Captain Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, of Tupelo, who spent eight years in a Vietnamese prison camp, will speak about his POW experiences, at the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at noon. His recently released book “Tap Code”telling about his “Hanoi Hilton” experiences will be available at the event
On April 4, 1965 Harris’s F-105D “Thud” airplane was shot down near Ham Rong bridge at Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam. He survived to become a the sixth American POW captured in the air war over North Vietnam, and for the next eight years, Smitty and hundreds other American POWs , including the late Senator John McCain suffered torture, solitary confinement and abuse.
During the period of imprisonment, the prisoners’’ dignity was assaulted , their bodies and minds were bruised and battered , but in the midst of the struggle Smitty remembered once learning the Tap Code – an old long unused World War II method of communication through tapping on a common water pipe. He covertly taught the code to many POWs and in turn they taught others.
This Tap Code became a lifeline throughout the prison. Simple and effective, the Tap Code quickly spread throughout the prison and became one of the most covert ways for POWs to communicate without their captor’s knowledge, he recalled. It was a morale booster; a vehicle of unity and a way to communicate the chain of command in helping the prisoners prevail over a brutal enemy. “We often said, ‘They have beaten us physically but we can fight them with our minds.”
On Thanksgiving 1966, with is hands tied behind his back, he tells, “I backed up to the wall that connected our two cells and began tapping , describing in detail an imaginary Thanksgiving dinner . It did not take Ron (another prisoner in a separate cell) long to chime in, tapping back his favorite holiday foods, complete with the perfect pairing of wine. After several hours of exhausting all our ideas for the perfect Thanksgiving meal, I tapped a final message to Ron: “Ron, now that we’ve concocted this great meal together, why don’t you come on over?”
Without missing a beat, Ron replied by tapping, “ I would Smitty, but I am all tied up today.”
“Maintaining a sense of humor, despite our horrific circumstances, was a balm to my weary soul.”
Harris and his fellow prisoners’ were not the only one suffering during this long period of imprisonment and uncertainty. Back home, his wife Louise was raising their three children along and unsure of her husband’s fate. “Ialways believed Smitty was coming home,” said Louise. “So, I made up my mind early on that we would live as if Daddy was going to walk through the door at any minute. I wanted the children to know exactly what Smitty liked, what he thought was funny, and what he would not approve of.”
Their story, told through both Smitty’s and Louise’s voices shares the details of American history while weaving the Harris’s inspiring story of love, honor, courage as they endured a remarkably hard period of their lives.
Harris rose to the rank of Air Force Colonel. He received many decorations during his Air Force Career, including two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merits, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts, and the Eagle Award through the Gathering of Eagles foundation. His tin cup from his days as a POW is now in the Smithsonian.
The event at the museum, located at 114 Cleveland Street, New Albany, is free and a light lunch will be served. For more information call 662-538-0014.
Harris, former Vietnam POW, speaks at the museum Nov. 20