MIAMI — Retired Col. George “Bud” Day, a Medal of Honor recipient who spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and was Arizona Sen. John McCain's cellmate, has died, his widow said Sunday. He was 88.
Day, one of the nation's most highly decorated servicemen since Gen. Douglas MacArthur and later a tireless advocate for veterans rights, died Saturday surrounded by family at his home in Shalimar, Fla., after a long illness, Doris Day said.
“He would have died in my arms if I could have picked him up,” she said.
Bud Day was presented 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, Korea and Vietnam.
He was an enlisted Marine serving in the Pacific during World War II and an Air Force pilot in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
In Vietnam, he was McCain's cellmate at one camp known as the Plantation and later in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he was often the highest-ranking captive. 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. “One really bad cold and I would have been dead.”
In a statement Sunday, McCain called 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,” McCain said.
Born Feb. 24, 1925, in Sioux City, Iowa, where the airport is named for him, Day joined the Marines in 1942 while still in high school. He returned home, graduated from 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, 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 blind in one eye.
In the spring of 1968, Day's North Vietnamese captors opened his cell door and ushered 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, 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,” Day wrote. They helped nurse the Navy man.
Day visited the Omaha area in July 2012 to speak at Papillion-La Vista High School. His talk was scheduled as a counterpoint to one delivered earlier that week by another high-profile symbol of the Vietnam War: actress and anti-war activist Jane Fonda.
“There was no love lost between him and Jane Fonda,” said Omaha resident Bill Williams, who organized Day's visit through his Patriotic Productions organization. “We thought this was a good opportunity to represent his side of the situation.”
On Sunday, Williams lamented the loss of a war hero and decorated veteran who suffered more as a POW than most people could imagine. The audience at his speech last year was “mesmerized” by Day's tale of survival, Williams said.
“It's hard for the rest of us to feel sorry for ourselves when you think what a man like that has been through,” Williams said. “Now he's at peace.
“You'd think he'd be this hard person to get along with, but he was the gentlest soul. He was so gentle, just a gentleman. He was one of a kind. Just a wonderful example of a patriotic American, that's for sure.”
After the war and his release, 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 hundreds of thousands of 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 the military's TRICARE health insurance program to include veterans over age 65 who had served at least 20 years or were medically retired.
In his later years, Day also took on Iraq War cases.
“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.
The couple celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary in May.
Day was active in McCain's failed 2000 and 2008 Republican presidential bids, and in 2004 he campaigned against fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry. Day called Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, a turncoat who lied to Congress in 1971 about war atrocities.
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Day's political activism again caused controversy in 2010 when he supported Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in his failed Senate bid. Day called Crist primary opponent Marco Rubio “a Hispanic who can run his mouth.”
Day and McCain remained close since they first shared that 9-by-15-foot cell, and years later he advised the younger Navy man against running for the U.S. Senate.
“When he first said he was going into politics, I said politics is compromise, and John had almost zero ability to compromise,” Day said.
He said he told McCain politics was like prostitution.
“You have to do a whole bunch of things and then there is a paycheck,” he said.
But Day said his friend later changed his mind by becoming a reformer in Congress.
Staff writer Erin Duffy contributed to this report.
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