“Bud Day is the toughest man I have ever known. He had an unwavering and unshakeable sense of honor that made him able to withstand physical and mental pressures of an enormous degree.” That’s how U.S. Senator John S. McCain, who had also been a prisoner of war, remembered his former cellmate at the Hanoi Hilton.
George “Bud” Day considered death a welcome possibility once or twice while he was a POW in North Vietnam. In the end he stared it down, endured the brutality for 67 months and never betrayed his comrades or country while in the anteroom to hell.
Day, the only American POW to escape from North Vietnam and make it to South Vietnam, earned the Medal of Honor for his courage during that feat and his ordeal after being recaptured. Of the approximately 1,800 American fliers downed in Vietnam, only about 500 returned. They came home with injuries that still plague them. Day has function in only one of three major nerves in his right arm, and he has hardly any grasp in that hand. There is a continuous sensation in his arm—“like bumping your elbow,” as he describes it. In his left arm two of the three major nerves function, and his upper left leg is in perpetual pain. His wife, Doris, said that when he came home, he was not the husband she remembered. He weighed just 110 pounds and had lost two inches in height. “The whites of his eyes were yellow and his eyes were sunken in. His teeth were cracked and in horrible condition,” she said.
Bud Day was a skinny 17-year-old in late 1942 when he quit high school and nagged his parents into letting him join the Marine Corps. Tough as the Marines were, Day had known tougher times. Born on the wrong side of the tracks in Sioux City, Iowa, he grew up during the Depression. His father hustled for jobs for most of Bud’s early life, and hunting and fishing were sometimes the only way to feed the family.
The teenage Marine spent nearly 30 months in the South Pacific during World War II. When he was a member of a replacement group in spring 1943, a shipboard injury almost washed him out of the Corps and put him in the hospital in Hawaii for about five months. He finally served in a 5-inch gun and searchlight battery on Johnson Island, near Midway Atoll. “It was the 3rd Defense Battalion,” Day remembered, “and I didn’t get sent back until April 1945, to Honolulu and a guard company.”
Back in civilian life, Day attended college on the GI Bill and then went on to earn a law degree. He was admitted to the South Dakota Bar in 1949. After World War II, Day also continued to serve in the Army Reserve. In 1950 he joined the Iowa Air National Guard and received a direct commission as a second lieutenant. Called up for active duty a year later, he volunteered for pilot training. After earning his wings, he flew two air defense tours in the Far East as an F-84 pilot, including radar tracking missions against Soviet radar at Vladivostok Bay and along the Soviet coast. Following promotion to captain in 1955, he decided to make the Air Force a career.
Although he had reached the point where he was eligible to retire from the Air Force, Day went to Vietnam as a major, assigned to the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing. On June 25, 1967, he became the first commander of Detachment 1, 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, stationed at Phu Cat. Day’s unit, with the call sign “Misty,” flew F-100s as fast forward air controllers over North Vietnam and Laos. It was a high-risk, high-stress mission. He remembers that more than 40 percent of the Misty pilots were shot down in the unit’s first six months of operation.
On August 26, 1967, Day and Captain Corwin Kippenham were directing a strike on a surface-to-air missile site 20 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone. Day was flying his 65th mission over the North. Kippenham was on his checkout flight, and in the front seat of an F-100F for the first time. Groundfire from a 37mm gun ripped into the aircraft and destroyed the hydraulic controls. The pilots quickly punched out of their crippled plane, but upon ejecting, Day struck the fuselage and broke his left arm in three places, injured his left eye, hurt his back and badly sprained an ankle.
Day was no stranger to bailing out and surviving. He held the dubious distinction of being the first jet pilot to survive a chuteless fall. Ten years earlier in Great Britain, he had punched out of a burning jet fighter at 300 feet, too low for his parachute to open. Fortunately, he landed in trees and survived with only a broken leg.
This time, North Vietnamese militiamen saw Day’s parachute open and waited for him on the ground. Day could see the Jolly Green Giant rescue chopper picking up Kippenham about one-quarter mile away, but he was unable to establish contact on his survival radio.
