An amazing Iowan has passed from the scene
One of the greatest Iowans of all time has died.
His name was George “Bud” Day and he left us on July 27, passing away at his home in Shalimar, Florida, with his wife Doris at his side. For all he had endured, it was a remarkably peaceful way for his life to end.
It would require many more pages to tell you his full story. But here’s what John McCain, a longtime United States Senator and a 2008 presidential candidate, had to say about Bud Day:
“He was the bravest man I ever knew … I owe my life to Bud and much of what I know about patriotism and character.”
How powerful is that!
I would say “just powerful enough to match the character of Bud Day.”
In the very first issue of Iowa History Journal, which appeared in January of 2009, we ran a long feature story on Colonel Day, written by Chris McGowan of Sioux City. McGowan idolized Day – and so does just about anyone else who knew him or has read about him.
You can put me in that category, as well.
On my list of greatest Iowans ever, you will find such names as Dr. Norman Borlaug, Herbert Hoover, Nile Kinnick and Bud Day. All of them exemplified to the highest degree possible what I believe it means to be an American and an Iowan.
Borlaug, from Cresco, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and is credited with saving nearly a billion lives through his work with wheat innovation. Hoover, from West Branch, was a tremendous humanitarian before and after being voted President of the United States. Kinnick, a native son of Adel, set the bar for excellence at all levels during his young life, dying at age 24 on a training flight during World War II. (By the way, he was on the cover of that first issue of Iowa History Journal.)
Bud Day experienced a long life of 88 years. It was marked by pain and suffering on a level unimaginable for most of us, but also by exhilarating victories and successes. Probably no Iowan has ever had such an amazing roller coaster ride through life with stunning ups and downs.
George was born on February 24, 1925, on a farm near Sioux City, and endured the Great Depression with his parents. He saw misery firsthand but it never stopped him from dreaming big and working hard.
By the time he was 18 he was a Marine serving in the South Pacific during World War II. He returned home to graduate from Morningside College in Sioux City and earn a law degree at the University of South Dakota. But his fighting days weren’t over. As a member of the Iowa National Guard he served two tours as a bomber pilot during the Korean War.
And then came Vietnam. He was called to duty once again and flew nearly 75 missions in enemy territory. He was in his jet high over North Vietnam on August 26, 1967, when his plane was severely jolted by a missile. Day ejected … and thus began a five-year nightmare of prisons and torture that is impossible for the rest of us to identify with.
He was found on the ground battered and half conscious. Captured by North Vietnamese, he was beaten with rifle butts and taken to a village, hobbling on a dislocated knee and nursing assorted injuries. He was hung upside down from rafters for days on end. As a result of his refusing to cooperate with his captors, “Day was tortured at length,” wrote McGowan. “He was punched, kicked and slapped. He was told he would be shot if he did not answer all questions. When still he reused, he was further brutalized.”
He escaped but was re-captured a few days later, and taken to Hanoi where the torture reached a horrific level. He tried another escape and slipped into the thick jungle, and survived by eating live frogs, insects and berries, only to be captured again after 12 days.
If you want to more details you can buy the premier issue of Iowa History Journal and read page 36, or find one of the two books he wrote. But be forewarned … it is not easy to take, even for a reader far removed from that hideous experience. The brutality is nauseating.
In early 1968, another prisoner was thrown into Day’s cell in Hanoi. The newcomer was suffering from numerous injuries and weighed less than 100 pounds. He looked half dead. His name was John McCain. They shared the tiny, filthy cell for over a year.
Part of their story can be seen in the made-for-TV movie “Faith of My Fathers” which tells the story of McCain. It first aired in 2005. Colonel Day has a prominent role in the video and it is still available.
The two of them managed to survive the nightmare, one winding up in politics and the other working in the legal field in Florida for several decades. Through the years, Day also became known as an indefatigable advocate for the rights of veterans.
Day was awarded with over 70 medals and 150 decorations during his long service – including the Medal of Honor, the highest award this outcry can give for military service. Iowa State Senator Dennis Black believes he is the most decorated soldier in American history!
In 1997, the Air Force’s Survival School in Spokane, Washington, was named the Colonel George “Bud” Day Building in honor of his extraordinary example of courage and leadership. And on May 25, 2002, Sioux City renamed part of it airport “Colonel Bud Day Field”, with a large, bronze statue of its favorite son standing at the entrance.
Upon hearing of his friend’s death, McCain issued a statement that read, in part: “His fierce resistance and resolute leadership set the example for us in prison of how to return home with honor.”
Men like Colonel Bud Day come our way very seldom. He is an Iowan who should never be forgotten.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal and is the author of 26 books. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)