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Year: 2019
Language: english
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The values of God, family, and country are a reflection of Col. Smitty Harris and what he represents. A true inspiration for all ages.

BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN M. RHODES,

U.S. Army National Guard


The incomprehensibly long ordeal of the Harris family is agonizing. Their love, faith, loyalty, and courage epitomize all that is good about America.

LT. COL. ORSON SWINDLE, USMC (ret.), POW,

Hanoi, 11/11/1966 to 3/4/1973


Tap Code is an incredible story about two American heroes. Col. “Smitty” Harris and his wife, Louise, epitomize the definition of commitment—to God, to country, and to family. This tale of extreme perseverance will restore your faith in the human spirit.

BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN NICHOLS, USAF


Tap Code is a hard road of reminiscence for those of us who were there, but an excellent history for those who have never known the terrors of war behind the lines of the enemy. The prison camps of North Vietnam were hell on earth, and those who know little about the POWs held captive will do well to read this book.

SAM JOHNSON, former U.S. representative

from Texas, Colonel USAF (ret.),

and ex-“Alcatraz” POW


“Smitty” Harris is one of the truest examples of our Air Force core values—integrity, service before self, excellence. As a pilot, I can attest to how Smitty’s Tap Code is an integral piece of our training today as we cultivate bold, innovative leaders who will continue the Long Blue Line and be ready, lethal pilots in the world’s greatest Air Force.

COLONEL SAMANTHA WEEKS, Commander,

14th Flying Training Wing, Columbus

Air Force Base, Mississippi


Col. “Smitty” Harris proudly served our great nation during the Vietnam War, and it is an honor to call him a trusted friend. He is known for his unwavering faith and loyalty to America.

TRENT KELLY, U.S. representative from Mississippi


Tap Code tells the true story of Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, who was shot down in North Vietnam on April 4, 1965. From the first sentence you find yourself thrust from his fighter jet and into the hands of people who want to kill the young pilot. Smitty has the reader living his stay in the Hanoi Hilton, surviving brutal interrogations, and celebrating his homecoming. This is a remarkable story of the unbreakable American spirit forged by combat, capture, and faith.

PHIL BRYANT, governor of Mississippi


If you’re interested in what it was like to be a POW of the North Vietnamese, or to be the wife of one, grab a copy of Tap Code immediately. No one has told this story better.

GENERAL CHUCK BOYD, USAF (ret.)





ZONDERVAN

Tap Code

Copyright © 2019 by Carlyle S. Harris and Sara W. Berry

Requests for information should be addressed to:

Zondervan, 3900 Sparks Dr. SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49546

Zondervan titles may be purchased in bulk for educational, business, fundraising, or promotional use. For information, please email SpecialMarkets@Zondervan.com.

ISBN 978-0-310-35911-1 (hardcover)

ISBN 978-0-310-35913-5 (audio)

ISBN 978-0-310-35912-8 (ebook)

Epub Edition September 2019 9780310359128

All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.Zondervan.com. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.®

Any internet addresses (websites, blogs, etc.) and telephone numbers in this book are offered as a resource. They are not intended in any way to be or imply an endorsement by Zondervan, nor does Zondervan vouch for the content of these sites and numbers for the life of this book.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or any other—except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without the prior permission of the publisher.

Art direction: Curt Diepenhorst

Cover design: Tim Green / Faceout Studio

Cover photography: Getty Images

Interior design: Kait Lamphere

Printed in the United States of America



* * *





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Information about External Hyperlinks in this ebook


Please note that the endnotes in this ebook may contain hyperlinks to external websites as part of bibliographic citations. These hyperlinks have not been activated by the publisher, who cannot verify the accuracy of these links beyond the date of publication





To all prisoners of war

who endured untold hardship,

this is for you.

To all the families of these POWs

who endured untold heartache,

this is for you.

To all captives everywhere,

whether captives in body or in soul,

this is for you.


May the words you find here

fill you with enduring hope, strength, and peace.

May you, with unveiled faces,

see the glory of the One

who came to set the captives free.





“This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you. The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,’ says the LORD.”

JEREMIAH 30:2–3





CONTENTS



Foreword

1. Carlyle Smith “Smitty” Harris

2. Louise Lambert Harris

3. Smitty

4. Smitty

5. Louise

6. Louise

7. Smitty

8. Smitty

9. Smitty

10. Louise

11. Smitty

12. Smitty

13. Louise

14. Smitty

15. Smitty

16. Smitty

17. Louise

18. Louise

19. Smitty

20. Louise

21. Louise

22. Smitty

23. Smitty

24. Smitty

25. Smitty

26. Smitty

27. Smitty

28. Smitty

29. Smitty

30. Louise

31. Smitty

32. Smitty

33. Smitty

34. Smitty

35. Louise

36. Smitty

37. Smitty

38. Smitty

39. Louise

40. Smitty

41. Louise

42. Smitty

43. Louise

44. Smitty

45. Louise

46. Smitty

47. Smitty

48. Louise

49. Smitty

50. Smitty

51. Smitty

52. Smitty

53. Smitty

Epilogue

Afterword

Acknowledgements

Tributes

Resources

Photos





FOREWORD


You are about to venture into a story so amazing that it’s difficult to imagine. As one who has known Smitty and Louise Harris for almost fifty years, I can tell you that it’s true and they are the real deal. These two are bright, wise, adventurous, and highly successful at everything they do. At the same time, they are highly regarded by others for their kindness and strong faith. They are also down-to-earth, fun-loving, and delightful to be around. They are unique—a married couple where both are superstars and both are elegantly humble.

On April 4, 1965, Smitty was the sixth American POW captured in the air war over North Vietnam. By the time I arrived two-and-a-half years later, he had already survived some of the worst treatment of the entire POW experience. Though a quiet captain and not the senior leader in the camp, Smitty had a monumental impact on the POW experience.

When writing and speaking about life as a POW, I refer to Smitty as the code bearer. As a young man spurred by his insatiable curiosity, Smitty learned a communication technique that we later called “the Tap Code.” What seemed like happenstance at the time now seems like a divine intervention to equip Smitty, one of the early arrivals in the camps, with a tool we all would desperately need in the days ahead.

In that medieval bastille known as the Hanoi Hilton, our captors’ goal was to divide and conquer the POWs. The prison’s sixteen-inch masonry walls were designed to isolate prisoners. Smitty took great risk and through resourcefulness and creativity spread the code that enabled our covert communication. Using the code, we could softly tap messages of encouragement to lonely neighbors and pass along resistance policies from our leaders. These vital communications lifted our spirits and gave us a united front throughout the camps. Admiral Stockdale (senior Navy POW) has commented that communications were the blood and sinew that kept us alive. Smitty was the code bearer who enabled us to connect and communicate—the two most vital needs of every POW.

