Retired Air Force colonel George 'Bud' Day, seen here in 2008, was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Ford in March 1976.
(Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)
Vietnam War hero George "Bud" Day, a Medal of Honor recipient who was John McCain's cellmate while both were held captive, has died after a long illness. He was 88.
"I owe my life to Bud, and much of what I know about character and patriotism," McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said in a statement Sunday. "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."
Day, a retired Air Force colonel, died Saturday at his home in Shalimar, Fla. His wife, Doris, told the Associated Press that her husband "would have died in my arms if I could have picked him up."
One of the nation's most decorated servicemen, Day received the Medal of Honor from President Gerald Ford in 1976. In all, he received more than 70 medals and served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Day was shot down on Aug. 26, 1967, over North Vietnam. His right arm was broken in three places and his knee was badly sprained. Day was captured, taken to a prison camp where he was interrogated and tortured, and then escaped. He made it across the demilitarized zone, wandered for days and was unable to signal U.S. aircraft. Day was recaptured by the Viet Cong and returned to prison in Hanoi, where he gave his captors false information when being questioned.
"Despite his many injuries, he continued to offer maximum resistance," reads Day's Medal of Honor citation. "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."
Day and McCain, now an Arizona senator, were cellmates for a time first at the POW camp known as the Plantation and then at the prison infamously dubbed the Hanoi Hilton. Day was often the highest-ranking prisoner of war and was held captive by the Vietnamese for more than five and a half years.
"As awful as it sounds, no one could say we did not do well," Day told the Associated Press in a 2008 interview. 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. One bad cold and I would have been dead."
McCain said he would speak more later this week about Day, calling him a "good man and great patriot." In his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, McCain wrote that Day was a "lantern of courage and faith."
Day was born in 1925 in Sioux City, Iowa, and enlisted in the Marines in 1942. After World War II, Day returned home and went to college and law school. He then served in the Iowa National Guard in 1950 and attended flight school. In 1951, the Air Force called Day to active duty and he became a bomber pilot in the Korean War.
After his release from Vietnam, Day retired to Florida where he practiced law and took up the cause of veterans' rights. He was active in McCain's 2000 and 2008 campaigns.
In 2004, Day appeared in advertisements for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that fought hard against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his military record during the Vietnam War. Day had compared Kerry to Benedict Arnold, saying they had both gone off to war and "then turned against their country."
"I probably could have been more tempered in some of my remarks, but when they asked, I told them," Day said.