The North Vietnamese stripped the injured pilot of his boots and flight suit and force-marched him to an underground shelter for initial interrogation. When he refused to cooperate, his captors staged a mock execution and then hung him from a rafter by his feet for several pain-filled hours. They then put him in a hole outside the shelter. Confident he was so badly hurt that escape was impossible, a militia youth tied him with a loosely knotted rope. Day laughs when he recounts how poorly bound he was with something resembling clothesline rope.
On his fifth night in the camp, while his guard talked with another teenage soldier across the road, Day freed himself, prayed he wouldn’t be spotted, and escaped. The night now became his best friend, but the rocks and undergrowth quickly cut his bare feet to ribbons. During his second night on the run, an American bomb or rocket landed near Day while he was sleeping in thick undergrowth. Left with a concussion, bleeding from his ears and nose, and carrying new fragmentation wounds in his leg, Day still summoned up the will to hobble south, eating berries and frogs and avoiding enemy patrols. When Day struggled across the Ben Hai River into South Vietnam, only about two miles from the Marine base at Con Thien, he became the only POW to make it out of North Vietnam. Sometime between the 12th and 15th day after his escape—Day had begun to lose all track of time—he stumbled toward the sound of helicopters. Marine choppers were extracting infantrymen. But when he got to the landing zone, they had just left.
The next morning, still heading south, Day had the bad luck to run into a VC patrol. Shot in the leg and hand, Day limped away toward the jungle, but he was quickly overtaken. Fortunately, this VC unit had a medic with better medical skills than his first captors. The VC patched Day up and fed him to fortify him for the trek back to the camp he had escaped, at first carrying the battered airman on a stretcher. Once he arrived back at his original camp, however, the North Vietnamese tortured him for the “crime” of escaping, rebreaking his arm in the process.
Day was then moved north, to a camp near Hanoi that the POWs called Little Las Vegas. Denied medical treatment, he was barely able to care for himself. When he was later transferred to a prison called the Zoo, notorious for bad treatment, he found himself the senior-ranking POW there. Day eventually served time at several sites around Hanoi. He was beaten, starved and tortured continually for being a troublemaker. His body weight at one point fell below 100 pounds. Although he had been punished many times for real and alleged transgressions of his junior-ranking POWs, Day steadfastly refused to give information that would have endangered American aircrews or served as Communist propaganda. He spent more than half his 67-month imprisonment in solitary confinement.
The POWs gave their torturers sardonic nicknames: Rabbit, Buzzard, Pig, Fidel (a Cuban adviser), Bug, Rodent, Goldie, Hack, Toad, Dum-Dum and Goat. Then there was Major Bai, who was in charge of the torture treatments. The captors beat, hung, twisted, smashed, slapped and punched Day, sometimes for more than 24 hours in a single session. The notion of giving up, of course, penetrated through the pain and darkness, but Day’s sense of mission and honor reinforced his will not to surrender. He thought of his wife, his children, fishing trips, happy hour, anything that could take his mind off the incredible pain inflicted by his Communist tormentors.
The dark places where Day and hundreds of other POWs were stretched to the limits of their endurance have many names, too. Hoa Lo Prison, called the Hanoi Hilton, is the most infamous. But there also were places like Heartbreak Hotel, New Guy Village, Riviera, Stardust, Thunderbird and Camp Hope. The latter, officially known as Son Tay, was the site of an unsuccessful rescue mission by American forces in November 1970.
The North Vietnamese moved the POWs from camp to camp, sometimes on an apparent whim and at other times to exhibit them to visiting Americans and others friendly to the North Vietnamese cause. A prisoner might freeze in winter and roast in the summer. Rats, insects and disease lurked in the corners of the prisoners’ cells. The food was low-calorie, scarce and of poor quality—except when a POW was set for early release or the North Vietnamese thought the war might end. Day recalled that after the 1968 Tet Offensive and during the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, the abuse slackened and the food quality improved.