Smitty and I were in the same camp for more than five years and cellmates for almost two years. Since he was the most experienced POW in our group, we looked to him for wisdom and sought his counsel on tactics for our resistance and survival.

Back in “the land of the free,” as we called it, Louise was proving to be a true warrior as well. As one of the first MIA wives of the war, she suffered the learning curve. The Air Force had virtually no policies in place to deal with her situation. Louise’s initiative solved problems for her and their three young children and paved a smoother path for spouses of future POWs.

Eventually the war ended, and we came home. For Smitty and Louise, it had been just two months shy of eight years. Most of us had a wonderful reunion and moved on. It seemed that the Harris family just stayed in the reunion mode—relishing their time together again. They are one of the closest families I’ve ever known. Smitty and Louise continue to be as amazing as ever. Though they are among the most senior of the Traditionalist Generation, they are always a charming couple, blending smoothly with the four generations that cycle through their home and social lives.

As you read this inspiring story, you will see that the strong adjectives I used above to describe Smitty and Louise fall short. Their life story may seem beyond imagination, but I know them well and have seen it firsthand—it’s real. Moreover, the way they have bounced back from suffering and sacrifice can be an inspiration to today’s weak culture. Their lessons of character, courage, and commitment could rescue and restore our nation. I’m inspired by their example, and I believe you will be as well. They are my role models, and I hope you will let them be yours too.

Col. Lee Ellis (ret.), former POW





1

CARLYLE SMITH “SMITTY” HARRIS


APRIL 4, 1965 11:00 A.M.


In one split second, I passed from the known to the unknown—from a comfortable, safe, and ordered life into a hostile environment filled with danger and trauma.

When I ejected from my crippled airplane, I had no thoughts of what lay ahead. I was too busy trying to survive the crash. It was a spontaneous act of desperation, conditioned by years of emergency training, that would give me some chance for survival.

I had trained for this. I knew exactly what to do and what would happen. My seat would fly off with great velocity and force, just after the glass canopy of the plane flew hundreds of feet up in the air. My mind and my emotions were on autopilot as I went through the motions.

In my frantic efforts to keep my F-105 flying, I had waited until the last moment to radio my squadron mates that I was ejecting. As a result, my left hand was still on the mike button when I pulled the trigger that would catapult me from my burning and lifeless craft. As my parachute snapped open, I felt a sharp, searing pain in my left shoulder. I had not placed my arm in the armrest that would prevent it from flailing in the wind blast when my body was hurled into space. For a moment I thought I was blinded, but I reached up to my face and found that my oxygen mask had slipped up over my eyes. Pulling it down, I saw my F-105 as it struck the ground and burst into a huge ball of fire.

Looking up, my parachute was beautiful. There was absolute silence and serenity as I floated noiselessly earthward. What a contrast from the screaming, frantic scene moments before.

Suddenly, my mind raced to my predicament. I must have been briefly mesmerized or possibly in shock. A Vietnamese village was directly below me, and I could see people running around. It finally sank in—I was in enemy country and would probably be there a long time.

There were no trees or other cover in the area—just open rice paddies and the village. My chances for evasion were nil. I reached up and grabbed my parachute risers with my right hand and was successful in slipping my chute sideways so I would float away from the village. I landed less than 100 yards from the thatched-roof huts and immediately tried to open my survival kit to get my emergency radio so I could alert my friends that I was safely on the ground. My left arm was limp and useless, which made it very difficult to open the emergency kit. Before I could get to the radio, loud, angry voices were yelling at me.

Villagers had already surrounded me and were closing in. I saw a few rifles, but most had sticks and hoes. Many of the men seemed almost as frightened of me as I was of them. As I looked around, the men in my line of sight would duck down behind a small levee or clump of grass as if I could harm them with my stare. However, the circle of men tightened, and a few brave ones finally rushed me and knocked me to the ground. I was armed with a snub-nosed .38 revolver strapped to my chest, but it had not even occurred to me to try to fight my way out of these impossible odds, so the gun was still in its holster.

The villagers quickly began to strip me of all my gear. However, the process was as frustrating for them as for me because they had trouble with all the snaps and zippers on my flight gear. While several men held my upper torso on the ground, two men tried to pull my flight suit over my heavy high-top boots, but that didn’t work, so they began to remove the boots. A heavy zipper ran down each boot for quick donning, but the Vietnamese ignored the zippers and laboriously unlaced each boot down to the toe before pulling it off. Finally, I was clothed only in my shorts and was yanked to my feet and pushed toward the village. I heard several angry voices, and one irate young man pushed me off the narrow levee into ankle-deep water. He raised his gun to shoot me on the spot, but an older man grabbed the barrel of his rifle, and I was pulled back onto the levee.

As we proceeded toward the village, a violent argument broke out among the men. Several, armed with rifles, seemed to gain control of the mob. On the edge of the village was a partial brick wall, and three men pushed me with my back against it. One was the man who had pushed me off the levee. He put his forefinger to my forehead and jabbered instructions to his cohorts. The crowd, now including some women and children, moved back to leave about a fifteen-foot clear area in front of me.

Three men positioned themselves with rifles directly in front of me, and their leader backed away to join them. I knew I was about to be killed, but somehow my mind refused to accept the seriousness of the situation. I kept thinking, Stand tall and straight; I must stand tall and straight. Despite being stripped and bruised and broken, my body stood tall and straight, with a soldier’s back, and my thoughts turned to the source of my strength—prayer: Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

I was unable to finish my prayer due to the distraction of angry voices, livid faces, and the electric excitement of the mob scene. It was almost as if I were watching a movie from afar. I wanted only to keep my composure and at least die bravely, as all movie heroes are supposed to do. As the pitch of excitement of the mob increased, there were more angry voices, and some men milled into the circle, arguing violently with my executioners. Other men came over to me and started leading me away from the wall. I shivered violently. Was what had just occurred a bad dream or was it real? It was only later that the full impact of what had almost happened sank into my muddled brain. I still shudder when I recall those moments that are engraved indelibly in my mind.





2

LOUISE LAMBERT HARRIS


APRIL 5, 1965 5:00 A.M.


