Return with Honor

(A review of Robert Coram’s book ‘American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day‘)

Born and raised in the poorest section of Sioux City, Iowa, during the depression, George E. "Bud" Day served as an enlisted Marine during World War II and was eligible for the G.I. Bill of Rights.

But there was a problem. This educational assistance program was designed to help veterans complete a bachelor’s degree and was good for a maximum of four years. Day wanted to go to college and law school, a process that usually takes seven years. His solution? He earned both his undergraduate and law degrees in four years while working part time.

A few of life’s twists and turns found him back in the military, this time as an Air Force "fighter jock," one of those men with "the right stuff." Even his peacetime adventures were extraordinary. He is, for instance, the only man ever to eject from a crippled jet and survive despite his parachute failing to deploy. He landed in a pine forest, gravely injured. A doctor told him he would recover but that one of his ankles was "powder" when the surgical team went to work on it and he would never again be able to pass a flight physical. Fourteen months later, he did and returned to flight status.

He was a major in command of a top secret squadron flying his 67th combat mission on August 26, 1967, when he was shot down over North Vietnam. An Odyssean escape attempt lasted three weeks despite a dislocated shoulder, a broken arm, and hallucinations brought on by exposure, dehydration, and malnutrition. Twice he managed to capture a live frog and eat it raw. He is the only American POW who ever made it all the way back to South Vietnam; but, within sight of a U.S. base camp, he was shot twice by an enemy patrol and recaptured.

Carried and dragged back to North Vietnam, he was imprisoned at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," where he endured and survived a regimen of starvation, beatings, and torture which does not bear describing here. He was determined to "return with honor," and he encouraged other prisoners to try to do the same. He was singled out for special interrogations by the most brutal North Vietnamese inquisitor known to our prisoners (nicknamed by them "The Bug") because he wouldn’t break. Even the gallant John McCain — one of Day’s cellmates — eventually signed a false confession to war crimes when he was near death.

Day was imprisoned until 1973 and never gave an inch — never.

As far as I can determine, he is the only POW to persevere so steadfastly and survive. His 70 decorations include the Air Force Cross and the Medal of Honor for his escape attempt and his resistance and leadership as a prisoner. Colonel Day is the most highly decorated officer in modern U.S. military history excepting only General Douglas MacArthur.

Back home he incurred the wrath of the military bureaucracy by insisting on pursuing criminal charges against former POWs who had collaborated with the North Vietnamese and then accepted early release. When one of the men under investigation committed suicide, all the cases were dropped and no punitive action was ever taken against any of them.

Bud Day is 83 now, and still in constant pain from injuries, torture, and incompetent medical treatment. He is stooped, walks with a limp, and has little use of his right arm. Despite sleeping pills, to which he is addicted, "The Bug" haunts him virtually every night. He and his wife live in Florida where he practices law part time, mostly on behalf of veterans. On weekends he tends his rose garden.

To quote James Michener in The Bridges at Toko-Ri, "Where do we get such men?"