SIOUX CITY | Retired Air Force Col. George E. “Bud” Day was one of the nation’s most decorated service members, but he never forgot his roots. He loved Sioux City, said his wife, Doris Day.
“It meant the world to him,” she said.
Bud Day, a Medal of Honor recipient who spent 5 1/2 years as a POW in Vietnam before becoming a legal advocate on veterans’ issues, died Saturday at his home in Shalimar, Fla., following a long illness. He was 88.
“He just went to sleep. No pain,” his wife said Sunday.
Bud Day earned more than 70 medals during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, where he received the Medal of Honor. He is the only Sioux City native to earn the honor, the nation’s highest award for valor.
William Everett, regional commander for the Military Order of the Purple Heart in Baker, Fla., where Bud Day was active, on Sunday said he was passionate about veterans’ issues and his past.
“He was a very wise, happy, caring veteran,” he said.
Born Feb. 24, 1925, Bud Day entered the military in 1942 while still a student at Central High School, serving as a Marine during World War II in the Pacific.
He came home, graduated from Morningside College and the University of South Dakota law school and passed the state bar exam in 1949. A year later, he entered the Iowa National Guard and attended flight school, getting called to active duty in the Air Force in 1951. He completed two tours as a bomber pilot during the Korean War.
In Vietnam, he was shot down over North Vietnam on Aug. 26, 1967. He jumped from the plane and was badly injured in the landing, leaving his knee and right arm broken.
He was captured and beaten, only to escape and be recaptured and placed in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he was often the highest-ranking captive. His cellmate was future U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom he helped nurse back to health.
His captors beat him constantly for information. He didn't budge.
“Despite his many injuries, he continued to offer maximum resistance,” his Medal of Honor citation, awarded by President Gerald Ford, reads. “His personal bravery in the face of deadly enemy pressure was significant in saving the lives of fellow aviators who were still flying against the enemy.”
McCain in a statement Sunday said he owes his life to Bud Day "and much of what I know about character and patriotism."
"He was the bravest man I ever knew, and his fierce resistance and resolute leadership set the example for us in prison of how to return home with honor," McCain said.
During his imprisonment, the once-muscular, 5-foot-9 Bud Day was hung by his arms for days, tearing them from their sockets. He was freed in 1973 but his hands and arms never functioned properly again.
He said he survived by not giving up.
“Well, I’m an optimist,” he told the Journal in February, when he also said he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. “I expected the country would come and get us."
He also was awarded the Air Force Cross and Purple Heart, plus 12 Campaign Battle Stars.
After his release, Day retired to the Florida Panhandle in 1977 and practiced law, becoming a crusader for veterans' health care benefits. He took his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2003 lawsuit that alleged the government reneged on its promise to provide free lifetime health care to hundreds of thousands of Korean and World War II veterans.
The high court declined to hear an appeal of the case brought on behalf of two Panhandle retirees, but the legal action was credited with prompting Congress to pass legislation in 2000 expanding the military's TRICARE health insurance program to include veterans over age 65 who had served at least 20 years or were medically retired.
Sioux Gateway Airport was named Col. Bud Day Field in May 2002. A portion of Sixth Street also is named in his honor.
Bud Day also was active in McCain's failed 2000 and 2008 Republican presidential bids and in 2004 campaigned against fellow Vietnam veteran John Kerry. Day called Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, a turncoat who lied to Congress in 1971 about alleged war atrocities.
"I draw a direct comparison to Gen. Benedict Arnold of the Revolutionary War to Lt. John Kerry," Day said in 2004. "Both went off to war, fought, and then turned against their country."
In his later years, he also took on Iraqi war cases. He represented Army Maj. John Nelson, a medical officer who was wounded when a bomb exploded at a mess hall in Mosul in 2004. Nelson suffered short-term memory loss and spoke with a permanent stutter. The Army initially said his injuries merited a 40 percent disability rating. Day, however, persuaded an evaluation board to award full benefits.
"People would stop us in the airports and all over, and we had no idea who they were, and they would say, 'Thank you, you saved my husband's life,' or, 'You saved my wife's life,'" Doris Day said.
The couple had four children and 14 grandchildren.
Bud Day retired from the Air Force at the rank of colonel, never attaining his general's star. He said he believed he wasn't promoted further because he "told it like it was." He said it was his tendency for tough talk that kept him out of politics.
"I probably could have been more tempered in some of my remarks, but when they asked, I told them," he said.
A funeral is planned Thursday, with burial at Barancas National Cemetery in Pensacola.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Day was the only person from Sioux City to win the Medal of Honor. Edward Burson Spalding, an Illinois native buried in Sioux City, earned the award during the Civil War. Thomas Gere from Minnesota, who moved to Sioux City after the war, also received the award. This story has been changed.