I lay alone in our double bed, sleeping soundly. It had taken me a while to get used to sleeping alone, but after many nights, weeks, and months of separation throughout our five years of marriage, I had overcome the anxious agitation that had once plagued me. I no longer jumped at every creak or awakened at every bark from our beloved German Shepherd, Schotze. No, I had grown accustomed to the life of an Air Force wife. I knew what I had signed up for. And I was sure that this indeed was the life I had chosen—the life I wanted. God had blessed me indeed.

I had not always possessed this assurance—this deep-rooted certainty that I had chosen well my path of life. Though my love for Carlyle Smith Harris had grown into deep wells of love in a relatively short amount of time, I had insisted on a full six months of engagement. It took me years to tell Smitty why I had insisted on this time frame. With his scheduled assignments, a quicker engagement would have been more convenient. But I needed to be absolutely certain. And as the months melted one into another, our hearts melted into one as well, and my resolve—my determination that this would be the best life, the best path, for me as well as for Smitty—came to live in my heart.

My time of testing quickly came, even before we had the opportunity to say, “I do.” If Smitty ever doubted that I would be an understanding wife, his fears were dispelled when one month before our wedding, he announced it would have to be delayed for an additional month. By now I was as anxious as Smitty was to be married, and I regretted the six-month engagement. Just as I began counting down the days to our blessed event, Smitty was asked if he would take a six-week trip to make demonstration flights all over the Pacific area in the T-37 jet trainer. He was to fly in Hawaii, Tokyo, Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. Between demonstration flights, he and his crew would dismantle the wing of the T-37, and they would be transported in a C-130 transport aircraft.

I knew the trip would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Smitty. I also knew this would be a test of my resolve to be a supportive and faithful Air Force wife, so I joyfully acquiesced in delaying our wedding. I say joyfully because even at a young age I had learned the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is dependent on our circumstances, whereas joy is another thing entirely. Joy involves looking at the whole situation and seeing the benefits for others as well as for ourselves. Joy is not dependent on our circumstances and is not removed through our situations. Joy is a gift, and joy is a choice. I quickly learned to choose this eternal gift of joy, and this mind-set would prove to be tested far beyond what I could have fathomed.

The delay of our wedding, of course, did not make me happy. It did, however, make me joyful that Smitty had been granted the opportunity, so I chose to joyfully support him. As it turned out, the whole trip was canceled, and our wedding occurred as scheduled.

But I had passed the test. My resolve—my surety in this life I had chosen—was set in stone, and all of life’s chiseling would never change this commitment.




In the wee hours of the early morning of April 5, 1965, I slept soundly—that is, until the dream. Oh, it was so clear, so vivid. I heard the beloved voice of my Smitty calling my name. Louise, Louise! I sat straight up in bed. Smitty? I replied, half to myself, half to the voice I had heard. Why, it can’t be Smitty. He’s in Korat, Thailand. He’ll be there for at least four more days, I thought. Still, the voice had been so clear.

I quickly rose and put on my bathrobe and slippers. I tied the bathrobe as tightly as I could around my almost-eight-months-pregnant body and walked quickly down the hallway. The sound of flapping slippers seemed too loud against the hardwood floor, and I slowed a bit to keep from waking the girls. I didn’t have to wake Schotze, who already stood as if at attention when I entered the kitchen. I took the leash off the hook by the back door and went out into the dark, cool night. I walked all around the house, feeling silly, knowing it couldn’t have been Smitty. Even so, I had to check. The voice—his voice—had been so real. Not surprisingly, our walk around the house did not produce a reunion with my Smitty. I replaced the leash by the door and watched as Schotze lay contentedly back down on his bed on the floor.

I, however, did not lie down as contentedly. As I tried to shake off the dream and fall back to sleep, my mind kept traveling backward through my years with Smitty. I smiled as I remembered.




Carlyle Smith Harris had thoroughly enjoyed being a bachelor officer in the Air Force. He had particularly enjoyed the training flights he took all over the United States with students when he was an instructor pilot and in flights of fighters when in an operational unit. Las Vegas, Miami, San Francisco, New York, and other exciting places were easily within reach of his cross-country flights.

Marriage was simply out of the question for Smitty. He thought it would put a damper on his restless spirit. He persistently avoided any long-term commitments, while actively enjoying meeting and dating girls at every opportunity.

But as almost inevitably happens, he soon became very interested in a girl who showed little interest in him. I had dated a friend of Smitty’s who was about to enter pilot training. He introduced me to Smitty. Soon, instead of trying to avoid any amorous entanglement with the opposite sex, Smitty was actively seeking ways to win my heart and my love.

The early years of our marriage had been idyllic. Robin and Carolyn, our two precious daughters, were three and four years old when Smitty received orders in 1964 to transfer from McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, where he would fly the F-105 fighter-bomber. We had been happy here for more than a year now.

When Smitty received the assignment, we were all excited and hoped for an opportunity to visit Japan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines while we were there on our two-to-three-year tour. Smitty had been a flight commander in the F-105 at McConnell and thoroughly enjoyed this high-performance aircraft, which he had been selected to fly in international skies. But not everyone was as excited as the two of us were. While we visited my family prior to departure, my mother had expressed fear that Smitty would become involved in the war in Vietnam. Smitty had assured her—and me—that the F-105 was much too large and fast to be successfully used in the close air support role that would be required in the war in South Vietnam. At that time, the air war had barely begun over North Vietnam, where the interdiction of supply routes and bombing of military targets could utilize the F-105’s capabilities. We proceeded blissfully to our new assignment.

The girls and I arrived in late January 1965 after Smitty had been there long enough to buy a home on the island and get settled in his new job. Soon after we arrived, it became apparent that the air war might expand rapidly to North Vietnam. Everett Alvarez Jr., a Navy pilot, had been shot down and captured on August 5, 1964, during a reprisal bombing mission following the Tonkin Gulf incident. Thus, he became the first American POW held in North Vietnam.

In February, Bob Shumaker, another Navy pilot, was shot down and captured over Dong Hoi. In March, one of Smitty’s first missions from Korat was a bombing mission in northern Laos near the Vietnam border. The target, an ammo dump, had been completely destroyed, but one Air Force F-105 pilot had been shot down and later rescued. Also in March, a squadron strength unit made up of men and aircraft from the three F-105 squadrons at Kadena was sent on temporary duty to Korat Air Base in Thailand. The obvious use for this detachment would be an expanded air war over North Vietnam.




