Reader's Comments

RaNae Vaughn     Iuka, MS
Thank you for your service and commitment to us, Col. Harris.  It warms my heart to hear the positive comments.  You will never be forgotten!  Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Kathryn L. Stephens      Tupelo
Smitty, I am so proud of you.......for your service to our country as well as for all you have done for this area.  I'm so glad I have been able to know you and Louise even a bit!  Thanks, too, for allowing me to interview you for the project sponsored by the local historical and genealogical society.  Your tape is available at the Lee County Library, and it adds so much to the collection.  All of us owe you so much!

Pam Presley Cousar    New Albany MS
Thank you Mr Harris ! Warms my heart to hear about your service to our country and your dedication to our Lord ! My words cannot express how Thankful I am !

Paulette Nicholson Trenary    Raleigh, NC
Thank you for your service and sacrifice for our country. The Harris family are all American heroes for the sacrifices they made. Mrs. Louise is a loving and caring wife and mother. She always held strong to the faith that you would return. My family will never forget when she called us to say you were coming home. BEST DAY EVER...taking off your POW bracelet, knowing you were home with your wife and sweet children. Lyle will always be special to Lance and me because he was in our wedding and one of Lance's dearest friends growing up in Tupelo. Thank you again!

Howard Robertson    Grenada MS
I can not imagine 2,871 days in a Hanoi prison. I read your story with a hope that I get to shake your hand and thank you personally for your service to our nation. My son Drew Robertson speaks very highly of you and has told me what a fine person you are. God bless you and God bless America.

Carolyn     Tupelo MS
Smitty or Daddy as I know him remains the greatest hero I have ever known. He is a wonderful example of how faith; devotion, to much more than country; and an amazing can-do attitude called will, can guide you to success.  He is truly an amazing and inspiring and loving man. How lucky am I to call him Dad!?

Suellen Lambert Young     Montgomery, AL
Robin Harris was my best friend in the whole world and Col. Harris has been my hero ever since.  Mama Louise loved and cared for me like her own.  This entire family is a blessing in my life.  Many times I have thought of what Col. Harris and his family survived when I think I have it tough, and it gives me the strength and courage to keep on trying.  I was so proud to see this article.

Lyle Harris    Tupelo MS
Love you Dad. I am proud of you and I have the greatest love and respect for you. You are a wonderful father. Lyle

Jack Harris     Tupelo MS
Thanks Granddad! We are so happy to have you in our lives.

Camie Cole    Tupelo MS
I am beyond proud of my grandfather, Smitty Harris.

Sharon Tallman     Tupelo MS
There are no words to express my thanks to this man for his service and all he endured as a POW.

Steve Blaylock   Tupelo, MS
The respect I have always for vietnam vets or any vet grew stronger as I read this. I was taught by my dad to pray for our country, our people serving and love and respect our flag that has been fought so hard for. These people deserve so much and a simple thank you seems so small. Thank you Colonel Harris for sharing but most of all for surviving.

Becky Lambert     New Site, MS
AWESOME!  I am a Gold Star Mother, and sister to a Marine that served in Vietnam, this made chill bumps go over me!  Thank you, Colonel, for your service to our Country, and to all of us back home!  May God Bless You and Your family!

Ricky Lesley     Mooreville, MS
Thanks so very much for going above and beyond and for standing for all that is good in U.S.A. I salute you and your family for the sacrifices you made. God Bless America. Again I say THANKS

Robert Ragsdale     Fulton MS
I just want to thank u for your service to our country, may god bless you in everyway.I would like to meet you one day and shake your hand and thank you personally.

TL Coggin   Saltillo, Ms.
Thank You for what you did for me and all citizens of the United States of America. I praise your family for the strength they showed even in the worst of circumstances. Hero is not a grand enough word for you Colonel Harris and as I read your own words I understand how God can use us for His Good Will even in the worst of times. When you learned the tap code little did you know then of the hundreds of lives you would save, by sharing that knowledge and your bravery you gave each and every prisoner a chance to save another brother. May God always Bless You and Your Family, a very thankful American and Christian ;  TL Coggin

Bill Lowry     Tupelo, MS
Years ago, I was in school with your daughter Robin at Milam.  I remember us as friends and classmates.  I even had a POW bracelet that alot of people were wearing, with Smitty's name on it!  We were all hoping for Robin's dad to come home soon.  Flash forward to just a few years ago, when my stepson (Justin Hoffman) asked Smitty to be his mentor on his Tupelo High School senior project. Smitty agreed, and helped Justin describe what life was like in the Hanoi Hilton POW camp. He also provided a lot of background information, and photographs to aid in Justin's project.  To this day, it has left a profound impact on our son...and us.  Thanks, Smitty, for your help with our son's project, and also your service to our country!

