Emerald Coast pays tribute to Air Force legend

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christopher Callaway
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

Nearly 1,000 service members, veterans and citizens from across the nation paid their respects to the life and legacy of a retired Air Force colonel during a funeral service Aug. 1 on Okaloosa Island, Fla.

Col. George "Bud" Day, a Medal of Honor recipient and combat pilot with service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, passed away July 28 at the age of 88.

Airmen and Marines lined the sides of the solemn lowly-lit room where the memorial service was held. The sounds of soft classical music set the mood of a somber day. Attendees gathered together in one large line to pay respects to a man thawho made huge personal sacrifices to support the United States of America at all cost.

"The last word that was spoken to the love of his life, Dory, was 'home.'" said George Day Jr., Day's son, during the service. "This is a celebration of his life, and we are so thankful that you are here honoring him."

According to Day's biography, the Sioux City, Iowa, native enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 and served 30 months in the South Pacific. At World War II's end, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve until he later completed training to become a fighter-bomber pilot in the U.S. Air Force in 1950.

North Vietnamese soldiers shot down Day's F-100 Super Sabre Aug. 26, 1967. He suffered multiple injuries and was captured and held captive for nearly six years during which he endured torture on a daily basis.

One of his fellow prisoners of war, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, attended the service and remarked on the colonel's dedication to service and devotion to his country.

"I had the privilege of being Bud's friend for almost five decades of his 88 years," McCain said. "He was a hard man to kill and expected the same from his subordinates, but more than that, he taught me how to save my self-respect and my honor, and that is a debt I can never repay."

McCain shared a story of Day's perseverance in the face of the struggle and possible death during one of his darker days of captivity.

"He could not be broken in spirit no matter how broken he was in body," McCain said. "Knowing him in prison, confronting our enemies day in and day out, (we never yielded) in front of men who had the power of life and death over us. To witness him sing the national anthem in response to having a rifle pointed at his face -- well that was something to behold."

The North Vietnamese released Day March 14, 1973, and he reunited with his wife and four children three days later. He retired from the Air Force in 1977.

For Day's actions as a POW and for upholding the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force, President Gerald Ford presented him with the Medal of Honor March 4, 1976, making Day the only recipient of the Medal of Honor along with the Air Force Cross. Of the nearly 70 military decorations and awards Day earned, more than 50 were the direct result of combat.

After returning home, the colonel dedicated his life to directly impacting the well-being of those who serve the country by advocating for military medical benefits as an attorney.

"What is it about a man who suffered more than any of us can even imagine," said Congressman Jeff Miller. "And yet was willing to take on so much more so others would not have to."

After the funeral service, a vehicle procession transported the colonel for burial at Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Fla. Along the way, thousands of well-wishers lined the sides of the highway to render a salute of honor to one of the most highly-decorated combat veterans of the last century.

"It is the least I can do to pay my respect to a man who has done so much for our county," said Airman 1st Class Heaven Carroll, from 1st Special Operations Contracting Squadron. "Col. Day was a hero, and it is an honor to serve in his footsteps."

"Bud and I stayed close through all the years that had passed, talked often, saw each other regularly -- I am going to miss him terribly," McCain said. "I could never imagine Bud yielding to anything, even the laws of nature, but he is gone now to what I would expect an Iowa cornfield during the winter filled with pheasants. I will see him again, I know I will. I will hunt the fields with him, and I look forward to it."