On August 26, , Day, who now had 65 missions, was directing a flight of F-105s striking an enemy surface-to-air missile site near the DMZ in North Vietnam. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, destroying its hydraulics and sending it into a death spiral. As he ejected, he smashed into the fuselage, breaking his arm in three places and injuring his back. North Vietnamese militiamen below watched his parachute bloom and were waiting for him when he landed. They marched him to a camouflaged underground shelter and began a violent interrogation. When Day refused to answer their questions, his captors staged a mock execution, then hung him from a rafter by his feet. After several hours, the North Vietnamese, believing him to be so badly hurt that he wouldn’t try to escape, let Day down and tied him up with a loosely knotted rope.
Four days later, as a pair of distracted teenaged soldiers stood guard, Day managed to untie himself and escape. He headed south at the beginning of one of the most remarkable episodes of resistance and survival of the Vietnam war.
On his second night on the run, Day, feverish from his wounds, was dozing in thick undergrowth when a renegade bomb or rocket landed nearby. The concussion left him bleeding from his ears and sinuses and lanced one leg with shrapnel. Day collected himself and continued to hobble south, eating berries and frogs he trapped while successfully evading the enemy patrols on his trail.
Sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth day after his escape — by then Day had lost track of time — he heard helicopters and stumbled toward the sound. It was U.S. choppers evacuating a Marine unit and he limped toward the landing zone. But the helicopters left before he got close enough to get their attention. The next morning, still heading south, the delirious Day was spotted by an enemy patrol. He tried to hide in the jungle, but was shot in the hand and leg. He was recaptured within a mile or so of the U.S. Marine firebase at Con Thien.
Taken back to the camp from which he had escaped, he was subjected to starvation, staged execution and torture; his right arm was rebroken. He was held in an archipelago of camps as he was moved north, finally reaching the “Hanoi Hilton.”
When he arrived at the prison, his untreated wounds were infected, and he was suffering from malnutrition and unable to perform even the most rudimentary task for himself. The fingers on both hands had curled into fists; he regained some motion by peeling them back, flattening them against the wall of his cell and leaning into them with all his weight. His cellmate was John McCain, who himself had recently been nursed through his own physical nightmare. McCain, who would routinely refer to Day as “the bravest man I ever knew,” put together a homemade splint to help heal Day’s damaged arm.
Over the next five years, Day earned his reputation as one of the Hanoi Hilton’s hard men by offering maximum resistance 24 hours a day for all the days of his imprisonment. Subjected to unremitting torture, he gave his captors only false information. ...
On one well-remembered occasion in 1971, when rifle wielding guards burst into the cell where some of the prisoners were holding a forbidden religious service, Day moved closer to stare into the muzzles of the guns and began to sing The Star Spangled Banner. The other men, including James Stockdale, ranking U.S. officer in the prison, joined him.