There were lows and highs, pain and relief. There were some small victories as well. Once, in a protest over the right to conduct prayer services, the POWs refused to leave their building. When Air Force Lt. Col. Robinson Risner and other POWs were taken out by force, Day jumped up on his bed and started to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” The entire room burst into song. As all the POWs joined in, their voices could be heard outside the 15-foot-high walls of the Hanoi Hilton. The North Vietnamese backed down that time, but if the prisoners pushed too far, punishment was inevitable.
Communication between cells and buildings was another small victory. The North Vietnamese tried but failed to stop the clandestine flow of information. Besides written messages, the techniques included standard Morse code, the alternate “Smitty Harris Tap Code,” talking under doors and gesturing through windows. The POWs shared resistance plans, details of questioning sessions and the grim facts of torture sessions. Day said this kept many men from going insane.
An oasis in the desert of beatings and maltreatment was the prisoners’ own comradeship. Even when they were crowded into a single room, it was cause for celebration. The overcrowding—combined with the heat, the insects and the disease—inevitably created tension, but the prisoners overcame any differences.
If a POW was caught passing messages, the retaliation was quick and brutal, sometimes fatal. In his book Duty, Honor, Country, Day recalled one barbaric beating early in his capture. Accused of communicating, he was taken from his cell, marched at gunpoint to the interrogator’s office and asked to confess. Day refused, sending his torturer, Goldie, into a rage. Day was taken to a room flecked with brown stains, presumably blood from previous beatings. He was shackled by the feet and then ordered to drop his trousers. His wrists were then shackled. As Day recalled: “The manacles began to cut and gouge my wrists immediately, causing scars that remained for several years. My hands began to swell and throb.”
The worst, however, was yet to come. He was ordered to lie face down on the filthy floor. As he did, Day nervously watched two guards, each holding a 30-inch length of fan belt, knotted so it would not slip from their hands. The guards charged in, screaming, the whips held above their heads. They struck the helpless POW’s buttocks, back and upper legs, cutting his exposed body and drawing blood. Day pleaded for relief.
Goldie stopped the beatings and demanded answers. Day refused and the beating resumed. The flesh swelled on the beaten portion of his body, and blood oozed its way from his buttocks to his legs, dripping slowly onto the floor. During a surrealistic interlude, the torturers broke for lunch, and Day was treated to a half-bowl of bland pumpkin soup along with half a loaf of equally tasteless bread. Beaten almost into incoherence, Day managed only to down some water. After an hour, Goldie returned with a fresh team of beaters.
Day again refused to answer the questions, and the beatings resumed. He remembers his brain telling him to talk in order to end the pain and humiliation. He tried a new tactic: “I began to stall. Goldie would ask me a question, and I would nod that I would answer. He would have to untie the gag, remove the cloth from my mouth, and I would give him an obtuse answer, or stall by feigning I did not understand the question.”
The torture continued for the next four days. Beaten and questioned throughout the day, he was forced to kneel all night. Bloody holes developed in his Achilles tendons. Bone began to show through holes that had been bored into his knees by the relentless kneeling on concrete. Day estimated that 300 blows fell on his unprotected body during that five-day period. Smashed in the face, with several teeth chipped and broken and his left eardrum ruptured, Day remembers that death at that point began to have a genuine appeal.
By the sixth day his body was a wreck. “My buttocks were now so swollen that the upper part of my thigh through the middle of my back was a single stiff, semi-solid mass of scabs and bruises…my lower legs had swollen to the size of cedar fence posts….The skin and meat around the ankle and foot were rock-hard to the touch. The toes resembled massive summer sausages extending at odd angles from my unrecognizable, swollen, bloody feet.”
In the end, after being awake for 56 hours at one stretch, Day yielded false information. Taken back to his cell, Day agonized over whether his bogus information would somehow endanger his fellow prisoners. The next morning he told Goldie he had lied. In response, he was beaten on the uninjured area of his upper leg, but the maniacal fury of the past several days’ beatings was missing. Day said it was an “easy beating.” The tough guy had outlasted the bad guys.
