ARLINGTON, Va. --
The Medal of Honor hanging from his neck as if it had been burnished by the Sun itself cast a glare on a crowed of applauding Americans as retired Air Force Col. George “Bud” Day approached the grassy field in front of the Marine Corp War Memorial.
The Marine Corps welcomed the most decorated living military officer as their guest of honor during the seasonal Sunset Parade Aug. 3, a presentation of the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon and Drum and Bugle Corps taking place each Tuesday evening during the summer months.
The only figure more statuesque then the 32-foot bronze Marines was Day himself, who nostalgically snapped his salute toward his fellow Marines.
Staff Sgt. Roland McGinnis, the personnel chief at Marine Barracks 8th and I, gave Day and his wife Doris a tour of the commandant of the Marine Corps house earlier in the day and said he was star struck and impressed with Day’s demeanor.
“It’s not often you encounter a Medal of Honor recipient, let alone one who is so eager to share his experiences,” McGinnis explained. “It was my most [memorable] tour. After everything he’s been through, the way he is able to connect on a personal level with some of the knowledge of the home because he’s been around since WWII is beyond reproach.”
Though retiring from the Air Force in 1977, Day’s legacy spans across three different services during three different wars – a legacy which began in the Marines.
After badgering his parents into agreement, Day dropped out of high school in 1942 during the height of World War II and at 17 he enlisted in the Marines. He said his reason for enlistment was simply “Pearl Harbor.”
Day served for 30 months in the North Pacific with the 3rd Defense Battalion as a member of a 155mm gun battery. He vividly recalls some of his experiences.
“At one time I was on a little atoll, which was about four feet above the water,” Day explained, chuckling at the memory. “The other atoll section of that was about a half a foot above the water, so some of the stuff that we lived in was actually poured concrete that was underwater.”
Toward the end of October 1945, day returned home to Sioux City, Iowa.
“I was a high school dropout and I had realized that was a mistake,” explained Day. “I was determined I was going to go to college. I had four years of the G.I. Bill so I said ‘well I’m going to become a doctor or a lawyer or something’.”
Day attended Morningside College on the G.I. Bill, receiving a Bachelors of Science Degree and went on to earn a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of South Dakota. After passing the bar exam in 1949, he was admitted to the bar in South Dakota.
In 1950 Day received a direct commission as a second lieutenant in the Iowa Air National Guard. He served two tours as a fighter-bomber pilot during the Korean War.
Day said he wanted to make the military a career and was thus augmented into the regular Air Force.
In 1967, then-Maj. Day volunteered for a tour in Vietnam.
During a forward air control mission on Aug. 26, 1967, Day and his copilot Capt. Corwin Kippenham were forced to eject from their aircraft when it was hit by North Vietnamese ground fire.
Day said though it took only seconds for the events to transpire, “it felt almost like slow motion.”
“I was in a really desperate sort of situation,” Day said. “We went into a high negative [g-force] and I tried to get us to do an outside loop, but this airplane wouldn’t loop at the altitude we had.”
This was the point that Day said he knew they had to eject from the aircraft.
“It had also lifted me off my seat and got me in this really odd angle,” Day vividly recalled. “So I tuned to Kip and I was telling him I was going to eject us out.”
He pointed to his left arm touching each spot his arm had been broken and explained that he had been in a really odd position and when he reached for the ejector handle Day’s arm hit the cuff inside the cockpit.
According to Day’s Medal of Honor citation, he was quickly captured by North Vietnam forces. He was interrogated and severely tortured for five days, but on the fifth day he had an escape opportunity and took it. Day was being kept only miles from the demilitarized zone and began what would be a 15-day trek through the jungle.
“I was determined I was going to get away from them. I knew that territory and I got within two miles of Con Thien, which was a Marine base,” Day said.
He successfully evaded the enemy and reached Ben Hai River. Due to delirium, he lost his sense of direction and wondered aimlessly for several days.
Looking back and being able to chuckling at some of his thoughts at that time, Day remembered his biggest fear.
“My biggest concern really was that I would get shot up by a Marine patrol if I exposed myself,” he said. “I was pretty strange looking with just a cloth on and they would probably shoot me, and Marines wouldn’t miss.”