Colonel Carlyle "Smitty" Harris (USAF Retired)
Tupelo, MS
POW in Vietnam from April 4, 1965 to February 12, 1973

2,871 days. That’s how long Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris (USAF) of Tupelo spent as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, much of it in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Smitty became a POW on April 4, 1965 when his F-105 Thunderchief was shot down by enemy fire. He didn’t come home until February 12, 1973.

Smitty spent eight of his own birthdays in prison, the first just seven days into his imprisonment. But that didn’t bother him that much. What did bother him were the eight anniversaries he missed with his wife, Louise. What hurt him was not being able to see his two daughters, Robin and Carolyn, go from toddlers to young ladies. What crushed him was missing the birth of his youngest son, Lyle.

But for all that bothered him, hurt him, and crushed him, there were three things that sustained him. The first was an unwavering faith in an Almighty God. The second was an undying devotion to the country he loved and the men he was imprisoned with. The last was the sheer will and determination that he would see his family once again.

It all started the first week of April 1965. Captain Smitty Harris was due for some leave time in Thailand to rest and relax for a week. But when he got word from his squadron commander that they had been given the mission of attacking the Thanh Hoa Bridge, a very important target in North Vietnam, Smitty decided to stay put. The bridge, known as "The Dragon's Jaw", was a 540-foot steel and concrete structure. It was also heavily defended. The first bombing run made on the bridge on April 3, 1965 had resulted in no damage. The bombs had simply bounced off the bridge's side.

On the morning of April 4, Captain Smitty Harris was the first to turn his F-105 down towards the bridge and make a run. His jet plunged towards the target in a dive while anti-aircraft shells burst around him. He made it safely through, releasing his bombs dead on target. But as Smitty pulled his F-105 out of its dive and throttled up to get out of the hot zone, his plane was hit. Smoke quickly filled the cockpit and the aircraft jerked uncontrollably. Realizing he had no chance of getting control of his plane and no chance of making it to the safety of the Gulf of Tonkin, Smitty ejected. In a flash, he was propelled out of the aircraft and into the sky, his parachute opening automatically. His plane plummeted to the jungle below as he slowly drifted down.

Immediately, Smitty began trying to figure out a route of escape. But when he looked down he could see that dozens of people from a small village were already following his every move. They were tracking him, and when he finally hit the ground, it took less than a few seconds for the villagers to pounce. They tore him from his ejection seat and began taking out their anger on him, dragging him toward their village. Smitty felt certain that he was going to die, but the beating was stopped by an elderly man in the village. Smitty couldn't understand a word he said, but he knew that man had saved his life. He would spend that night, his first of 2,871 in captivity, being transported in the back of a truck to Hanoi, a blindfold covering his eyes.

Captain Smitty Harris was the fifth prisoner to arrive at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. Along with his fellow prisoners, he experienced extreme cruelty at the hands of the North Vietnamese. There were intense periods of torture, isolation, and loneliness. Prisoners were also denied needed medical attention and exposed to extreme temperatures. In his first several months in prison, Smitty was held in total isolation in a tiny cell just a few feet wide and a few feet deep. Sitting in the darkness for days on end was as hard if not harder than the moments of torture.

One year into his imprisonment, Smitty was placed in a cell with three other POWs for a very short period of time. Smitty used that time to teach the men a method of communicating called the "tap code". He had learned it from one of his instructors at survival school, in what Smitty described as an informal, after class conversation. That conversation would prove crucial. The four men together then committed to teaching the tap code to every man in the prison.

The tap code consisted of placing each letter of the alphabet into a 5x5 grid. Each letter was represented by two taps. The first tap told the number going across, the second tap told the number going down. The two taps together resulted in a letter. The letter "A" was "1 tap followed by 1 tap". The letter "B" was "1 tap followed by 2 taps". Prisoners eliminated the letter "K", using the letter "C" whenever a "K" was needed. Within a matter of weeks, the "tap code" had been installed as a means of silent communication and coordination between the Hanoi Hilton prisoners. New prisoners were taught the code within days of arriving at the camp.

The code was credited with helping more than 300 POWs maintain a chain of command and morale, even under the most severe torture.  Basically, the tap code became the men’s lifeline. It was their primary way of supporting one another in what was at most times a very isolated existence.

While the tap code helped Smitty Harris stay connected with the men in his prison, it was much harder to stay connected with his family back home. His wife moved their family from their house in Okinawa to stay with members of her family living in Tupelo. They were able to exchange a handful of letters, but communication was few and far between. Smitty was able to learn from a fellow prisoner whom he had been stationed with at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, that his wife had given birth to a son just one month after Smitty had been captured.
That was easily the hardest part of the whole ordeal - not being able to know on a day to day basis what was happening in his family's life.

