American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day by Robert Coram. Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
Robert Coram’s American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day (ISBN 978-0-316-0679-3, $15.99) tells the extraordinary story of a man who served in three wars, spent years as a POW in North Vietnam, became the most decorated officer in the U.S. Air Force, and fought for veterans rights in the 1980s.
Born in 1925, Day grew up poor in Sioux City, Iowa. He taught himself to hunt and put meat on the table at an early age — his father gave him a beaten-up .410 shotgun when he was 10 years old — and he learned the value of work, caddying, again at the age of 10, at a nearby country club golf course. After Pearl Harbor, and just weeks shy of his high school graduation, Day joined the Marines, having first eaten bananas for several weeks to meet the minimum weight requirements (a tactic also followed by Audie Murphy, World War II’s most decorated soldier, who was, like Day, slim and slight of build).
After serving in the Marine Corps, Day returned home to Sioux City, attended college and then law school on the G.I. Bill, married Doris Sorensen, and then, after a brief stint running a local detective agency, joined the Air Force, which at that time was a new branch among the services.
Over the next 20 years, Day became a legend among his fellow pilots. His most famous exploit before his imprisonment as a POW occurred in Britain, when the F-84 he was flying caught fire on take-off. Within seconds Day found himself ejecting at only 300 feet altitude from the falling aircraft. His chute failed to open, but he crashed into trees, smashing his right ankle and becoming the first man in the history of the Air Force to eject from a jet aircraft without a working parachute and survive.
Day’s greatest exploits occurred during his captivity in Vietnam. After being hit by a North Vietnamese missile, Day landed alive but injured and was immediately captured by ground forces. Within a few days, he escaped his guards and fled toward the DMZ, the embattled area separating North and South Vietnam. After a grueling trek south — his wounds were open and untreated, and he was reduced to eating frogs and berries from bushes — he was within sight of the Marine Corps camp when he was again taken prisoner.
Closely guarded this time, Day began the brutal years of captivity when camp guards regularly beat and tortured him and other prisoners, including John McCain, who became Day’s good friend. His worst moments of torture came when his interrogators had him beaten with fan belts.
“When Day was dragged off to the quiz room on the morning of the sixth day, his buttocks and thighs were swollen and puffed out about three inches. Atop the hamburger-like flesh, from the middle of his thighs up to the small of his back, a scab was trying to reform. Day’s lower legs were twice their normal size, and his toes were like overstuffed sausages. A watery fluid oozed from his testicles.”
Eventually, Day and most of the other POWs came home. Coram’s description of their return and of their reactions to those prisoners who had taken early release for “good behavior,” which essentially meant collaborating with the enemy, offers a fascinating insight into the sense of honor such men carried with them. Having expected that these early releases would have been drummed out of the service, Day and the other long-term POWs were astonished to find their former comrades living normal lives and even honored by the military.
Coram discusses the animosity between these two groups at length, explaining why Day, McCain, and the others who had not taken early releases were so obsessed and incensed with those who had done so. Coram shows how the military itself reacted to these revelations, demoting some officers and forcing others into retirement. Though Vietnam POWs are in the public mind all of a kind, honorable and strong men who bore witness to the Code of Conduct and to American ideals, Day and his comrades regard the POWs as two separate groups, one composed of traitors and snitches, the other of men who did their duty.
Bud Day’s life of confrontation and controversy didn’t end on his release from the military. He used his legal knowledge to help fellow veterans struggling for better medical treatment. He campaigned for several politicians. He supported the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their opposition to the candidacy of Sen. John Kerry. He remained friends with John McCain, but opposed him politically on many issues.
In the Preface to American Patriot, Coram cites a line from the James Michener novel The Bridges of Toko-Ri:
“I recalled that line from James Michener when the admiral is standing on the bridge of an aircraft carrier watching his pilots take off against the terrible defenses at Toko-Ri and says to himself, ‘Where do we get such men?’”
Novelist, poet, biographer, and essayist, Jay Parini’s most recent book is Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America (ISBN 978-0-385-52276-2, $24.95). Here Parini has written literary essays about books which not only have shaped American history, but which also contributed to what Parini calls our “national myth.”
Some of Parini’s choices — The Federalist Papers and The Autobiography of Ben Franklin, for example — are conventional. Others are more daring, though they make sense when we consider their impact: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, The Feminine Mystique.
Parini is a fine writer who in Promised Land treats readers to his vast knowledge of literature and his love for American history.