Tags: Bud Day, Hanoi Hilton, Medal of Honor
The word “hero” is overused today. But headline writers were correct in using the word this weekend when news broke of the death of Col. Bud Day.
George Everette Day spent five-and-a-half years of the Vietnam War in the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp. His courage earned him the Medal of Honor. One media outlet reported, “Colonel Day received the medal for his escape and evasion, brief though it was, and his refusal to yield to his tormentors.”
That’s not the whole story. Bud Day and other POW leaders set aside the temptation to escape – they decided to stay in the Hanoi Hilton – as an even greater act of courage.
While Bud Day did make an escape attempt shortly after he was shot down on August 26, 1967, the truth about escape attempts from the Hanoi Hilton became far more complex in the years following his capture.
A failed escape attempt by two other Hanoi Hilton POWS in 1969 became the catalyst for the remarkable decision by leaders like Bud Day to stay rather than continue escape attempts.
Both of the 1969 escapees were captured in just hours, and one of them died as a result of vicious, repeated beatings. More instructive, the failed escape attempt led to severe punishment for POWs not involved in the escape. The retribution went on for months. Some POWs bear physical scars today of that escape attempt.
While the dream of escape and freedom provoked active debate for the next five years, the eventual consensus among the POWs was that the collective good – their mission of bringing every man home with his mind and honor intact – was better served by staying in the prison than by attempting to escape.
It is true that any escape attempt faced unusual hurdles. The military aviators in the Hanoi Hilton were Caucasian and physically larger than the average Vietnamese citizen. Most of them spoke little Vietnamese, and they were in the heart of their enemy’s country, in the capital city.
It is equally true that many of the POWs – particularly those who still possessed the physical ability to attempt escape – dreamed of making a run for freedom. But was leaving hundreds of their fellow POWs to face retribution worth their individual freedom?
The debate continued until nearly the day Operation Homecoming began in February of 1973. But leaders like Bud Day answered the debate in their daily choices. They settled in, forgot about escape, and devoted their energies to showing newer POWs – some of them younger aviators half his age – how to treat their time in the Hanoi Hilton as a form of active duty, complete with expected performance standards.
The decision to stay took more courage – and more selflessness – than making a break for individual freedom. It may not be coincidental that 1969 has been marked by military historians as a pivotal year in the POWs’ personal war to return to the United States with honor.
The Hanoi Hilton POWs proved remarkably successful in surviving their captivity. Most returned home with minimal PTSD. Many went on to remarkable professional success in their later lives. Their success is rooted in their simple and selfless decision to focus their collective energy on helping each other achieve their collective mission rather than pursuing self-centered concerns.
While news reports about George Everette Day will focus on what he did to earn his Air Force Cross and his Medal of Honor, the real mark of his courage – and that of many of his fellow POWs – can be found in what he did not do. He did not put his personal interests before those of his brothers in the Hanoi Hilton. He had the courage to stay.