Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris endured isolation and torture as a prisoner of war for almost eight years during the Vietnam War.
Even still, Harris and fellow POWs could not be stopped from having church.
“We know that we gained from that experience,” Harris said. “We became much closer to God and returned to Him. We actively prayed on Sunday even when we were in solitary confinement. On Sunday mornings, I’d thump on the wall that day, if we were able to, get down on our knees and say the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and any private prayers we wanted to. That was our Sunday service. Later, sometimes in groups of POW cells, we would sing hymns and someone would be designated to give an inspirational talk.”
Harris shared his survival story in his recently released biography, “Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything.”
‘I thought it was all over’
On April 4, 1965, the North Vietnamese shot down Harris’ F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber.
“The North Vietnamese were waiting for us,” Harris said. “They had seen us coming. They had every possible gun on the ground … It was of no concern to me because I was making my dive bomb run and wanted to get my sight picture perfect and all the switches, dive angle and release point correct. Just as I got above the horizon, an explosive round hit my airplane’s engine area … it was a huge bump. I knew I was hit.”
Harris’ plane caught fire, forcing him to eject and parachute into enemy territory.
“I parachuted in total quiet,” Harris added. “What a change from total chaos moments before that. My first thought was to escape capture. To my dismay, directly below me, was a large, Vietnamese village and in every direction rice fields. There was no place to take cover. They quickly identified me as the guy who was bombing their bridge. As soon as I hit the ground, I was overpowered almost immediately by several men.”
They stripped Harris of his gear all the way down to his skivvies. North Vietnamese civilians were told to capture American soldiers alive.
“One of them pushed me off this levee I was on and picked up his rifle, and I guess was going to shoot me on the spot, but some older people dissuaded him,” he said. “Right at the edge of the village, this same irate, young man pushed me up against the side of a broken-down wall, and he had three of his friends with rifles about 15 feet away. He put his finger on my forehead as an aim point. I thought it was all over … I wanted to stand tall and straight and look military. That’s hard to do in shorts. Some older men, again, went in between us.”
Band of brothers
Harris was sent to Hoa Lò prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Back home, Harris’ wife, Louise, was pregnant and raising two children on her own.
POWs at the Hanoi Hilton were interrogated by guards, starved, tortured and threatened with death.
“The most important thing was our ability to form relationships with our fellow POWs and communicate with them in one way or another and find out things about them and their lives,” Harris said. “We would discuss the best ways to answer interrogation questions and plans for escape. We were much stronger if we could work in unison than if we worked individually. We passed all sorts of information between us, everything from language, mathematics, literature and history. You name it, someone could provide an answer.”
With guards on the lookout 24/7 and 16-inch concrete walls between cells, prisoners needed to find creative ways to communicate.
Harris introduced his fellow prisoners to the tap code, which was used by World War II POWs who tapped on pipes to communicate.
This technique spread throughout the camp as the most covert way to communicate.
“It permitted us to communicate with our knuckles through a 16-inch wall and someone listening at the proper spot on the other side could hear, and we could actively communicate back and forth very quickly,” Harris added.
POWs also pressed their tin cups against the wall, wrapped their mouths in a blanket to muffle their voices and then talked into the cup for the listener on the other side of the wall.
“They were never, ever able to stop our communication,” he said. “I think that’s one of the secrets of doing well in Vietnam, coordinating our efforts and coming home with honor and pride.”
Harris and many of his fellow POWs were released Feb. 12, 1973. Harris received two Silver Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts and three Legion of Merit awards.