Smitty never held back information from me. We were equal partners with different parts in the story of our life together. Even as I lay in the dark, my agitation was not fear. I knew he was a fighter pilot when I married him. This is what he chose to do. He loved it, believed in it, and was committed to it. And I was committed to him. With that thought, the familiar resolve returned, and peaceful sleep returned with it. It was the last peaceful sleep I would enjoy for quite some time.





3

SMITTY


APRIL 4, 1965 11:45 A.M.


In the village I was led into a dirt-floored building, and several people pushed in with me. An older man started giving instructions, and all left but two men with rifles and him. He was holding my .38 revolver.

Just to be safe, my hands, which had been tied behind my back, were now tied to a post that supported the roof. After about an hour, I saw a uniformed man pull up to the hut on a bicycle. After a short conversation among my captors, my hands were untied, and someone brought in my flight suit and boots. After donning them, I was taken out and motioned to start walking. The older man led the way, and the two men with rifles followed. Ten or twelve other villagers joined our group.

When we came to the edge of the village, we passed over a narrow levee with a deep trench dug beside it. The older man stopped and talked to the men behind me. I guess I was still shaken up by my previous experience with a firing squad, for I was sure that at any moment a bullet would crash into my head and I would be pushed into the trench. Instead, he turned around, and we started walking again. My injured shoulder was giving me much pain, so I pulled the zipper of my flight suit down to my waist and rested my arm in it like a sling. Also, my knee had gotten stiff and sore while I was sitting in the hut. It turned out to be a bad sprain, but I hadn’t even known it was hurt until then.

We walked for about an hour on small paths and levees between the rice paddies until we reached another larger village. The people were out in force to see me. I was surprised to see almost no hostility in their faces—only curiosity. I also noticed the bare subsistence level of their existence. I saw only two or three bicycles and no cars. Most of the thatched-roof huts had bare floors, and no appliances or luxury items were visible through the open doorways. An outside well provided water. There was, however, a loudspeaker in each village blaring out some Vietnamese radio program. I supposed that the people were too poor to own radios of their own.

We passed through the village and continued to walk for another half hour or so. It was now early afternoon, and I was extremely hot and thirsty. We stopped in a small group of trees, and I was tied to one, with the two men with rifles still guarding me. The rest of the group found some comfortable spots in the shade and took a nap. Soon, some Vietnamese women brought food and drink. The men awakened and took the food but offered me none. I made some motions that I was thirsty, and finally one of the guards untied my hands and gave me a bowl of hot, salty soup that did little to quench my thirst.

Soon we were walking again. This time my knee was almost completely stiff. After about a mile, we came to a river with a pontoon bridge and crossed to the other side. The hot sun and humidity were oppressive. I was perspiring freely and suffering from acute thirst. I would gladly have drunk the river water if given the opportunity. We walked up a bank near the river, and in the distance I could see another small village, with some trees and foliage near it. I had been looking for even the slightest possibility for escape, but to this point there had been no cover in which I could hide. Our group walked through the village, and again the people were alerted and stared curiously at me.

Just past the village was what I believed to be a police station. Several uniformed men in unpressed khakis were standing around. I was led behind a large building to a small brick hut that was obviously a place of detention.

There were bars in the high windows and a heavy padlock on the thick wooden door. I was pushed inside, and the door slammed behind me. I sat on the only piece of furniture, a wooden platform that was used for a bed. Within a short time, I began to hear many voices outside and a loudspeaker blaring something in Vietnamese. The voices got louder and angrier and began to chant. I was unable to see out of the high windows but knew a large number of people were out there. Suddenly, the cell door opened, and two policemen led me out into the crowd. They had placed two ropes as an aisle for me to walk in and to separate me from what was now an angry mob. When I appeared in the cell door, there was a loud yell, and a sea of hostile faces met my gaze. I was led a short distance to a cleared circle about thirty feet across, in the middle of which were my helmet, dinghy, parachute, survival seat pack, and other personal objects. These things had not accompanied me on the walk, and I wondered how they had gotten here.

There were at least a half dozen men with cameras and one large 35mm movie camera. A ring of fifteen or twenty uniformed men kept the mob of people out of the circle. One of my guards pushed on my head, indicating for me to bow. I feigned ignorance of what he wanted, and the crowd yelled madly. I was led around the circle two times and then through the corridor to my cell. When the door slammed behind me, I heaved a sigh of relief. This small, dingy cell was a welcome respite from the mob outside. Several years later, Louise was shown a picture of me taken that day by one of the photographers. It was found on the body of a North Vietnamese soldier killed in South Vietnam. She guessed that my arm was injured, because I was carrying it in the zippered front of my flight suit.

Back in my cell, I thought about the hostile, screaming Vietnamese just a few feet away. Were these the same people who a short time before had passively watched me walk through their village? Their lack of sophistication and childlike response to an emotional appeal over the loudspeaker were revealing. Apparently, their government had no problem controlling the hearts and minds of these people.

My cell door opened, and two civilians accompanied by two armed guards entered with a portable tape recorder. One of the civilians asked me in poor English to give the name of the Navy ship from which I was flying. I remained mute. He then asked the type of aircraft I was flying. Again, I remained mute. He was obviously angered by my lack of response and spoke at length with the other Vietnamese men. Controlling his voice, he asked my name, rank, and service number. I provided this information, and he seemed pleased. Then he said, “Speak into the microphone and tell us about your bombing mission.”

I shook my head—No. His face turned livid, and I saw him look at my left hand that was resting on my lap. He spoke to the guards in Vietnamese and then turned to me and said, “Give me the ring from your finger.”

“No,” I said once again. He simply nodded to the guards, and they knocked me backward on the bed. There was a short struggle with all four men participating, and they removed my wedding band.

Louise. Her name pierced my mind as one of the men held up my ring in triumph. With a sinking feeling deep in my gut, I knew I had been ripped away from her and my children, just as the ring had been ripped from my finger.





4

SMITTY


APRIL 4, 1965

I sat up on the bed, sickened to see my wedding ring in the hands of my enemies. Why didn’t I put up more of a fight? I wondered and then immediately knew the answer. I couldn’t. My left arm was almost useless, and the scuffle had caused excruciating pain in my shoulder. My physical weakness at that moment only strengthened my mental resolve.

I was now ordered to make a statement in the microphone. I took it and spoke into the microphone: “Will someone please get a doctor to look at my shoulder?” The English speaker was again angered, and he turned and jabbered something in Vietnamese.

Abruptly, the four men left my cell, taking their tape recorder with them. I got up and began to hobble around the small cell, trying to loosen up my knee.

