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The death on Saturday of Colonel George “Bud” Day, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism as a prisoner of war in communist North Vietnam, is a moment to reflect on what goes into the making of an American hero. Day had served in the Pacific in World War II, but he did not see combat and was out of the service and getting ready for a career in law when he was called up for the Korean conflict. It was during Korea that he decided to make the Air Force his career. He eventually volunteered to fly in Vietnam, where his detachment used as its call sign the name of Day’s favorite song, “Misty.” He was using the call sign “Misty 01” when, on August 26, 1967, he was shot down over North Vietnam and parachuted into history.
In 2007, the Atlantic published a dispatch by Robert Kaplan that included a particularly riveting account of Day’s heroism. He escaped his captors in North Vietnam but days after they’d seized him. Without boots or his flying suit, he made it into free Vietnam, the only American prisoner to escape from North Vietnam. He evaded the enemy for some days before he was again captured and returned to the North. “With all of his limbs now broken or shot up,” Kaplan wrote, “he spent the next six years in captivity, undergoing mock executions, hung again repeatedly by his feet, often not permitted to urinate, beaten senseless in scenes ‘out of the Mongol Hordes’ with whips that made his testicles like charred meat.”
In one famous moment described by Kaplan, prison guards “burst in on him and other POWs during a clandestine Christian service.” Day “stared into their muzzles and sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” It’s something to remember the next time one hears about how the Greatest Generation ended with World War II. For sheet guts, Day was in a class with Admiral Stockdale, who also received the Medal of Honor for his time as a prisoner of the barbaric regime in Hanoi and whose obituary editorial was issued in these columns in July 2005. After the war, Day overcame his wounds to fly again for the Air Force.
Of Day’s famous bluntness Americans gained a taste during the presidential contest of 2004, when the aging hero emerged in harness with the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth in their campaign to expose the sham of John Kerry. “How can you expect our sons and daughters to follow you when you condemned their fathers and grandfathers?” Day demanded in one ad. The question turned out to resonate with Americans, who fell away from Senator Kerry and handed up President Bush for a second term. They comprehended that what George Day was saying was true and that his heroism was unalloyed.