Colonel George E. "Bud" Day: A legacy of survival

  • Published
  • By John Baker
  • 336th Training Group Historian
On July 27th Col. George E. "Bud" Day, a true American hero, passed away at age 88. Day's exploits are legendary. A veteran of three wars serving as an enlisted Marine in World War II and a fighter pilot in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Day earned 70 decorations, including more than 50 for actions in combat. In April 1967, then Major Day was assigned to the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing at Tuy Hoa Air Base in the Republic of Vietnam. Soon after, he was assigned to Phu Cat Air Base where he organized and commanded the 416th Tactical Fighter Squadron, a "Misty Super" Forward Air Control unit flying the North American F-100 Super Sabre. The events of August 26th, 1967 would indelibly change his life when, while flying a mission over North Vietnam, Day was shot down and immediately captured by the North Vietnamese. Day's subsequent actions ultimately led to the award of the nation's highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Nursing a dislocated knee and an arm broken in three places, he managed to escape captivity and evade the enemy for two weeks. He made his way back into South Vietnam, earning the distinction of being the only prisoner to actually escape from North Vietnam. Unfortunately, Day was just two miles from the safety of a U.S. Marine Corps base when he was shot and recaptured by a Viet Cong patrol. Thereafter, he defiantly and resolutely endured a brutal, 67-month imprisonment that finally ended in repatriation on March 14, 1973. Three days later, Day was reunited with his wife and four children at March Air Force Base, Calif. Following his retirement as a colonel in 1977, Day wrote an autobiography, "Return with Honor," detailing his years of captivity in Vietnam.

Senator John McCain, a comrade in arms and cellmate of Day, eloquently captured the essence of his heroism in remarks delivered on the Senate floor following his passing:

"Those who knew Bud after the war could see how tough he was. But, my God, to have known him in prison - confronting our enemies day-in and day-out; never, ever yielding - defying men who had the power of life and death over us; to witness him sing the national anthem in response to having a rifle pointed at his face - well, that was something to behold. Unforgettable. No one had more guts than Bud or greater determination to do his duty and then some - to keep faith with his country and his comrades whatever the cost. Bud was my commanding officer; but, more, he was my inspiration - as he was for all the men who were privileged to serve under him."

In 1995, in recognition of Day's tenacity, fortitude and courage, the
336th Training Group campaigned to name its still-under-construction Academic Training Facility in honor of him. This in itself was a testimony to the tremendous respect and admiration held for Day as it was and still is highly unusual to name an Air Force facility for a living person. The justification for the request submitted by the group read in part "The Academic Training Support Complex will consolidate all aspects of academic training, from basic survival skills to conduct after capture, in one building. Day's exploits during the Vietnam conflict epitomize the skills and attributes the Survival School strives to instill in all our students." Because the group desired to name the building for a living person, approval was required and secured from then Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Ronald Fogelman in January 1996. Fogelman later remarked "it was one of the easiest decisions I've had to make in Washington to waive the regulation. It was truly an appropriate thing to do."

Upon completion of the building in the spring of 1997, Fogelman presided over a building dedication ceremony on March 14th of that year attended by Day, his wife Doris, United States Congressman George E. Nethercutt, several flag officers, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Eric W. Benken, installation commanders and local dignitaries, and numerous members of the 336th and other base personnel. In his remarks during the ceremony Fogelman said, "The useful life of this building is calculated at 50 years. But when you begin to calculate the value of a man's accomplishments and of his reputation, then you begin to see the name of Bud Day living on well beyond 50 years. He is not only part of the legacy of our U.S. Air Force, but of our nation. So it is not only a pleasure for me to be here today, but it is a humbling experience." Day graciously accepted the honor on behalf of fellow warriors, POWs, and other Medal of Honor recipients. He related that he had attended the Survival School 30 years prior and credited the training for enabling him to perform to the standards expected by his country and "to deal in a dignified and honorable way with his horrible captors."

Then commander of the 336th Training Group, Col. Kenneth Page commented that the objective of the USAF Survival School is "to instill in America's warriors the confidence and ability to survive under any conditions and return home with this regard who could ask for a better role model than Col. Bud Day."

The 29,000 square foot George E. "Bud" Day Academic Training Facility, still in use today, houses three auditoriums, over 20 smaller classrooms, instructor offices, the group's curriculum development and multimedia offices, a library, and U.S. Air Force Survival School heritage displays. It remains integral to the success of the 336th Training Group's survival training mission, as approximately 4,000 students traverse its halls each year.

Col. Bill Thomas, USAF Survival School Commander, shares his sentiments on the passing of Col. Day: "Col. Bud Day's accomplishments as an officer and leader are well documented; however, the impact his character and courage will have on future generations of Airmen may be less obvious and cannot be overstated. He is the quintessential role model for how to persevere despite adversity, persist through pain, and overcome obstacles in your life that you may not anticipate. His journey defines physical, mental and spiritual resiliency. The men and women of the USAF Survival School salute Col. Bud Day and honor his memory with respect and gratitude for his service to our country."