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Vietnam POW Details His 8 Years of Captivity

“They wanted me to lead in, the first run at the target. An exploding round hit my airplane…” says Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris.

His wife Louise says, “They said, ‘Mrs. Harris, Smitty has been shot down and his plane was seen in a ball of fire and there was no chute sighted.’”

For Col. Carlyle Smitty Harris, a childhood dream of being a pilot became a reality when he enlisted in the U.S. Airforce in 1951 during the Korean War.

Smitty says, “I thought it was important as a support of our country. I really wanted to be a part of it.”

The war ended before Smitty was able to fly in Korea. However, he earned his wings and went on to advanced training. And in 1959, while assigned as a Check Pilot at Bainbridge Airbase in Georgia, he met Louise, who he married the same year.

“When we took our vows, we meant them,” says Smitty.

Smitty and Louise had no idea to what extent those vows would be tested.

It was now the 60’s, and the U.S. conflict in Vietnam was escalating.

Smitty says, “I was hoping I would go to Vietnam. I really wanted to be a part of it, that was my training, and we trained and trained and trained to do that job very well.”

Smitty got his wish, and he and his family shipped to Okinawa. By this time, he and Louise had two young daughters and a baby on the way.

“It was a pretty big move, but I knew that he would be there and we would be fine,” says Louise. 

On April 4, 1965, not long after settling, Smitty received an order to bomb a bridge in North Vietnam.

“There were just all kinds of guns down there and so every gun on the ground is shooting. I dropped my bombs, an exploding round hit my airplane, immediately I lost my engine. And with no power and it on fire…I ejected from the airplane,” Smitty says.

Meanwhile, Louise received the news that every military spouse dreads.

“Of course, I worried. I cried.  And the children, we’d pray every night on our knees for daddy,” Louise says.

Smitty was quickly captured and taken as a prisoner of war.

The interrogations were brutal, as he and other prisoners would endure all manner of torture, but Smitty found the strength to resist. 

Smitty states soberly, “You don’t have a choice. Training was part of it. We knew, deep down, you had to believe in something bigger than yourself and we believed that was God. And we prayed.”

Several months passed. Still not knowing the fate of Smitty, Louise and the children were sent back home to Tupelo, Mississippi.

Then one day, she got a phone call.

Louise recalls, “The postmaster, Mr. Banks Livingston called me, and he said, ‘Mrs. Harris, I may be crazy, but I think I have a letter from your husband here.’ And it was like manna from heaven.”

Louise finally had proof that Smitty was alive. His letters would continue to trickle in as the years passed, and he still wasn’t home.

“He always tried to reassure me that he was well and that he was being well treated, which I knew wasn’t so. When I would pray every night, ‘Take care of him, and that if he was hurting to help sooth him…’ and it made me feel a connection to him,” Says Louise.

Meanwhile, Smitty knew that in order to survive, they needed to somehow encourage each other. So he introduced them to a World War II from of communication using tapping sounds…

So I taught them the tap code. And the people in the other cells, and then a couple new P.O.W.’S came in and a couple left, and wherever any P.O.W. went and had communication with another P.O.W., they would teach them the tap code,” Smitty says.

Because hope was kept alive, hundreds of P.O.W.’s lives were strengthened and saved.

And January 27, 1973, eight years after Smitty had been captured, the Paris Peace Accord was signed and Smitty and thousands of P.O.W.’s went home.

“Thank you, God. Yeah, I was overcome, really,” Smitty says.

Louise says, “I always believed he’d come home. I had never dreamed in my wildest dreams it would be that long.”

Smitty went on to write about his experience as a Vietnam P.O.W. in his book, Tap Code.

It’s been almost fifty years since the Harris family was reunited and they have never dwelled on the negative; choosing instead to embrace the optimism Smitty has always clung to.

“Every day is such a blessing to us, and we enjoy every day so much,” says Louise.

Smitty says, “More by example than anything else, I guess we try to instill the same kind of values in our children and grandchildren. That is going to be a great influence in their lives.”

Buy Smitty's book, "Tap Code".

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