As I walked in circles, I began to think of escape. I have to get out of here, I thought with determination. I remembered from my survival training that the best time to attempt escape was immediately after capture or while en route to a permanent place of detention. I had seen the grove of trees and some underbrush that came within yards of the police station. Wanting another chance to reconnoiter the area, I began shouting for a guard. When the door opened, I indicated I needed to relieve myself. He called another guard, and the two of them escorted me to an outdoor privy with a shoulder-high bamboo screen around it. I was able to see part of the wooded area, which looked well cleared out near the ground and would provide little cover. I was unable to determine the extent of the trees and underbrush, but perhaps they would lead me to the river, and at night I could make my way down river to a better area of concealment.

Back in my cell, I examined possibilities for escape. The ceiling appeared to be bamboo with some type of plaster over it, and the roof was red clay tiles. It would be difficult to break through the ceiling, but if I could work a bed board loose, I might be able to use it to make a hole large enough to get through. My arm was going to hamper my efforts, but I began trying to loosen one of the bed boards one-handed. While I was working on removing a nail that was slightly loose, the cell door opened again, and I was motioned to come out. The crowd that had dispersed for an hour or so was back in full force, and again I was led through a corridor of shouting, fist-waving Vietnamese. This time, however, the corridor led to a vehicle, and I was pushed inside. Guards tied my hands and put a heavy blindfold over my eyes. As the vehicle pulled away, the crowd roared. The loudspeaker had again given the cues to the people, and they had responded as directed. The propaganda and control by the government were alarmingly effective.

We bumped along for several miles before coming to a paved but rough road. The darkness of the blindfold matched the darkness of my situation. My thoughts digressed from my current situation to the previous twenty-four hours.

I had returned to Korat ten days earlier after a wonderful week with my family, who were still in our little home in Okinawa. Upon my return, I had immediately noticed a quickened pace. We were flying more missions. Maintenance and armament personnel were working around the clock; pilots were briefed in the middle of the night for early-morning strikes; and a feeling of excitement was in the air.

We were all anxious to hit some really important targets. So far, we had flown many sorties in armed reconnaissance along some roads and rail lines and had hit a few small bridges, trucks, and small troop movements. We all knew this effort to stop rail and road traffic was largely futile, as most of the traffic moved at night. At this time we had no effective night capability. We were also restricted from striking far enough north to destroy major centers, loading and docking areas, and supply dumps. The enemy could move men and material with impunity to the narrow band of North Vietnam in which we were permitted to operate and then proceed at night through this area.

Each pilot at Korat was given a few days off during his combat tour to gain some rest and relaxation from the war. After several missions that were largely unproductive, some friends and I planned on R & R in Bangkok. I eagerly anticipated spending a few days in this beautiful, interesting city. However, my squadron was tasked to knock down the Hàm Rong bridge at Thanh Hóa, North Vietnam.

This was the most important target that had been assigned so far in the war. Not only was it an important rail and highway bridge used to speed war material south, but it was also psychologically important to the North Vietnamese. It was the first major bridge designed and built by the North Vietnamese since the French had left their country. It was a massive structure supporting concrete roadbeds as well as rail tracks. We were briefed that the bridge was heavily defended by 37mm and possibly 85mm antiaircraft guns and many smaller automatic weapons. I canceled my trip to Bangkok and successfully pleaded to be assigned to this mission.

Early in the morning of April 3, 1965, we were briefed for the attack on the Hàm Rong bridge. Lt. Col. Risner was to lead the mission with four flights of four aircraft armed with “Bull Pup” air-to-ground missiles. These very accurate missiles would probably drop the bridge, but in case they did not, four flights of four F-105s were to follow, each aircraft armed with eight 750-pound bombs. Though less accurate, the large bombs surely would knock down the bridge with a direct hit.

I was somewhat disappointed to be assigned as flight leader of the last flight of four F-105s. I was sure there would be no bridge left for my flight to bomb. As we neared the target, I knew from the radio chatter that the Bull Pups had not been able to knock down the bridge. There were many reports of direct hits with no apparent effect on the bridge.

As the lead flights of F-105s carrying 750-pound bombs pulled off the target, we heard Maj. Matt Matthews, who was spotting hits, report that most of the bombs were falling too far to the east. Unexpectedly strong winds carried the bombs away from the target. Armed with this information, my flight recomputed our aim points and started our bomb runs against a bridge that wasn’t supposed to be standing.

My flight made several direct hits on the bridge. Lt. Ivy McCoy put the center of his group of eight bombs directly on the center span of the bridge. A huge geyser of water and smoke rose, but when it cleared, the bridge was still standing. Apparently, the inexperienced Vietnamese engineers who designed the bridge had decided it would be wiser to overstrengthen the bridge than take a chance on a mistaken calculation in the opposite direction. At any rate, the massive steel girders were essentially undamaged, but the concrete roadbeds were broken and unusable. The rail tracks, offering little resistance to bomb overpressures, appeared to be undamaged.

On the following day, April 4, another strike on the Hàm Rong bridge was planned. This time, the entire force of forty-eight aircraft would carry 750-pound bombs, as it was apparent that the Bull Pups were almost completely ineffective on this target.

It was believed that repeated hits by the bombs would drop the bridge. Because my flight had made the only direct bomb hits on the bridge the previous day, I was selected to make the first bomb run on the target with my wingman, Lt. Bob Bigrigg, staying high to observe the wind effect on my bombs before starting his bomb run.

Lt. Col. Risner was again leading the mission, but he and his wingman, Capt. Wayne Sharp, would remain at altitude over the target, armed with air-to-air missiles in case any enemy MiG aircraft came to meet us. As we approached the target area, a heavy haze and low, broken clouds made it very difficult to pick out the bridge.

Lt. Bigrigg saw it first and called out its position to me. As I started down my bomb run from about 13,000 feet, I began to see the small flicks of light on the ground that were muzzle flashes of antiaircraft guns. Although there had been heavy gunfire the previous day, none of our strike aircraft had been shot down, and I had even less reason to fear being hit today. Lt. Col. Risner’s F-105 had battle damage, but he was able to nurse his crippled aircraft for a safe landing at the United States Air Force base located at Da Nang in South Vietnam.

The lead ship was rarely hit because the inexperienced North Vietnamese (at this point in time) almost never led the target sufficiently, and the second or subsequent aircraft were more vulnerable to being inadvertently shot down. Aside from that, I was too busy tracking my target to be concerned with enemy fire. At 3,600 feet, I released all eight bombs with a perfect sight picture.

