I am the very proud son of an American fighter pilot, one of that treasured group who served in three wars, built an Air Force, and gave it an enduring example of courage and mission success. My dad was a hero. As a young man, I asked him who his combat heroes were; he gave me only two names. One was Maj. Gen. Frederick “Boots” Blesse and the other was Col. George E. “Bud” Day. My dad was not easily impressed, so I knew that if they were his heroes, they were very, very special men. I was right.
Earlier this year, my wife Betty and I had the distinct honor of attending Boots Blesse’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. And earlier this week, I heard that Colonel Day had also “flown west.” Our Air Force is in mourning. We know we can never replace him, but today, as he is laid to rest, we can honor him.
Many of you know his story. He fought in the South Pacific as a United States Marine in World War II and later became the Air Force’s most highly decorated warrior. He was a Medal of Honor recipient with nearly 70 decorations, which span three wars and four decades.
The medals say a lot about Bud Day, but they cannot capture his unbreakable spirit, the life-saving impact he had on his fellow prisoners during his time in captivity, and the inspiration he has been to countless Americans who’ve been fortunate enough to have heard his story or shaken his hand.
In Vietnam in 1967, Major Day commanded a squadron of F-100s, the “Misty” FACs (Forward Air Controllers). Theirs was one of the most dangerous combat missions of the war, and they suffered high casualties.
On Aug. 26 Day was shot down and captured. Seven days later, despite having a dislocated knee and a badly broken arm, he escaped captivity and evaded the Viet Cong for 10 days. He was recaptured just two miles from a U.S. Marine Corps camp at Con Thien. Getting so close to freedom only to be recaptured would have broken the will of most men. Not Bud Day.
He was eventually moved to a prison camp known as The Plantation, where he was tortured daily, and was later moved to the Hanoi Hilton. Due to his resistance and toughness, Day became an inspiration to other POWs. His roommate at The Plantation, Senator John McCain, wrote, “He was a hard man to kill, and he expected the same from his subordinates. They (his roommates) saved my life — a big debt to repay, obviously. But more than that, Bud showed me how to save my self-respect and my honor, and that is a debt I can never repay.”
In 1973, after more than five and a half years in captivity, he was released. The damage by the enemy permanently scarred his body, but his spirit emerged unbroken. A year later he was back on flight status, he became vice commander of the 33th Tactical Fighter Wing, and retired from active service in 1976.
Col. Bud Day spent a great amount of his remaining years sharing his story with our Airmen, young and old. Over the past 22 years, many of those Airmen have experienced multiple combat deployments themselves, leaning on the lessons Day passed on to all of us, including his two sons, who proudly serve.
He deeply understood the challenges we face as a military service, “trying to keep America aware of the fact that airpower has been a substantial reason we exist as a free nation.”
I spoke with Colonel Day on the phone a couple of months ago, simply to introduce myself and thank him, on behalf of our entire Air Force, for his remarkable lifetime of service. I hung up feeling incredibly proud to be an Airman and grateful that my real-life hero was even more impressive than I had imagined.
Future Airmen will honor his name and treasure his story, not because of the awards and buildings named in his honor, but for the legendary character, the unbreakable spirit and the values he demonstrated each and every day.
Airmen today strive to embody the same honor, courage and integrity shown by Colonel Day and those who fought beside him. And we honor the sacrifices they made in the spirit of airpower and freedom.
“Push it up,” sir. We’re still following your lead.