Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day's Day

Back a few years ago, the Colonel was in his last command in the Marine Corps, serving as the leader of the Corps' recruiting effort in the Southeast. Told that I had a call waiting from Colonel "Bud" Day, I caught my breath before picking up the phone. I knew Colonel Day only by reputation, and he was one of my heroes.

George "Bud" Day left high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942. Following the war, he went back to school, earning his bachelors and a law degree. He had joined the Army Reserve after his World War II Marine service, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Iowa Air National Guard in 1950. Following flight school, he served two tours of duty flying fighter- bombers in the Korean War, and then stayed in the Air Force as a career military officer. Although approaching eligibility to retire, Day volunteered for service in Vietnam--his third war. Because of his extensive flight experience and leadership ability, he was tapped to lead an experimental force, flying a two-seat variant of the F-100 Super Sabre, that was given the mission of high speed forward air controllers ("Fast FACs"). The F-100 was fast becoming obsolete, but Day's group of volunteers, all of whom were highly experienced pilots, soon gained a superb reputation for courage and competence.

Forty-two years ago, today, Day and his crew mate were directing air strikes just north of the DMZ when their aircraft was hit and disabled by ground fire. Severely injured as he ejected, he was captured and tortured for several days by the North Vietnamese militia unit that held him in a cave awaiting transportation further north. On his fifth night of capture, and although hindered by a broken arm and eye and back injuries, Day escaped from his captors and spent the next two weeks eluding them as he made his way south toward friendly lines. Within sight of a Marine base south of the DMZ, Day was discovered by an enemy patrol. Shot in the leg and hand in his recapture, Day was brutally tortured daily as he was slowly transported north to his eventual incarceration in the infamous Hao Loa prison--nick-named the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American POWs held there. My brief retelling of this story does it no justice. Day later received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during this time.

Shortly after arriving at the Hanoi Hilton, Major Day and his cell mate, Air Force Major Norris Overly, were joined by a third POW. The Navy pilot was in such bad shape that Day and Overly were afraid for his life. They tended to him the best they could and he survived. That man was John McCain.

Tortured beyond the limits of human endurance on a regular basis by the North Vietnamese, Day remained defiant and provided incredibly forceful leadership example to the mostly younger American POWs. One anecdote from that dark experience has always been particularly inspiring to me. Towards the end of their captivity, sometime in 1971, the number of Americans held had grown so great that instead of the small group and solitary confinement under which most had been kept for years, the POWs were crowded in larger groups in somewhat larger rooms. When the North Vietnamese guards burst into one of these rooms to break up a religious service, Day stood defiantly and began to sing the Star Spangled Banner. When the guards attacked and silenced Day, another POW, James Stockdale (later Ross Perot's VP running mate) stood and took his place. The guards retreated as the entire room stood and sang. Day received the second highest military honor, the Air Force Cross, for his conduct and leadership as a POW.

I had read his story and those of the incredibly brave patriots who suffered in the Hanoi Hilton many times and had recommended its reading to many others. So, as I picked up the phone, I tried to think of something appropriate, not fawning, one colonel to another; but, yet, expressing my admiration and appreciation for his service and heroism. Didn't get the chance. Colonel Day wasn't making a social call.

Day was representing the father, another retired Air Force colonel, of a young man who had unfortunately died immediately following the running of a physical fitness test administered by some of my recruiters. The young man was applying for a Marine commissioning program, and had collapsed at the end of the 3-mile run portion of the test. Day wanted to know what the "government" in general, and the Marine Corps in particular, was going to do to recompense his client for the loss. His client was particularly insistent that his son was due the benefits of a military member. What I should have told Colonel Day was that the matter was still under investigation and that there was nothing I could do or say about the issue, and left it at that. But, I have never been very adept at "leaving things at that" and I went on to volunteer that, in my opinion, his client's deceased son would probably not qualify for any military benefits because he had merely applied, and not yet been accepted, for participation in the commissioning program. Colonel Day commenced to chew my posterior. Mind you, he never raised his voice. But, having been the recipient of more than my fair share of butt gnawings, I know one when I hear one, even when the gnawer is doing so in the most polite way.

I was disappointed. Not in Colonel Day, but in the circumstances under which I was talking to one of my heroes for the first and probably last time. Sure wish my conversation with him hadn't ended on such a note.

This Colonel, sole authority in such manners here aboard Eegeebeegee, capital of the Tallahatchie Free State, located at the northern end of southern nowhere, does hereby declare this day, August 26th, Day's Day. This day shall henceforth be celebrated with quiet solemnity aboard Eegeebeegee in deep appreciation for Day's service and the selfless service of his compatriots.
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