The aircraft jumped when all that weight was released, and I started my pullout from a 45-degree dive. I pulled hard to clear the ground by as much altitude as possible. As I leveled out, traveling at nearly six hundred miles per hour, I started a turn so I could observe my bombs’ impact. At that moment, I felt a heavy jolt, which shook the entire aircraft. It yawed violently to the left, and smoke began to fill the cockpit. I knew the aircraft was hit, and hit badly. A conditioned response caused me to hit the disconnect switch to the automatic yaw damper system that sometimes causes these problems. I immediately regained control of the aircraft, even though the yaw had been so severe that in my peripheral vision I saw my left external fuel tank ripped from the aircraft. But now I had more severe problems: my engine had lost complete power; the aircraft was decelerating rapidly; and the cockpit warning lights were flashing FIRE. The panel on the left was lit up like a Christmas tree, shouting loud warnings—too many for me to have time to comprehend.

Surprisingly calm, I radioed my squadron mates who were flying on the same mission, following my lead. Using our call sign of the raid, I informed them that my aircraft was hit and burning.

Apparently, my aircraft had received a direct hit in the engine area. I tried to restart the engine on the emergency backup system and started a turn toward the sea, hoping I could get to a more favorable rescue area. The engine did not respond, and the aircraft continued to decelerate. I was now fairly close to the ground. At about a thousand feet and near stall speed, I radioed once again that I was ejecting from my crippled aircraft.




Could that have been only twenty-four hours ago? Time was moving at a different pace as I began my race of endurance. Minutes seemed like hours, hours like months. And what lies ahead? How much time will pass before I see Louise and my little girls? Will I ever lay eyes on them again? Will I ever meet my little one yet to be born? I immediately squelched the brief, dark thought. I could not go there. Not now. Not yet.

After what seemed hours, though it was probably less than one hour, I could tell by the sounds of other traffic, outdoor radio speakers, and frequent stops that we were entering a city, most likely Thanh Hóa. We made a hard turn and lurched to a stop. I was pulled out of the vehicle, and my blindfold removed. It was dusk now, but I could see we had stopped in a prison courtyard.

Iron bars were on all the windows, and heavy padlocked doors were evidence of the cells behind. I was led down a dark corridor and pushed into one of the cells. The stench almost took my breath. At the end of one of the two concrete bunks was a French-type toilet—two footpads in the concrete with a hole between them over which one could squat. There was a bucket of water and a dipper used for flushing out the hole, but the stench remained. Since getting into the vehicle, my stomach had been rumbling, and I had a terrific urge to use a toilet. As bad as the place smelled, I took off my flying suit and tried to squat down, but to no avail. My knee was so stiff and painful that I could only lean awkwardly against the wall and hope for the best. Nature would not be delayed. On the very first day of my capture, I had the first of many cases of diarrhea. No paper was available, and I was forced to clean myself with my shorts, which I dropped in the corner. I lay down on one of the bunks, feeling miserable.

A bare lightbulb hung down from the ceiling and shone in my eyes, and a couple of lizards played on the ceiling. My body and mind were numb—I just waited for what might happen next.

My cell door burst open, and amidst giggling, a half dozen uniformed Vietnamese crowded into my cell. One of them was a fairly young woman. With sign language and a few words of broken English, they tried to communicate with me. The woman, they said, had manned the gun that shot me down, but from the levity of the group I was not sure if it was their idea of a joke. I think they were just a group of young guards who wanted to see an American; no hostility was apparent. They pointed to me and asked, “Wife, babies?” I nodded yes. They laughed and asked, “You want to make baby with her?” pointing to the young woman. I wasn’t sure they knew what they were saying, but from some explicit gestures, I knew that at least in jest I had been propositioned.

An older uniformed man—I guessed an officer—and a civilian then entered my cell, and the atmosphere changed as if a switch had been thrown. Everything was strictly business.

The civilian had a pad of paper and prepared to write down my answers to his questions. In very good English he asked, “What type of aircraft were you flying, from where did you take off, and what was your target?” I responded, “I cannot answer those questions.” He looked up slowly, waited a few minutes while looking me in the eyes, and then said, “Things are going to go very badly for you, Captain Harris.” He stood up, and the whole group left my cell and locked the door.

Soon someone rattled a key in the padlock. I caught my breath and could almost feel my pulse quicken. I wanted only to be left alone. Another intrusion in my cell would almost surely be unpleasant. The known quantity of this stark, stinking cell with the bare lightbulb giving emphasis to its utter emptiness was preferable to the unknown consequences on the other side of that door.

My sanctuary was being invaded. A guard stood holding a bowl of rice and a cup of hot water. He said, “Eat fast; we move.” I was sure he had memorized this line.

When the door closed, I almost gulped the water, but it was too hot to swallow quickly. I was so thirsty that I had considered drinking the remaining water in that rusty bucket by the toilet, but the odor and look of it made me retch at the thought. I was able to finish the cup of hot water but longed for a tall, cool drink of almost anything. The rice was completely uninteresting. The door opened. Another gulp. Four guards motioned for me to follow them. The narrow corridor, lighted only from small barred transoms over the row of cell doors, led again to the courtyard. Were there other miserable souls in each of those cells? The courtyard was dark—I had not even thought about it being night or day. The normal confines of time had been replaced by the confinement of this nightmare.

At the vehicle—perhaps the same one I had come in—I was blindfolded once again, and my hands were securely tied in front. We bumped out onto a street and rode through town for fifteen or twenty minutes. My thoughts were occupied with interpreting what was happening and what might happen. My training kicked in, and I found myself more focused on gaining information around me than on myself and my predicament. After making several turns, I felt we had gone around in a circle and fully expected to see the prison courtyard again.

Instead, I began to hear loudspeakers and a multitude of voices. Perhaps this was some big rally to bolster the people’s war fervor. Could it be for my benefit? No, surely not. I had already been publicly presented to the people at the police station. The vehicle stopped, and I was pulled out. My heart sank. A deafening roar from the crowd drowned out the shrill voice over the loudspeaker. My blindfold was removed, and I saw what must have been several thousand people packed into an open square. A raised platform at one end held spotlights and loudspeakers. A man was yelling into a microphone. Surrounding me were at least a dozen uniformed guards.