Although Day survived that stretch of unrelenting torture without yielding compromising information, some prisoners did break and confess to anything the North Vietnamese wanted. The captors made tapes that were played over the North Vietnamese state radio system and used by antiwar activists in the United States and Europe. Day and the other senior prisoners quietly removed the weak links from any authority in the POW chain of command.
The prisoners’ struggle was not only for physical survival but also for recognition of the fact that they were being treated worse than animals. Those POWs whom the North Vietnamese had released for propaganda purposes had, for the most part, suffered little or no torture. Some had cooperated with their captors, and when asked about conditions in the camps, their replies were not factual.
Day’s wife, whom he nicknamed “the Viking” because of her Norwegian ancestry, was among the foremost campaigners on behalf of the POWs. The Department of Defense at first told the POW families not to cause an uproar that might jeopardize any release negotiations. That strategy failed, and when the truth started to come out about the primitive and barbaric treatment of the American airmen, some of the wives went on the offensive.
Several of the prisoners’ wives and family members traveled at their own expense to the Paris Peace Conference to argue their case with the diplomats. One wife even hid in a closet and leapt out to grab a Communist negotiator by the leg and yell complaints about the POWs’ treatment. Doris, the Arizona coordinator of the National League of Families, also traveled widely to prick the consciences of the American people about the POWs’ plight. “I wasn’t brave at first, I was petrified,” Doris said, “but I got the nerve, got up, and went on.”
The several hundred Americans who passed through the Hanoi system of prisons included many whose names are now well-known—Norris Overly, Robert Sawhill, James Stockdale (who died in early July 2005), Robert Shumaker and Robinson Risner. There was also an American POW whom the North Vietnamese called “the Prince.” Day recalls hearing a story floating around that someone important had been shot down over Hanoi. The story gained credibility when the Vietnamese started taunting Day, telling him that he would not be so valuable anymore when that man arrived. “Today we shot down the Prince,” they said, “now you are small potatoes. Nobody cares about you.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, who was shot down on October 26, 1967, looked anything but princely when Day first saw him: “I was confronted by a white-haired skeleton….He looked exactly like a survivor of Dachau.” In fact he was the son of Admiral John S. McCain Jr., who became the commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command about nine months later.
Day, 12 years older than McCain, guessed his weight at 100 pounds or less. But he also remembers that McCain’s eyes “burned fever bright.” McCain wore a body cast that started at buttocks level and went all the way over his shoulder. “His right arm was propped up, sticking out of the cast like a broomstick protruding from a snowman,” Day remembered.
McCain’s right knee was torn up, and his left arm and shoulder were broken, but neither had been set or attended to. He was helpless and could not wash himself, relieve himself or do anything without assistance. Since no one had cleaned him at all, he was filthy from head to toe. But, after seven weeks of isolation, he was happy to have roommates. Air Force Major Norris Overly nursed both Day and McCain back to health, and they both credit him with their survival. McCain remembers emotionally: “Overly took care of us. He probably saved my life.”
The Vietnamese also wanted to improve McCain’s health—but with the hidden agenda of releasing him early to cause dissension in the ranks of the war’s supporters in the United States. The ploy failed when McCain refused to accept early return.
Day and McCain shared many hours in captivity. Both men remember one particular experience quite clearly. Day’s right arm had been broken, healed and then rebroken. It had atrophied and contained hardly any muscle. His left hand resembled a claw. He could barely hold a spoon. His left hand was 10 to 15 degrees out of alignment and only one bone had healed. Vietnamese doctors pronounced that the bone would heal itself. After a depressed Day returned to his cell following one so-called medical session, McCain offered to try to help. “I tied some splints to his arm and pressed his arm against the wall to regain strength,” McCain explained. “Bud was very badly hurt by the Vietnamese.”
McCain’s jury-rigged splint of rags and bamboo managed to squeeze together Day’s separated bones, which finally rejoined after about a month. Years later, an American doctor examining Day expressed admiration for McCain’s work under the circumstances, suggesting tongue-in-cheek that he should be awarded an honorary degree in practical orthopedic surgery. He also quipped that Day should sue McCain for medical malpractice, because the technique was unsanitary and amateurish.
