Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Hero Among Heroes

Colonel George "Bud" Day, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor as a POW in North Vietnam, died yesterday at his home in Shalimar, Florida at the age of 88.  Day, an Air Force fighter pilot, was the most decorated U.S. service member since General Douglas MacArthur (photo courtesly "Outside the Beltway" blog). 

A genuine American hero has died.

Colonel George "Bud" Day, the legendary fighter pilot who never gave away sensitive information, during five years of torture and deprivation in North Vietnam--and received the Medal of Honor for his exploits--passed away Saturday in Shalimar, Florida at the age of 88.

Almost every airman knows the story of Bud Day--or at least they did before the Air Force went on its recent "sensitivity" and "self-awareness" crusade.  Put it this way: back when the USAF valued a warrior ethos, few men were more respected or admired than Colonel Day, whose conduct was a model for any service member facing a sadistic enemy and impossible odds, with little hope for quick recovery or repatriation.  From his obituary in The New York Times:

When he volunteered for duty in Vietnam and was assigned to a fighter wing in April 1967, Colonel Day, then a major, 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 antiaircraft fire. He suffered a broken arm and eye and back injuries when he ejected, and he was quickly captured.
Major 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, Major 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 then-Commander 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.      

It was Colonel Day and Jim Stockdale, along with John Flynn, Jeremiah Denton and Robbie Risner, who set the example for scores of American airmen imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton and other North Vietnamese POW camps.  As the war dragged on, there seemed to be little hope for their release--a fact repeatedly underscored by their captors.  Amid the constant routine of beatings, starvation, threats and boredom, Day (and other senior officers) provided exemplary leadership, inspiring others to hold out--and hold on--against the North Vietnamese.

A personal note:  I never had the honor of meeting Bud Day, but I've known several men who spent time with him in the Hanoi Hilton.  They described him with tremendous respect and even a touch of awe. That alone spokes volumes about Colonel Day's character and integrity.  To a man, those who survived the horrors of captivity in North Vietnam are heroes; yet man of them held a special reverence for the Air Force fighter pilot who endured the worst anyone could imagine, never broke, and inspired his comrades to rally against their captors.  Bud Day truly was a hero among heroes.

After his return from Vietnam, Colonel Day received the Medal of Honor (along with Jim Stockdale) from President Ford at a moving White House ceremony.  While Day returned to flying status (and eventually became Vice Commander of an Air Force wing at Eglin AFB, FL), he never reached flag rank.  Passed over for promotion to brigadier general, Day retired from active duty in 1977 and opened a law office near the base (he earned a law degree from the University of South Dakota in the late 1940s), and spent the rest of his life in private practice.

As an attorney, Day handled a wide variety of cases, but he was best known for a class action suit on behalf of thousands of military retirees who were stripped of their medical benefits at age 65 and told to apply for Medicare.  Day won the case in federal district court in 2001, but the judgment against the U.S. government was overturned on appeal a year later.  But Day's tireless efforts eventually prompted Congress to fix the problem by instituting the "Tricare for Life" program, making military retirees eligible for coverage from both plans.

According to the Northwest Florida Daily News, funeral arrangements for Colonel Day are pending, although his burial will likely be at a military cemetary in Pensacola, Florida on Thursday. Hundreds--perhaps thousands--of mourners from the region's large military community are expected to pay their final respects.  It will be interesting to see what sort of "official" delegation the Air Force puts together.  Bud Day was always a straight shooter who managed to ruffle a few feathers; remembering his departure from active duty almost 40 years ago, the Colonel likened many of the service's leaders as "quasi-political" managers.

Calling his description prophetic would be an understatement.  Five decades later, the Air Force's senior officer corps is rife with politicians and yes-men, while warriors like Bud Day are few and far between.

Memo to General Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff: take a day out of your busy schedule and attend Colonel Day's funeral this week.  Many of your airmen have never heard of his courage or tenacity, and your presence would be a wonderful first step in re-focusing the service on the values embodied by George Day.

And while you're at it, get rid of the sensitivity and touchy-feely training.  Take the money being wasted on those programs and buy copies of Colonel Day's memoir (Return With Honor) and Robbie Risner's superb The Passing of the Night.  Then, get those books into the hands of as many junior officers and mid-level NCOs as possible, and introduce them to men of absolute honor, courage and integrity.  I personally guarantee that those books will do more to revive true Air Force principles--and boost morale--than a decade's worth of self-awareness garbage.  Do it as a tribute to Colonel Day and General Risner, but more importantly, do it for a service that desperately needs to hear their message.                      


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