By Ashley M. Wright , 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published July 31, 2013
TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Saturday July 27, 2013 the world lost a hero. Myself, like many public affairs practitioners, had the honor of interviewing Col. Bud Day, Medal of Honor recipient. His name carries rock star status in the Air Force, as it should. The man was the walking definition of "true grit."
Recently, I started a project, a volunteer effort to create a type of Profiles in Courage for the Air Force, to record the conversations with our legends with the hopes of turning into a book for our Air Force. Looking back, the project unknowingly began with an interview on June 2, 2011 for the Air Force Pioneers in Blue project. Colonel Day was the guest of honor that day. We, the 1st Special Operation Wing Public Affairs Shop from Hurlburt Field, Fla. and myself, met the colonel at the Air Armament Museum just outside the gates of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The Prisoner of War exhibit made the perfect backdrop for the photos and videos the young videographers and photographers would be taking for the Pioneers program. The eyebrows of the staff sergeant jumped up an inch on her face when the colonel pulled the Medal of Honor out of his pocket and asked her to place it around his neck. After the interview, Colonel Day walked around the exhibit pointing his finger, bent with age, at this photograph or that photograph telling the names and cruel natures of the guards in the photos. It was a living history lesson-a conversation rich with lessons for today and pride for the Air Force.
With that in mind, I humbly present the story of Colonel Day told to us that day and to so many others throughout the years with many speaking engagements and interviews.
"I thought about this issue of getting captured. If I got captured, I was determined I was going to escape and do my best to follow the code," said Colonel George "Bud" Day, retired Air Force , Vietnam Prisoner of War and Medal of Honor recipient.
The Code of Conduct for a member of the United States Armed Forces lays down instructions for how an American warrior will survive in the event he or she succumbs to enemy capture.
Many American Prisoners of War have died by that code. Many more wonder if they would have the courage to stay true to the principles of that code under the worst imaginable conditions. The profile of Colonel Day demonstrates what an Airman can endure and how an Airman must continue his battles even after the war is history.
The Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces is as follows:
I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
Sioux City, Iowa was home for John and Christine Day when they welcomed their only son, George Everette Day, into the world Feb. 24, 1925. This Midwestern would squeak his way into the U.S. Marine Corp. in 1942 to serve in the Pacific Theater during World War II with an age waiver signed by his parents. His military career would end as a retired Air Force colonel in 1977 and as one of the most decorated military members in history.
He described his most memorable moment in the Air Force as reuniting with his wife after nearly six years in various degrees of hellish torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp.
"The second most memorable would have been getting the Medal [of Honor], of course," the colonel said with a humble grin.
Colonel Day received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford March 4, 1976. During his career, the colonel received more than 70 decorations including the Air Force Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with nine oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star for Valor with two oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart with three clusters, according to the official Air Force Website.
His service to his country continues to this day as he finds new ways to serve those in military.
"[A memorable moment not] precisely in the military would have been suing the government over kicking the World War II and Korea veterans out of military hospitals," he said. "I sued them over that issue [and] prevailed."
The colonel wrote two statutes that passed the U.S. Congress and were signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The legislation is known as "Tricare for Life," which protects the healthcare of veterans.
"[The program] protects all retired military people in the past, but also in the future," the colonel boasted. "So, not only did I accomplish medical care for the people that had been thrown out of the program, but I also protected those who would retire in the future."
I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.
Colonel Day's career is folklore for pilots across the Air Force as he survived a no-parachute bailout in an F-84 and landing an F-80 in zero-zero conditions, having no visibility and no ceiling. However, his legend would grow as commander of a classified unit known as the "Mistys" at Phu Cat Air Base in South Vietnam.
"[We] had a unique, new mission, trying to mark targets in North Vietnam with a fighter," he said.
A typical mission consisted of flying an F-100 Super Sabre into North Vietnam for about two hours, refueling, going back to the mission and more refueling, Colonel Day said. Bombing trucks, weapons and supplies aimed at ending American lives brought a sense of satisfaction.
"These were really long, exhausting missions. I could hear my feet squish from the sweat that had accumulated in my boots," Colonel Day said.
The colonel's legendary group of aviators served to counter the lessening mission of the equally infamous Wild Weasels.
"The F-105 Weasel operation was being curtailed by the large amount of shoot downs," Colonel Day said. "We began to get the slop over of all these weapons that the F-105s could not kill."
That operation included hitting Surface to Air Missile [SAM] sites.
"We didn't have the gear that would point at the SAM site and tell you when missiles were coming up in the air," Colonel Day explained. "As a result, it was quite a hairy mission in that we had to be fairly low, just above rifle fire, which was extremely dangerous because everyone in North Vietnam had an AK-47. One of those pellets in your jet engine was as bad as taking a hit by a SAM."
August 26, 1967 began as normal as the day could for a "Misty." Colonel Day and Capt. Corwin Kippenhan, an Air Force Academy graduate from Iowa, were presented photos of a SAM site in the North where B-52s recently began bombing raids. The colonel smelled a trap.
"This SAM site I was looking at, in my mind, was definitely planted there to shoot down a B-52," Colonel Day advised.
The North Vietnamese had to settle for a jet and two Iowans.
The captain took the front seat, and the colonel took the back seat. The two flew the F-100 traveling about 550 mph toward the dense jungle. As they approached the suspected site, they came under fire.
"It was probably a good target, but it was camouflaged up, and we didn't see it," Colonel Day said.
The pair circled back from the north and used the different angle to unmask the weapon.
"As we approached the target, once again [we came under] a huge hail of fire, and this time we were exactly over the target," Colonel Day said. "We took a huge hit."
