American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day
by Robert Coram. Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2007, hardcover $27.99.
This is a wonderful story that almost didn’t happen. Air Force Major George Day was on the point of retiring, with plans to return to his home town of Sioux City, where he and his wife Doris had shrewdly built a substantial real estate portfolio. They looked forward to a prosperous, if tame, next phase of life.
There was just one more assignment, flying F-100s out of Phu Cat as “Misty 1,” head of what became the famed “Misty” FACs (forward air controllers) operating over North Vietnam. “Bud” Day volunteered for the Vietnam duty. That, as things turned out, was going to lead to a very long detour on the way to retirement and a new life.
Day’s early years are portrayed as hardscrabble, made more difficult by a mean-tempered and taciturn father who treated his wife and two children miserably and barely supported them through a succession of menial jobs. Nevertheless, concludes the author, “the example he set in dealing with adversity was his greatest gift to his son.”
Very early Bud Day embarked on a life of military service, enlisting in the Marine Corps when he was 17, spending the latter days of World War II on remote Johnston Island in the Pacific and being discharged after the war as a corporal. Three weeks later he joined the Army Reserve. He also began college in Sioux City, then law school nearby. A commission in the Iowa Army National Guard followed. But when the Korean War began and Day was refused a call to active duty, he transferred to the Air Force Reserves, the third of our armed services in which he would serve. This time it was to be for the long haul and as a pilot of uncommon ability and achievement. Along the way he married Doris Sorensen, who became an indispensable support through all that followed.
The heart of the book relates Bud Day’s experiences as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, an ordeal that lasted from the day he was shot down on August 26, 1967, until the prisoner release of March 12, 1973. Badly injured, Day nevertheless made a nearly-successful escape attempt. Wounded and recaptured, he was subjected to systematic torture and isolation over a period of years, treatment that left him even more physically damaged and debilitated. None of this affected Day’s spirit. Indeed, so courageous and so uncompromising was his resistance that he subsequently received the Medal of Honor for his example and leadership. This long ordeal is splendidly described by the author, who does not omit to mention Jane Fonda’s infamous claim that Americans who were held prisoner and who later described being tortured were “hypocrites and liars.”
Incredibly, Day (by now promoted to colonel) was able to regain flight status and serve on active duty until retirement in 1977. There proved to be even more battles ahead. In one, as a lawyer, he led a largely successful suit on the federal government to protect medical benefits for retirees. In another, he played a major role in opposing John Kerry’s presidential candidacy, a stance based on Kerry’s denigration of Vietnam veterans in his 1971 Congressional testimony. Bud Day never stopped fighting for what he believed in.
In the book’s preface, author Robert Coram writes: “Military men are better than most of us. They live their lives based on clear values—a code of honor and loyalty, a patriotism, a commitment, and a discipline that place them on a moral high ground.” In Colonel Bud Day he certainly found an exemplar of those values.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.