One Airman and the little things that matter

  • Published
  • By Capt. Joshua Pope
  • 319th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron
Shortly after the end of World War II, a young Marine corporal stationed in Hawaii jumped the camp fence and "liberated" an officer's jeep for a trip into town. He was later caught and
found guilty in a court-martial. The act cost him his Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. Approximately 20 years later, that same corporal, now an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, was flying over North Vietnam on a secret mission. This mission, however, was different than all of the rest. The date is Aug. 26, 1967. This is where the story begins.

After bailing out of his crippled airplane, Misty 1 landed with a hard thud. Dazed and disoriented, he looked up to see a young Vietnamese boy. The boy, no older than 15, was pointing an old, rusty rifle at the beleaguered Airman.

Our Airman suffered from a compound fracture in his arm, a severely dislocated knee, and every blood vessel in his right eye had ruptured. His captors tossed him in a small hole about the size of a coffin and covered the hole with logs. His broken arm was lashed to the logs and his legs were tied together. When he was pulled out of his hole, he was beaten mercilessly by dozens of villagers, making his injuries worse. Eventually, the 42-year old pilot was tied to an A-frame structure and hung inverted for over 12-hours every day. Although he could have given up and relented to his fate, he never gave up hope of escape. To a second-mile leader, the little things matter.

On 1 Sept., our Airman's guards lost focus on their prisoner, providing an opportunity for escape. The prisoner loosened the ropes on his legs, eased out of his hole, and slipped away into darkness. As he started to run, he was on constant alert for the bullet that would bring a quick end to the entire ordeal. That bullet never came.

For 11 days, the severely injured Airman walked through the Vietnamese jungle for
17-miles to the demilitarized zone. Along the way, he avoided at least 21 enemy patrols, survived on berries and raw frogs, and sipped water from a canteen he "liberated" before his escape. Disoriented after days of walking through the jungle, our Airman wandered into an abandoned village. Suddenly, he heard a shout behind him. He turned toward the voice and identified two young Vietnamese holding Russian-made AK-47 rifles. He quickly computed his chances of escape and ran. He would not be captured without a fight. To a second-mile leader, the little things matter.

The sound of gunfire rang out all around him. A bullet struck his thigh and his left hand. Slowed by the bullet that tore through his body, his assailants caught up to him and he found himself recaptured.

Our Airman, now shot in addition to his original injuries, was marched back to a village and transferred several more times before ending up at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton." He would be an internee at three other North Vietnamese prisons over the next five years.

While in prison, our Airman resisted North Vietnamese interrogations with every breath. He was beaten and tortured with bamboo poles and strips of tire tread. He suffered from constant dysentery, lived in filth, and had worms. He was often locked in manicals which were tightened with screw locks until the circulation was cut off and his wrists were nearly broken.

Despite constant torture and pain, he never relented to enemy pressure to confess to war crimes and so-called American atrocities during the Vietnam War. He lived every day by the Code of Conduct and the motto Return with Honor. To a second-mile leader, the little things matter.

As our Airman and other Prisoners of War organized and formed the 4th Allied POW Wing, he took over duties as Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) of the group. He issued orders through primitive, yet successful methods and ensured all other prisoners adhered to the Code of Conduct. Have you figured out the identity of our Airman?

Second-mile leadership is not a light switch you can turn on-or-off in times of personal convenience. Second-mile leadership, as it has been so aptly described, is a lifestyle. Col. George E. "Bud" Day lived second-mile leadership throughout his career, but especially during his 5 years and 8 months locked in a 6-by-6 foot prison cell in North Vietnam. Being a prisoner of war, Day did not have the luxury to pick which days he would be the leader and which days he would stay in bed. Day lived leadership each and every day in captivity and continued his leadership long after his release.

Day wrote performance evaluations on every Air Force Prisoner of War within the 4th Allied POW Wing. These evaluations accurately depicted life and behavior as a POW and resulted in much deserved promotions and decorations for many captives. His evaluations also resulted in firings and retirements of repatriated prisoners who did not live up to the Code of Conduct and who did not serve as second-mile leaders during their captivity. To a second-mile leader, the little things matter.

Day did not just return home and retire, as was his right, he fought his way back to an active flying assignment and became the Vice Commander of the 33d Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base. While there, he led the wing in F-4 Phantom gunnery and bombing scores.

Day did not just lead in the cockpit. He made sure everyone knew that the little things counted just as much as the big ones. One night at the Officer's Club, Day was approached by a young officer. The young officer informed the colonel that the leather tab on his zipper is "extraneous" and "pilots don't wear those." As the (by now misguided) young officer started to cut away Day's zipper tab, the colonel knocked the flabbergasted officer to the floor. Now, I do not advocate one Airman assaulting another, but Day's point was that the leather tab came with the uniform and there it would stay. To a second-mile leader, the little things matter.

Because "Bud" Day kept his eye on the "little things" and lived second-mile leadership, he survived harrowing flights in the early age of jet aviation. He survived being shot down over North Vietnam. He survived capture, escape and evasion, and recapture. He survived nearly six years in horrid conditions within a North Vietnamese prison.

Because "Bud" Day lived second-mile leadership, he was presented with every combat decoration available, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, and remains the most decorated Air Force officer alive. Despite all of the medals and ribbons, he always regretted losing his Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal in 1947. Day always viewed that incident as a failure of his personal leadership. To a second-mile leader, the little things matter.

As the guest of honor at a Marine Corps Ball a few years after his retirement, Day was called to the carpet and informed that he was out of uniform. As Day was mentally scanning his uniform, the Marine Corps Commandant proudly pinned the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal on Day's lapel. Day promptly removed one of his combat ribbons and replaced it with his "new" award. You guessed it, to a second-mile leader, the "little things" matter.