The Colonel rattled through years of flight experience in seconds in a failed effort to recover the airplane. With no choice but to bail, the ejection broke his arm in three places, the oxygen mask didn't separate, causing blinding pain, and the speed of the fall caused the parachute to lose panels and forced a bad landing, costing him his right knee.
Captain Kippenhan was rescued; Colonel Day was not so lucky.
"Of course, the ideal thing is if you've got to be captured, it would best if you were 100 percent whole, and I wasn't," Colonel Day said. "When I hit the ground, I was busted up, partially blind, and I had a bad knee."
If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
The fall from above sent the Airman back in time. The seasoned pilot of the most advanced aircraft was captured by "kids" from a North Vietnamese village living the life of rural peasants .No clothes for children, no running water, hutches made from banana leaves. He was their prisoner.
"They ran me through a mock execution and hung me by my feet. They did a lot of this stuff to try and make me answer some questions," Colonel Day said. "I didn't come to North Vietnam to be a contributor to the Vietnamese propaganda."
With his commitment to escape, Colonel Day began taking note of his AK-47 armed, teenage captors' habits.
"They tied me up, and that turned out to be my salvation because they had no idea how to tie a really good knot. I found out that even though my arm was broken, I could untie these knots," he said.
After convincing his captors he was completely immobile, they slacked their guard enough for Colonel Day to untie the ropes, slip out of the hole he was in and escape through the rice patties and into the jungle.
His 67 missions into North Vietnam gave him the advantage of knowing the land like the back of his hand. His Marine Corps days provided survival knowledge. However, he would succumb to lack of food and water.
"I got recaptured primarily because I ran out of brains from lack of food," he explained. "You get to the point where your brain just doesn't function right. I began to have questions about what I wanted to do and wound up talking to myself in a pretty loud voice."
After spending roughly two weeks making it from North Vietnam into the South and evading 32 patrols, he came into an ambush.
"I thought, 'I didn't come this far to surrender to these [SOB]s,' so I took off running, and they shot me," Day said.
If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
The 42-year-old colonel often found himself as the senior ranking officer during his 67 months in various North Vietnamese prisoner camps including the "Zoo." His age, his prior service in the Marines and his experience in three wars were all needed to lead America's POWs in their darkest hour.
"Basically, I had a lot of command and war experience," Colonel Day said. "I never had any doubt what I ought to be doing."
Being of higher rank often meant more torture.
"The major part of all this in a POW camp is the business of how do you function when they have an unlimited amount of torture," he said. "It makes it difficult for you because you have to set the example [and] make sure the people you are commanding understand what the rules are."
When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.
Many Vietnam POWs found themselves in solitary confinement for months, suffering ritualized torture and hearing promises of better treatment if they would only answer questions and sign propaganda papers. A daring U.S. raid on the Son Tay prison camp made the captors rethink some of their tactics, although the effort resulted in no prisoners being freed.
"From our stand point, it was the best thing that happened while we were there," Colonel Day said. "The impact on us was [that] it terrorized the Vietnamese."
This terror caused the North Vietnamese to move approximately 98 percent of the POWs to the downtown jail in Hanoi. Some Americans had faced upwards of 52 months in solitary confinement when they found themselves moved to cells with nearly 40 other prisoners in rooms 50 by 25 feet.
"It was just one time we had the opportunity to have a church service," Colonel Day said. "We had a choir sing a couple songs. We had two people doing a little preaching, and the Vietnamese just went berserk."
The guards promptly attempted to break up the service with rifles and began marching people out of the room. Colonel Day decided he had had enough.
"I thought this was a great time to say how great America was," Colonel Day declared.
Colonel Day cleared his throat, jumped atop the concrete bed and started singing the "Star Spangled Banner." Others joined the choir and for the next several hours sang rounds of "God Bless America," and "The Eyes of Texas are Upon You," among others.
"From that point on, we had our church service," the colonel said.
I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.
Starting in December of 1972, the ground shook and the sky fell in North Vietnam.
"On the night of the 19th, all of a sudden bombs started hitting the camp, and that went on all night," Colonel Day said. "Airplanes kept coming in and every few minutes bombs hit the ground. The earth was shaking. Stuff in the ceiling was starting to fall. Pieces of shrapnel were coming in the windows."
Operation Linebacker II was the result of what historian Robert Harder calls the 11-day war and the biggest airspace battle since World War II. Day one brought 129 B-52 bombers into northern Vietnam; by day eight, 8,000 bombs were released in a 15-minute period; by day 11, North Vietnam returned to the peace talks.
The prisoners showed their appreciation for the bombers as the bombs rang down throughout enemy territory.
"People started clapping, cheering, and screaming. All of a sudden, there were a bunch of Vietnamese with automatic weapons in the window. I said to everyone, 'Sit down. This is not the time for somebody to get killed,'" Colonel Day commanded.
Everybody obeyed, and no prisoners were hurt.
As the bombing continued, the prisoners waited. Their enemies fired SAMs at the B-52s coming to their rescue. Eventually, the North Vietnamese ran out of missiles.
"Suddenly they were completely defenseless," Colonel Day said. "When we put the maximum amount of pressure to them, they bellied up."
The voice of Vietnam boomed over the camp radio: "The Vietnamese will never surrender. We will fight to the last drop of Vietnamese blood."
The leadership of North Vietnam cowered down in cells inside the camp a few yards away from Colonel Day, refusing to take a bullet or to donate their blood to their cause.
President Richard Nixon addressed the nation on January 23, 1973 to announce the Paris Peace Accords and that nearly 600 American Prisoners of War held captive in Northern Vietnam would be released within 60 days.
Colonel Bud Day was released March 14, 1973 after more than five years and seven months as a prisoner of war. He followed the code and returned with honor.
"We all knew we were going to be free that first night the heaving bombing came and continued on into the next day," Colonel Day said. "It was exhilarating beyond belief."