MIAMI — Retired Col. George "Bud" Day, a Medal of Honor recipient who spent 5½ years as a POW in Vietnam and was Arizona Sen. John McCain's cell mate, has died at the age of 88, his wife said Sunday.
Col. Day, one of the nation's most highly decorated servicemen since Gen. Douglas MacArthur and later a tireless advocate for veterans' rights, died Saturday at his home in Shalimar in Okaloosa County after a long illness, wife Doris Day said.
Col. Day received the Medal of Honor for escaping his captors for 10 days after the aircraft he was piloting was shot down over North Vietnam. In all, he earned more than 70 medals during service in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In addition to the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, he was awarded the Air Force Cross, the highest combat award specifically for airmen.
His life was defined by the defiance he showed in North Vietnamese prison camps, where, besides McCain, whose Navy fighter had been downed, his cell mates included James Stockdale, also a Navy pilot, who became Ross Perot's running mate in his 1992 presidential campaign.
In Vietnam, Col. Day was McCain's cell mate at one camp known as the Plantation and later in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he was often the highest-ranking captive. He defiantly endured more than five years of brutality without divulging sensitive information to his captors.
During his imprisonment, the once-muscular, 5-foot-9 Day was hung by his arms for days, tearing them from their sockets. He was freed in 1973 — a skeletal figure of the once dashing fighter pilot. His hands and arms never functioned properly again.
"As awful as it sounds, no one could say we did not do well. (Being a POW) was a major issue in my life and one that I am extremely proud of. I was just living day to day," he said in a 2008 interview with the Associated Press. "One really bad cold and I would have been dead."
In a statement Sunday, McCain called Col. Day a great patriot and said he owed his life to the man. "He was the bravest man I ever knew, and his fierce resistance and resolute leadership set the example for us in prison of how to return home with honor," said McCain, who received Col. Day's support in his presidential bids in 2000 and 2008.
Born Feb. 24, 1925, in Sioux City, Iowa, where the airport is named for him, Col. Day joined the Marines in 1942 while still in high school. He returned home, graduated law school and passed the bar exam in 1949. He entered the Iowa National Guard in 1950 and attended flight school. He was called to active duty in the Air Force the next year and did two tours as a bomber pilot in the Korean War.
In Vietnam, Col. Day was shot down over North Vietnam on Aug. 26, 1967. He bailed out, but the landing broke his knee and his right arm and left him temporarily blinded in one eye.
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.
In the spring of 1968, Col. Day's North Vietnamese captors opened his cell door and brought in McCain, who was wearing a full body cast and was nearly dead. McCain had been in isolation for seven weeks and could not wash or feed himself, Col. Day wrote in Return With Honor, his 1989 autobiography.
"We were the first Americans he had talked to. … We were delighted to have him, and he was more than elated to see us," Col. Day wrote.
After the war and his release, Col. Day retired to the Florida Panhandle in 1977 and practiced law, becoming a crusader for veterans' health care benefits. He took his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2003 lawsuit that alleged the government reneged on its promise to provide free lifetime health care to Korean and World War II veterans.
The high court declined to hear an appeal of the case brought on behalf of two Panhandle retirees, but the legal action was credited with prompting Congress to pass legislation in 2000 expanding a military health insurance program to include veterans older than 65 who had served at least 20 years or were medically retired.
In his later years, Col. Day took on cases for Iraq war veterans.
"People would stop us in the airports and all over, and we had no idea who they were, and they would say, 'Thank you, you saved my husband's life,' or, 'You saved my wife's life,' " Doris Day said.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.