I was led nearby to a motorcycle with a sidecar. A guard riding in the sidecar took one end of the rope that tied my hands and tied it to a bar on the motorcycle, giving about two feet of play. We began to move, the guards walking in front of and beside the motorcycle. The going was very slow, for they had to almost push their way through the milling people. Some crowded near and shook their fists and tried to spit at me. The loudspeaker had at least done some on-the-spot language training, for I heard over and over again, “son of bitch,” with a distinct Asian accent. They should have been more careful to include the article “a,” but what more could be expected from such a rush program? I thought defiantly.

As we pushed on, I could see the people filling the wide boulevard in front of us. Some bolder young men attempted to push past the walking guards to take a poke at me. One was able to get close enough to make a wild kick at my back. The blow landed directly in my kidney area, and I felt a deep searing pain that knocked me into the sidecar and took my breath away. Just as I was recovering from this blow, a rubber shoe someone had thrown struck me in the neck. I could feel the emotional pitch of the people rising.

There was more shouting, and people crowded in so close and tight that the motorcycle was unable to move. They threw hats, shoes, and other objects and shook their fists. My guards were trying to keep the people away from me, but the crowd wanted blood. Finally, the guards physically pushed and knocked people out of the way, and we began to move again. I remembered how much I had enjoyed parades as a boy, but it sure wasn’t much fun being a parade.

Though I was hit many times with glancing fists and thrown objects, the only serious blow I received was that kick in the kidneys, which was still causing intense, throbbing pain. After hobbling with my stiff knee and bruised kidneys a distance of about eight or ten city blocks, we approached a vehicle parked in the street. The entire parade had lasted no more than an hour, but it seemed like a lifetime and easily could have been. My other life, the one with a pleasant pace and fulfilling future, seemed like a distant dream from which I had awakened, only to live in the midst of a nightmare.





5

LOUISE


APRIL 5, 1965 6:30 A.M.


In the fog of sleep, I heard ringing. Without opening my eyes, I reached over to the bedside table and popped the round, metal alarm clock. Still, the ringing continued. As I became more awake, I realized the ringing was not the alarm clock but the telephone in the hallway. I sat up and glanced quickly at the clock—6:30 a.m.

Who is calling me so early? I wondered as I grabbed my robe and walked quickly to the hallway. I didn’t want the girls to wake up quite yet, so I practically ran down the hallway as fast as my pregnant body would allow.

“Hello?” I answered, out of breath.

“Oh, Darling! I am so sorry about Smitty!”

“Mother? What? What do you mean?”

“You don’t know? Oh, Honey. They called me to tell me. I thought you knew.”

“Wait. Who called?”

“Smitty’s mom and dad. The casualty office told them he has been shot down! That’s all I know.”

“I’ll call you back, Mother,” I said as I abruptly hung up the phone, just as my mother was saying, “Don’t hang up!”

I felt very mechanical at that point. I had to find out what my mother was talking about. I quickly dialed the number of my friend Kathy Risner, the wife of the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Robbie Risner.

“Kathy, what happened to Smitty?”

“Louise, someone will be there in a few minutes.”

“What happened?”

“They are coming in just a minute, Louise. They will tell you everything.” Though her words were spoken with great compassion, her answers didn’t satisfy.

I rushed back to the bedroom and grabbed the first dress my hand reached. My eyes filled with tears as I saw it was my red-checked maternity dress with the white Peter Pan collar. I had worn this the last time I saw my Smitty.




On that last day, Smitty and I had talked about many things but mostly plans for the future and our new child, who was to be born in two months. We both hoped it would be a boy, and I wanted him to be named Carlyle S. Harris Jr. and to be called Lyle. Smitty objected and suggested Robert C. Harris, after his grandfather.

The week before Smitty returned to Korat and combat, he went to the base legal office to update his will and to give me a general power of attorney with an indefinite expiration date. He told me he had no worry about being shot down—he was ever the optimist—but he still thought it prudent as a head of household to keep his affairs in order. I took it all in stride. When he returned from the legal office, we had a long conversation about our home, car, and major appliances. Ostensibly to see how much money we had tied up in them, Smitty made a list of their new and current values. I guess I knew exactly what he was doing, but we both maintained the pretense that it was just an exercise in curiosity. From the day I had arrived in Okinawa, Smitty let me handle the checkbook, pay all the bills, and keep track of finances—the first time in our married life he had not handled these details.

The week was over almost before it began—or so it seemed. On the night Smitty was to leave to return to Korat, we delayed our dinner until after the girls were in bed. It was a long, leisurely dinner with good food, wine, and our best silver and china—for just the two of us.

This was not an unusual occurrence when Smitty was leaving home for more than one day. I guess I’m somewhat of a romantic. I enjoy the little extra touches that make an event memorable. And it was. Especially now.

Smitty was to return to Korat for just two weeks, and we spent the evening making plans for all the things we would do when he returned. At 1:30 in the morning, we were still talking. I had already packed Smitty’s bags and hidden little notes in his clothes, reminding him to be good and telling him how much I loved him. It was a beautiful night, interrupted when a horn honked outside. It was time for Smitty to leave. He went in and kissed our sleeping daughters, and then we said our good-byes as the horn honked once again. Just like that, our wonderful week was over, and he departed for Naha Air Base for the flight to Korat. He had been there flying missions for just six days when I got Mother’s call.




I forced myself back to the task at hand, dressing quickly and preparing myself to hear what very well could change the course of my life. By now, the girls were up, and I knew I must prepare them for whatever might lie ahead on this dark day. I sat them down on my bed and held their hands as I told them that some people were coming to give us news of Daddy.

“Is he okay?” Robin, our oldest daughter, asked.

“Yes, Daddy is okay. Something is wrong with his plane though.” This seemed to satisfy their curiosity, and thankfully, I heard Shieko entering through the carport. Shieko was my godsend. She was my full-time maid, and if truth be told, she was my best friend in Okinawa. I told her the most basic details, and she understood the situation immediately. She was the first to give me a word of encouragement.

“You no worry, Okasan. Papasan be okay,” she said confidently.

While she took over the care of the girls, I allowed myself the brief luxury of releasing the tears I had painfully held. I went into our bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub.

“Oh, God,” I prayed, though prayerful words seemed to escape me. Despite my wordless prayer, I knew God had heard. With new resolve, I wiped my tears and prepared to greet the infamous blue cars that all the Air Force wives silently dreaded.

As I walked down the hallway toward the living room, I glanced around the house we called home. It was a brick ranch-style house that sat on a beautiful lot high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Though the ceilings were low and the house small, I felt like I lived in a castle. I had so enjoyed decorating and putting special touches on our newly purchased house. It was home.