After several unsuccessful attempts to signal friendly aircraft, Day was recaptured by a Viet Cong patrol, sustaining gunshot wounds to his left hand and thigh. He was returned to the prison from which he had escaped.
Still determined and defiant to his captors, Day continued to offer maximum resistance and gave false information to questions put before him. Day was later transferred to a prisoner of war camp known now as the Hanoi Hilton.
Day’s Medal of Honor citation reads, “His personal bravery in the face of deadly enemy pressure was significant in saving the lives of fellow aviators who were still flying against the enemy. Colonel Day’s conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Armed Forces.”
During his time at Hanoi, Day shared a cell with Navy lieutenant commander and now Arizona Sen. John McCain. The two men were nursed back to health by Air Force Maj. Norris Overly and when McCain was well enough he devised a makeshift splint of bamboo and rags to help heal Day’s seriously atrophied arm.
“When I got into Hanoi I got John as a roommate,” Day said. “He was busted up as bad as I was.”
Day said he and McCain kept each other going by talking a lot of politics.
“We talked a lot about America and how good we had it as Americans compared to these people who were living just really bad,” Day remembered. “They had a horribly oppressive communist government so even as prisoners in terms of freedom, we had just as much freedom as the people outside.”
In an article by Richard C. Barrett published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine, McCain referred to Day as “The toughest man I have ever known. He had an unwavering and unshakable sense of humor that made him able to withstand physical and mental pressures of an enormous degree.”
On March 14, 1973, after five years and seven months of beatings, interrogation and torture, Day was released as a North Vietnamese prisoner.
Within three days he was reunited with his wife Doris and four children at March Air Force Base, Calif., a feeling Day said is hard to put into words.
“It was an incredible feeling to be free again,” he said.
Day and his wife recalled the first time they saw each other that day.
“I could hear the sound of her heals on the ground and I just knew it was her,” day remembered.
“I walked down the street and could barley recognize him,” explained Doris, her voice full of those same emotions she felt that day. “He shook so bad, the whites of his eyes were all yellow and his teeth where they had hit him in the mouth were all rick-rack.”
She paused and smiled as she remembered the joy she said she felt after so long.
“He came back so much older,” she chuckled as she touched Day’s face. “He was such a young fighter pilot when he left.”
She said she knew it was his superior determination which got him through the five years and seven months of captivity and torture.
“He’s always been so worried about everyone else,” Doris said. “He always had to make sure no one was left behind and he was just so different.”
Day had been promoted to colonel while imprisoned and despite his experiences he remained on active duty. He was appointed vice commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing in Eglin Air Base, Fla.
He was awarded the Medal of Honor on March 4, 1976, by President Gerald Ford.
Day retired from active duty in 1977, as a colonel to continue his law practice in Florida. He has since been involved in politics, most recently as part of The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Before viewing the Sunset Parade, Day was given a first class tour of the Pentagon accompanied by the assistant deputy commandant of aviation Brig. Gen. Jon Davis.
He also received a behind the scenes tour of the commandant of the Marine Corps’ house, the oldest original standing building in Washington. It was there that what Day called a “sense of nostalgia” overwhelmed him when he saw a painting of Lt. Gen. Thomas Holcomb, the 17th commandant of the Marine Corps who was commandant when Day enlisted in the Corps in 1942.
Day is the most decorated living military veteran since Gen. Douglas MacArthur, but one wouldn’t know it from his humble demeanor standing tall in front of hundreds of Americans.
After the Sunset Parade, Marines snapped a salute as Day walked by only to be offered an equally-perfected salute from Day followed by a thankful handshake.
Now 84-years-old Day said he has never had regret.
“Everyone that has served understands it’s a good thing to do,” he said. “Looking back in retrospect, joining the Marine Corps [at 17] was absolutely the right thing because it taught me a lot of things I really needed to know.
“I didn’t like being a POW, but it turned out to be an experience that I needed,” he added. “It taught me a lot about myself. I was determined to come out of there with my head up. In my mind, I was either going to come out with my head up or not come out at all so, that worked out.”