Col. Day, one of the nation’s most highly decorated servicemen since Gen. Douglas MacArthur and later a tireless advocate for veterans rights, died Saturday surrounded by family at his home in Shalimar, Fla., after a long illness, Doris Day said.
“He would have died in my arms if I could have picked him up,” she said.
Col. Day received the Medal of Honor for escaping his captors for 10 days after the aircraft he was piloting was shot down over North Vietnam. In all, he earned more than 70 medals during service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
In Vietnam, he was Mr. McCain’s cellmate at one camp known as the Plantation and later in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he was often the highest-ranking captive. During his imprisonment, the once-muscular, 5-foot-9 Col. Day was hung by his arms for days, tearing them from their sockets. He was freed in 1973 — a skeletal figure of the once dashing fighter pilot. His hands and arms never functioned properly again.
“As awful as it sounds, no one could say we did not do well. (Being a POW) was a major issue in my life and one that I am extremely proud of. I was just living day to day,” he said in a 2008 interview with The Associated Press. “One really bad cold and I would have been dead.”
In a statement Sunday, Mr. McCain called Col. Day a great patriot and said he owed his life to the man.
“He was the bravest man I ever knew, and his fierce resistance and resolute leadership set the example for us in prison of how to return home with honor,” Mr. McCain said.
Born on Feb. 24, 1925, in Sioux City, Iowa, where the airport is named for him, Col. Day joined the Marines in 1942 while still in high school. He returned home, graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in 1949. He entered the Iowa National Guard in 1950 and attended flight school. He was called to active duty in the Air Force the next year and did two tours as a bomber pilot in the Korean War.
In the spring of 1968, Col. Day’s North Vietnamese captors opened his cell door and brought in Mr. McCain, who was wearing a full body cast and was nearly dead. Mr. McCain had been in isolation for seven weeks and could not wash or feed himself, Col. Day wrote in “Return With Honor,” his 1989 autobiography.
“We were the first Americans he had talked to. … We were delighted to have him, and he was more than elated to see us,” Col. Day wrote. They helped nurse Mr. McCain.
After the war and his release, Col. Day retired to the Florida Panhandle in 1977 and practiced law, becoming a crusader for health care benefits for veterans. He took his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 lawsuit that alleged the government reneged on its promise to provide free lifetime health care to hundreds of thousands of Korean War and World War II veterans.
The high court declined to hear an appeal of the case brought on behalf of two Panhandle retirees, but the legal action was credited with prompting Congress to pass legislation in 2000 expanding the military’s TRICARE health insurance program to include veterans over age 65 who had served at least 20 years or were medically retired.