Image: Retired Colonel George 'Bud' Day
Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Retired Col. George "Bud" Day is a staunch supporter of fellow Vietnam War POW Sen. John McCain.
updated 7/11/2008 1:41:41 PM ET 2008-07-11T17:41:41

In the decades since they shared a prison cell in North Vietnam, George “Bud” Day has remained a close friend of Republican John McCain and emerged as a staunch opponent of Democrats seeking the presidency.

As he did in 2004, when he took the lead in questioning Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam War record, Day is eager this fall to do whatever he can to retain the White House for the Republicans — especially this Republican.

“I just want everyone to understand the difference between a board-certified physician and a student in medical school, because that is the difference,” Day said, comparing McCain with Democratic rival Barack Obama. “Who would want a student in medical school operating on them?”

‘Better than his wife’
Day, 83, a former Air Force colonel who earned the Medal of Honor and dozens of other honors for his service during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, was held in a Hanoi prison for six years, off and on in the same cell as McCain.

“I know him extremely well, better than his wife,” Day joked in a telephone interview.

That experience, Day said, has influenced his support for McCain and other Republicans as well as his contempt for the Democratic presidential candidates in 2004 and 2008.

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1925, Day quit high school to join the Marine Corps and then served 30 months in the Pacific. After earning a law degree, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Iowa Air National Guard in 1950. A year later, he was called to active duty for flight training and went on to serve two tours as a fighter pilot in Korea, then decided to make the Air Force a career.

He was flying an F-100, attacking missile sites in North Vietnam on Aug. 26, 1967, when his plane was hit. He ejected, breaking his arm and injuring his back in the process.

“I hit the ground real hard and when I woke up they had me,” he said.

After escape attempts and torture, Day was imprisoned. McCain, a Navy pilot, was shot down two months after Day.

Lasting impressions
If McCain left a lasting impression on Day, then so did a young Navy veteran named John Kerry who spoke critically about the war before a congressional committee in 1971. Day was deeply offended, and in 2004 he had a chance for payback.

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Day joined a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which accused Kerry of inflating his record in Vietnam. Other veterans and reporters disproved many of the accusations, yet Day stands by the group and its aims.

This campaign, Day hasn’t been shy about criticizing Obama.

“He’s basically never done anything, been anyplace,” Day said. “John has been every place and proven himself as a leader. We’re at war. We need a leader.”

Day said he’ll report for duty wherever he’s needed by the McCain campaign. And he may be needed in Iowa. David Roederer, the chairman of McCain’s campaign in Iowa, said most strategists believe Obama starts there with an edge over McCain.

“It’s extremely helpful because Sen. McCain is, frankly, reluctant to talk about his own ordeal he went through as a prisoner of war,” Roederer said. “Bud Day saw it firsthand and nobody is in a better position to say what happened and what didn’t happen.”

How much of a boost?
Others aren’t sure that Day can do that much on the Republican’s behalf. McCain’s war record is already widely known, they say, and voters likely to be won over by it are probably already supporters.

“In a way, he’s trying to create his own base and I think he sees his base as military-veteran types,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford. “Religious conservatives thus far have not been his base and he’s still in the process, odd as it seems, of assembling his base.”

Day still practices law, primarily representing veterans with service-related disabilities. He says he can always make time for McCain.

“He’s probably one of the three or four best people in the world,” Day said. “He’s got the right stuff in spades.”

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