FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. — The occasion for Sunday’s celebration that spilled out the doors of Magnolia Grill was one that comes once in a man’s lifetime.
With a life like this man’s, it was one that some might have thought would never come.
Retired Air Force Col. Bud Day celebrated his 88th birthday Sunday.
The war hero and veteran’s activist was surrounded by hundreds of family members, friends, fellow veterans and community members who had been touched by his service and the work he has done.
“For Bud to make it to 88 years is a tremendous triumph,” said Ron Webb, who shared the same cell with Day when they were prisoners during the Vietnam War. “We are very pleased that he is still with us today.”
Webb, 75, said he and Day were bunkmates in 1967 in a camp in Hanoi called “The Plantation.” He already had been there for about six months when Day arrived.
“I was there when he was hobbling down the camp,” he said. “He was badly injured, badly tortured. It was quite a sight to see him.”
Day was captured after his plane crashed in August 1967 in North Vietnam, according to his Medal of Honor citation.
He had ejected from the plane and his arm was broken in three places from the fall. He was captured almost immediately, interrogated and severely tortured.
He was able to escape into the jungle and head south, suffering injuries from rocket or bomb shrapnel, surviving on berries and uncooked frogs and using a bamboo log to cross the Ben Hai River.
Under duress, he lost his sense of direction and wandered aimlessly for several days until he was recaptured by the Viet Cong. He was shot twice, taken back to jail and was totally debilitated, but continued to resist interrogation.
He was held prisoner for more than five years.
The citation said Day’s bravery as a prisoner of war saved the lives of fellow aviators who were still flying missions against the enemy.
This was all after serving with the Marine Corps as a teenager during World War II and as a fighter-bomber pilot in the Korean War.
“He’s a true American hero,” Webb said.
Many attendees shared his sentiment.
Patt Maney, himself a war veteran and now an Okaloosa County judge, has known Day for more than 30 years.
He said the entire Day family has sacrificed for the United States.
“His whole family has contributed a tremendous amount to the peace and security of our country,” he said.
Two of Day’s sons are retired from the Air Force. His grandson served three tours in Iraq, during which he was injured.
Also, after retiring from the military, Day became a tireless advocate for veterans.
He and his wife, Doris, led the charge against the federal government that eventually led Congress to reinstate some veteran’s benefits that had been stripped away.
The TRICARE lawsuit was itself a huge contribution that affected veterans nationwide, Maney said.
Day stood and then sat at a table at the front of the room greeting all the attendees.
Before the celebration began he had been flabbergasted when a group of about ten old “hunting buddies” from Sioux City, Iowa, where he grew up, showed up to surprise him.
Day said he was happy to see everyone he knows and loves in the same place at the same time.
He was more modest about his achievements than his friends.
“It’s what you are supposed to do,” he said of his military and community service. “Courage, dignity — that stands for something.”
He said he was blessed to get a good education from the G.I. Bill and that helped him go on to become a lawyer and a strong advocate for veterans.
Day said he is now struggling with a “bout of cancer” that has weakened him. He’s been in bed a lot these days.
“I’m kind of fragile right now ... but I’m vertical,” he joked.
He called Doris, his childhood sweetheart, to help him cut the birthday cake. It was printed with a photo of him and his son, George, sitting in the cockpit of a plane. His son’s 40th birthday is later this week.
Day’s sprits were high as he surveyed the room.
“I’m happy to be alive,” he said. “And happy to be in the U.S.A.”