Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris (Ret.) was the fifth longest-held American prisoner during the Viet Nam war but still was able to find positives in the experience.
Smitty has told his story in the book “Tap Code,” referring to the means prisoners were able to use to communicate.
He was a guest at the Union County Heritage Museum Wednesday to talk about his experiences before an over-flow crowd.
“He has a perspective on life few of us have,” friend Jim Henson said in introducing Harris.
Harris was shot down April 4, 1965 and not released until Feb. 12, 1973. That’s 2,871 days, often filled with brutal interrogation, torture and other hardship.
He ran into trouble leading a group in to bomb a large bridge, flying an F-105. Harris described it as a very capable plane, but at the time it was carrying eight 750-pound bombs and two extra 450-gallon fuel tanks, somewhat limiting the aircraft’s response.
“I was barely above the horizon when some lucky gunner hit the engine area,” he said. “With only one engine, you’re in trouble. Also, the aircraft was on fire.”
Harris ejected successfully, but broke his shoulder and damaged a knee in the process. However, he found himself directly above a Vietnamese village.
He landed, but before he could use his personal radio to let others know he was alive, he was captured and stripped to his shorts by a group of young men he described as “very, very irate.”
As a result, none of his comrades knew he was still alive, having only seen the crash, although he said his wife never abandoned belief that he was alive.
There appeared to be some talk in the village of executing him but older men intervened. It turns out that the people are well-disciplined and had been told to capture prisoners alive because of their potential value for propaganda or exchange.
Harris tried to stand as straight and formal as he could under the circumstances. “I was still an Air Force officer,” he said he wanted to demonstrate.
Harris was blindfolded and moved a couple of times and interrogated some by local personnel. Two male and one female Vietnamese soldiers came to see him, apparently out of curiosity, and he was told it was the female who shot him down. Whether it was serious, he did not know but he said he was essentially propositioned about having a child with the female.
At one point he was brought out on display before an angry crowd being worked up by loudspeakers. “They said I was an American criminal trying to kill or eradicate North Vietnam,” Harris said.
Eight guards were with him at one time but some “chickened out” and abandoned him as the crowd hit and threw things at him.
As he continued to refuse to provide any military information an officer said, “Things are going to get very bad for you,” and Harris added, “They did.”
He continued to be questioned and again displayed, with 10 to 15 guards to keep the angry people away.
Eventually he ended up in Hanoi, having been blindfolded much of the time, receiving no medical treatment or water. “I had sweated a lot and suffering from thirst I could not even image,” he said.
He was placed in an old French-built prison dating from the 1800s.
Interrogation resumed immediately with Harris being struck repeatedly for not cooperating but that type of questioning was eventually abandoned when it was found to be ineffective.
“Then things changed,” Harris said. “They told me about Vietnamese history and the glories of communism. They were trying to convert me.”
Gradually life settled into a sort of routine and Harris learned there were three, and later four, other American prisoners in the small eight-cell block. They were allowed to intermingle.
“The next two weeks were good,” he said. “We talked, planned about evading interrogation and supported each other.”
It was then that Harris recalled something called the tap code, which had been used in World War II. It involves putting letters of the alphabet in a Bingo-like block of five rows and five columns. The letter “k” is omitted, or sometimes paired with “c.”
To send a letter, tap the number of the row first, and column second.
“It’s very easy to learn,” Harris said.
And in a few days they were all back in solitary confinement instead of being able to meet. “We were able to tap lightly,” he said, with the invitation to communicate using the old “shave and a haircut” knock.
The tap code allowed the prisoners to determine the senior officer at any given time and that officer determined the action everyone would take in response to interrogation or other circumstances. This also gave a feeling of community and helped morale, he said. “We exchanged names and were able to learn about families some from later captures.”
“What’s more, it gave us pride that we were doing our best to evade interrogation,” he said. “We were winning.”
His captors then resorted to “the worst kind of torture,” Harris said. A specialty was the “rope trick,” which was tying prisoners in various ways that strained parts of the body and causing incredible pain, sometimes leading to bones coming out of joint.
“There was eventually such pain that we had to do something,” he said.
And that “something” was to write propaganda statements. “They wanted us to write statements that our treatment was good – which was far from the truth,” he said.
But the effect was not what the Vietnamese intended.
“We wrote in slang, double meaning and sometimes used words we shouldn’t,” he said. “They didn’t understand how rich our language is.”
Of course the Americans immediately realized the irony and duress hidden in the statements and, eventually, the Vietnamese found out as well. “So they didn’t try to use it again,” he said.
Although the enemy did try to use one letter to present for a war crimes tribunal. A Navy pilot supposedly wrote that two comrades were anti-war and refusing to obey orders. He even named then: Dick Tracy and Clark Kent. This eventually came back to the pilot who suffered for it, Harris said.
For most of his captivity Harris was moved a lot and put in solitary confinement a lot. “The food was awful,” he said. “They fed us two times a day, usually a small bowl of rice and a bowl of soup that was really just hot water with some vegetables or leaves in it.”
“Most men lost 20 percent of their body weight,” he said. “I went from 160 to 115 and I was in pretty good shape so there was not a lot of fat on me.”
Finally, the food began to get better and prisoners learned of the Paris peace talks going on.
What made the difference was in 1972 when President Nixon finally allowed the military to go all out and hit major target around Hanoi and other cities.
“So in 12 days they suddenly wanted to negotiate peace,” Harris said. “That could have happened eight years earlier.”
So in January 1972 he was released and able to talk by phone with his wife from the Philippines. Alone with three children including a son Harris has never seen, she have moved to Tupelo where her sister lived and made it on her own, eventually confirming though a letter that her husband was a prisoner and alive.
“The essence of this whole experience, when the worst thing happens in your life, is it usually ends up a positive in your life,” he said.”
“We were much better Christians than when we went in,” he said. “We turned to the one person who could help us. We prayed.”
“We didn’t get the personal miracles but we gained strength,” he continued. “And all those personal miracles occurred on His schedule, not ours.”