That ordeal ended on February 12, 1973, when Captain Smitty Harris was released from prison as the United States began its withdrawal from Vietnam. He was flown first to Clark AFB in the Philippines and later to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL. His homecoming meant the oppportunity to see his wife and daughters again. It also meant the first chance to lay eyes on his son, Lyle. Here is what was happening in Smitty's mind and heart the moment he first saw his family:

As I walked down the ramp of that airplane at Maxwell Air Force Base I was thinking over all the questions that had plagued me for the last week when I found out that we POWs were to be released. Had Louise changed, would Robin and Carolyn remember dad, and the biggest unknown was Lyle. Well, I was about to find out.

I was directed to a staff car and entered the back seat - in the dark I had not been able to see inside - and there was Louise.   She had never looked more beautiful. On the way to the Officer’s Quarters she briefed me that waiting there were not only the kids but my Mom and Dad, my brother, Louise’s mother, her sister and husband Dick and their two children, and Louise’s grandmother. I had hoped to spend a day or two with just Louise, perhaps in Hawaii, to catch up all the family news so I would be better able to respond to them. But, this was exciting too. I was just bursting to see our son. As I stepped into the quarters, both Robin and Carolyn squealed and came running to jump in my arms. Oh thank you Lord, they hadn‘t forgotten. They had grown to be lovely young women -I was overcome with emotion and tears of joy rolled down my face.

Then there was Lyle. I picked him up and hugged him for a long time, and it didn’t bother me that he didn’t hug back. I knew that would take a little time. Louise had always talked about me to the kids, and she said that when planes flew over, Lyle, even as a little boy, often remarked to his mom, “There goes daddy”. But, the man picking him up was still a stranger.

I was, of course delighted to see all the others, especially Mom and Dad. I had worried about their health, since both were elderly. The whole room was almost chaos with talk and laughter. I had purchased gifts for everyone while I was at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, en route home. And they all had gifts for me. After about thirty or forty minutes, while I sitting in a large easy chair and opening a gift, I looked around for Lyle and found him in a corner, just watching me. I turned and opened my arms toward him and he came running, jumped in my lap, and threw his arms around my neck in a big hug. Again, Oh thank you Lord.

After returning from Vietnam, Captain Harris became Colonel Harris, serving in the Air Force until 1979. After that he attended law school at Ole Miss and worked in business, law, and marketing for the next several years. Today, Colonel Smitty Harris lives in Tupelo with his wife Louise. When he looks back at his time in the Hanoi Hilton, Smitty Harris actually says in the end it had a positive effect. What his captors used to weaken and break him, actually made him stronger. It's not that he would do the whole ordeal again if given the chance - he certainly would not. But it was the knowledge that through almost eight years of imprisonment and torture, he never let the guards at the prison break his will or crush his spirit.

As a matter of fact, Smitty Harris recalls a deep sense of pride coming over him as he made his final exit from the prison. As he passed the men who had abused him so long, Smitty had the strong sense that he had beaten his captors at the game they tried to play. For almost eight years he took the very worst they had to dish out, yet he remained a strong, focused, and faithful soldier. They may have spent 8 years beating Smitty Harris, but in the end it was Smitty Harris who beat them. Not with his hands, nor with a weapon, but with the strength he drew from his God, the faith he felt with his fellow prisoners, and the love he had for his family back home.

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Colonel Smitty Harris of Tupelo spent nearly 8 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, including several years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. 

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This photo of Smitty Harris was taken after his return from Vietnam. Pilots who were POWs had to go through a retraining process in order to be able to fly again, proving themselves physically and mentally capable of handling aircraft. This photo was taken before Smitty Harris was shot down. On one particular occasion, Smitty Harris and the other POWs of the Hanoi Hilton were forced to walk through the streets in a parade. The people of the city abused the prisoners as they made their way by. This photo was taken upon Smitty Harris' return to Clark AFB in the Philippines. Smitty Harris addresses the media and a crowd that gathered upon his return from Vietnam. In the background is his wife, waiting for him in a staff car. Smitty Harris did not realize at this moment that his wife was right behind him waiting. This a version of the F-105 Thunderchief that then Captain Harris flew over North Vietnam. It was capable of reaching Mach 2, over 1,500mph. 382 F-105s were lost during the Vietnam War. This photo shows an F-105 being shot down over Vietnam. This is not a photo of Smitty Harris' aircraft. The pilot in this photo was taken as a POW and released in 1973.Col. Smitty Harris at Columbus AFB prepares for a flight in a T-6 Texan.