texas, in 2007 after being inducted into the American Combat Airman Hall of Fame. (Photo courtesy of Joe Caruso)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- While all recipients of the Medal of Honor have more than earned the title of hero, the events in the life of Col. George "Bud" Day seem almost superheroic.

Colonel Day is our nation's most highly decorated living soldier and the most highly decorated since General Douglas MacArthur in our nation's military history. He has received more than seventy decorations, with over fifty for his actions in combat, was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and is a command pilot with nearly 8,000 flying hours in twelve fighter aircraft spanning nearly the entire spectrum of American Airpower from the F-80 Shooting Star to the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Prior to his commission with the Air Force, Colonel Day served in World War II as an enlisted Marine and spent his time between World War II and the Korean War as an Army reservist. During the Korean War, he flew the F-84 Thunderjet as a fighter-bomber pilot.

After Korea, then-Captain Day decided to make the Air Force a career. Along with several other bases, he was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. While stationed in the United Kingdom, Capt. Day became the first pilot to survive a no-parachute bailout at 300 feet.

In 1967, despite having nearly reached retirement eligability, now-Maj. Day volunteered to serve in Vietnam. After a tour with the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing, Maj. Day was selected to command a new Top Secret all volunteer unit, Detachment 1, 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, a part the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phu Cat Air Base, South Vietnam. The detachment flew two-seat F-100F Super Sabres as Fast Forward Air Control aircraft, under the call sign "Misty." The Misty mission was to interdict men and materials headed from North Vietnam into the south, prevent SAM deployment and to control airstrikes in Route Pack 1, the DMZ and Southern Laos. (The tactics that he and his men developed are still being used today.)

It was on one of these missions, on August 26, 1967, that Maj. Day's plane was shot down over North Vietnam while he was acting as a check-pilot for a fellow Airman, Capt. Corwin Kippenham. Sustaining several injuries in the bailout, Maj. Day was captured by North Vietnamese militia as Capt. Kippenham was rescued. Five days later, despite his injuries and without boots or flight suit, Maj. Day escaped from his captors and made his way south, becoming the only prisoner of war to escape from North Vietnam. After crossing the demilitarized zone and only two miles from a Marine Corps firebase, Maj. Day was captured again by the Viet Cong, tortured and taken to several prison camps in and around Hanoi.

Maj. Day endured more than five and half years of torture and captivity (which he called "being in jail"), sharing a cell with Navy Lt. Commander and future U.S. Senator John McCain. During his captivity, Maj. Day's wife, Doris, whom he called the Viking for her Norwegian ancestry as well as her determination, continued to lobby for his release.

Finally, in March 1973, Maj. Day and his fellow prisoners were released. Having been promoted to full Colonel while imprisoned, Colonel Day elected to remain in the Air Force, spending a year in physical therapy and applying for thirteen separate medical waivers before undergoing conversion training to the F-4 Phantom II. Colonel Day was then appointed vice commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Colonel Day the Medal of Honor for his personal bravery while a captive in Vietnam. From his citation:

"On 26 August 1967, Colonel Day was forced to eject from his aircraft over North Vietnam when it was hit by ground fire. His right arm was broken in 3 places, and his left knee was badly sprained. He was immediately captured by hostile forces and taken to a prison camp where he was interrogated and severely tortured. After causing the guards to relax their vigilance, Colonel Day escaped into the jungle and began the trek toward South Vietnam. Despite injuries inflicted by fragments of a bomb or rocket, he continued southward surviving only on a few berries and uncooked frogs. He successfully evaded enemy patrols and reached the Ben Hai River, where he encountered U.S. artillery barrages. With the aid of a bamboo log float, Colonel Day swam across the river and entered the demilitarized zone. Due to delirium, he lost his sense of direction and wandered aimlessly for several days. After several unsuccessful attempts to signal U.S. aircraft, he was ambushed and recaptured by the Viet Cong, sustaining gunshot wounds to his left hand and thigh. He was returned to the prison from which he had escaped and later was moved to Hanoi after giving his captors false information to questions put before him. Physically, Colonel Day was totally debilitated and unable to perform even the simplest task for himself. 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. Colonel Day's conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Armed Forces."

(This was the final article in a series on Medal of Honor recipients from Goodfellow Air Force Base and San Angelo. The entire series can be found on www.goodfellow.af.mil. From World War II heroes like 1st Lt. Jack Mathis, Maj. Horace Carswell and Lt. Col. Leon Vance, to later recipients like Platoon Sgt. Finnis McCleery, from living legends like Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness and Col. Bud Day to the heroes of tomorrow, the United States Air Force thanks these men and women of Uncommon Valor.)