In December 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II—the bombing of North Vietnam—and the morale of the American POWs improved dramatically. By early 1973, rumors began to spread of an impending release of prisoners. At the Paris peace talks, both sides finally reached an agreement on the release. Day’s name, however, was not on the supposedly complete roster of prisoners given to the American negotiators in Paris in December 1970. After the U.S. government protested, Day’s name suddenly appeared on a new version of the list.
Finally, on March 14, 1973, following five years and seven months of indescribable horror, Bud Day flew out of Hanoi on a C-141 bound for the Philippines, and then on to Honolulu and March Air Force Base in California. He returned home with honor, having bent but never broken to the enemy’s relentless demands.
Once a freed man, Day now faced a new set of decisions. Not the least of these was what to do with the rest of his life. Day was eligible to retire from the military, but he also had been promoted two grades while in captivity. Now a full colonel, he decided to remain in the Air Force, hoping he could achieve his general officer’s star. Upon his release he was too weak to resume flying, but after a year of physical rehabilitation and 13 separate medical waivers, he finally returned to the cockpit. He underwent conversion training on the F-4 Phantom, and was then assigned as the vice commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. On March 6, 1976, Day received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford.
Despite being a Medal of Honor recipient and one of the most experienced fighter pilots in the Air Force, Day never did receive a promotion to brigadier general. Pondering that topic later, he noted, “That was pretty strange.”
Day retired from the Air Force in the spring of 1977 and returned to the practice of law. The only U.S. Air Force pilot with a law degree at the time, Day took the Florida bar exam while he was still on active duty. Never one to sit on the sidelines of a good fight, he eventually found himself spearheading a huge class action suit against his former employer, the U.S. government.
It began one day in 1995, when Day sought medical treatment at Eglin Air Force Base, where he had been treated many times since his retirement. This time, he was told that the rules for retirees had changed and that he should apply for Medicare instead. Outraged at what he considered a broken promise, he filed a lawsuit in 1996 on behalf of a group of retirees.
Through the process of that suit, Day managed to get the government to admit that lifetime medical care had indeed been promised to military retirees, up to as recently as the military recruiting literature of the early 1990s. The government, however, countered that the promise had been made without legal authority. In 2001 a federal court ruled that the government had broken a legally binding promise, but the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned that ruling the following year. In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Day’s health care battle was not fought entirely in vain, however. Reacting to appeals from various veterans’ groups and the pressures of Day’s legal actions, the government finally introduced the Tricare for Life program for military retirees. Although short of the original promises, the new program is a substantial improvement over the previous policy of dumping military retirees into the Medicare system.
Despite his clash with the government, Day still endorses military service. To today’s young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines he says: “You have the greatest job given to you as a young man: to serve your country. It’s the single best calling for a young person.”
Vietnam and its legacy are never far from Day’s thoughts. He heads up a group of Vietnam veterans who are frustrated with the lack of public understanding of the war and the negative image of those who served there. The mission of the recently established Vietnam Veterans Legacy Foundation (www.vvlf.org) is to inform Americans about what really happened in Vietnam.
When asked whether people care anymore about a war that’s been over for more than 30 years, Day replied: “The false history of Vietnam has been used to demoralize our troops in combat, undermine the public’s confidence in U.S. foreign policy, and weaken our national security. Radical leftists, such as Jane Fonda, lied about the war 35 years ago, and are still lying about it today. The goal of the VVLF is to continue the work of countering more than three decades of misinformation and propaganda, and to set the record straight.”
Almost 35 years after his release from North Vietnam’s inhumane prisons, Bud Day is still serving his country.
Richard C. Barrett writes from Washington, D.C. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1971, including a tour in Vietnam in 1966-67. For additional reading, see: Duty, Honor, Country, by George Day; and American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day, by Robert Coram.
This article was written by Richard C. Barrett and originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to Vietnam magazine today!