But now, everything felt strange, as if I was walking in uncharted territory. I glanced out the window and saw two blue cars pull up and park in front of our house. My heart beat rapidly as three men got out of the cars. I recognized one as the casualty officer and soon found out the other two were the doctor and the chaplain. They walked through the carport and entered the kitchen. I quickly invited them to sit in the living room, and we all sat on the rattan sectional.

“Mrs. Harris, we are sorry to inform you that your husband’s plane was shot down over enemy territory. We don’t yet know if he survived the crash.”

“He’s alive,” I said forcefully.

“We don’t know that for sure, and perhaps you should prepare yourself . . .”

“He. Is. Alive,” I said with a fierce confidence. “I know he is. I can feel it.”

We continued to talk of the limited details of Smitty’s current situation, as well as my own situation.

“We will make plans to immediately fly you back home. How long will you need to pack? We can have you on the next plane out.”

“No, I’m not going.”

“Well, ma’am, our procedures include getting you back to the United States and to your family.”

“My family is here. I am almost eight months pregnant and have been through eight OB-GYN doctors so far. I’m not moving—not yet anyway. I have to decide what I’m going to do. I own this house, and when the time is right, I will sell this house and do what is best for me and the children.”

Secretly I thought, Maybe they will find him, and he will be home quickly. Which, of course, was only a dream. I did not yet want to know reality.





6

LOUISE


APRIL 5, 1965 8:00 A.M.


I lay motionless on the bed. I fluctuated between grief and anger. Though the team in the blue cars was compassionate, they had treated me like a helpless woman. Especially the doctor. Yes, I was almost eight months pregnant, but that was not an ailment or an illness. As I began to speak, the doctor who was sitting beside me thrust a pill into my mouth, and I automatically swallowed in surprise.

“What did you just do?” I asked incredulously.

“I just gave you a sedative,” he replied, as if popping a pill into someone’s unsuspecting mouth was the most natural thing in the world.

“I didn’t need a sedative,” I said, forcing my voice to stay in a calm octave.

“Well, I thought . . .”

“I did not ask for a sedative. As you can see, I am very much in control of my emotions,” I insisted.

“Most people in your situation are very upset,” he said defensively.

“I am upset. I am upset with you. I am almost eight months pregnant. I don’t need to be taking unnecessary medication.” With that, I ended the conversation, thanked the men for their support, and told them I would be in touch with them about what I decided the next best steps for me and my girls would be.

I watched from the window as the blue cars drove away. I was relieved to see them go. I had to think, and now I was afraid my thoughts would be muddled—not only with grief but also with medication. I tried to close my eyes to rest for just a bit, but I couldn’t. The pill did not faze me, so great were the thoughts rolling in my mind. Think, Louise, I instructed myself silently. Immediately, a new strategy came to my mind. Pray, Louise. This gentle reminder seemed like a whisper to my spirit, and with it came a renewed resolve.

I got up from the bed and walked quietly to the bathroom—a huge room with white tile on floors and walls. At that moment, it almost seemed heavenly. And that is where I directed my attention. Heavenward.

I began to pray, as I had earlier, with a simple cry of “Oh, Lord.” Silent tears streamed down my face, and suddenly more words came to my heart. Though not Catholic, I had gone to St. Genevieve of the Pines boarding school in North Carolina for ten years. The words learned from the nuns each day in chapel flowed from my lips: “Dear blessed Virgin Mary, never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I come to thee, virgin of virgins, Mother of God.” Then the conversation between me and my Lord continued as friend to friend.

“Blessed Jesus, may you enfold Smitty in your loving arms. Guide him and guard him, protect him, and bring him safely home. Bless my children and this baby. Help us make it through this day and the days to come. I place my total trust in you, Jesus. I rest all my confidence in you and in our heavenly Father.” The words flowed freely now, as my tears also flowed freely down my cheeks. An unexplainable peace and strength filled me as I ended my prayer in the same way the Lord Jesus ended his in the garden: “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I stood up and wiped my tears. There was much to do, and I had to make myself ready. As I left the bathroom, my resolve was set. I knew deep in my heart that my husband was alive, though I shuddered to think of what he might be enduring.

If Smitty can do what he is doing right now, I can do this. I have to be strong for our girls, I thought as I walked through the house, ready to face the future.





7

SMITTY


APRIL 6, 1965

After leaving Thanh Hóa and the parade, we traveled a short distance out of the city and waited in a line of vehicles that inched forward slowly. I was blindfolded but could hear other engines start and stop, and by tilting my head back I could glimpse a line of taillights in front of us. Time seemed to have stopped. With the side curtains up, the vehicle was steaming hot, but I took some consolation in the knowledge that the two guards sandwiched on each side of me on the narrow backseat must be suffering too. They, however, were surely not suffering from thirst as I was and certainly weren’t bothered by aches and pains.

Finally, I understood the delay. We embarked on some kind of ferry that would carry us across the river. I thought of my failed mission at the Hàm Rong bridge. Surely, there is no bridge still standing, I thought as we bumped across the river. I would learn several years later that the Hàm Rong bridge was not finally dropped into the water until August 11, 1967, with 3,000-pound laser-guided “smart bombs.”

We traveled all night over paved but bumpy roads. The guards had brought food with them, and they gave me a piece of heavy French-style bread and poured a few ounces of water in a tin cup for me. Even with the water, my mouth was too dry to swallow the bread, although truth be told, I still was not hungry. The pain in my body and the uncertainty of my situation had stolen my appetite, just as the Vietnamese had stolen my freedom.

The vehicle stopped two or three times for fuel and to give the guards a chance to stretch their legs. I, however, was not permitted to move, nor was I sure I would be able to move. Throughout the long, arduous trip, the jeep remained stifling hot, and my thirst was unquenched.

Midafternoon of the following day, we entered a town large enough to have a trolley or streetcar. The sound was unmistakable, even though my eyes could not see through the blindfold. On the long journey, I passed the time by guessing where we were headed. I assumed our destination was Hoa Lo Prison, which had come to be known as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” among the U.S. prisoners of war. The city of Hanoi, located in the northern region of Vietnam, has been the capital for almost a thousand years. The prison’s actual name, Hoa Lo, is commonly translated as “stove” or “fiery furnace,” or even “hell’s hole.” I would soon find out the accuracy of that translation as I entered my own personal hellhole.

I guessed correctly that we were in Hanoi and at least took heart that we would probably stop here and this tortuous trip would finally end. And water! Surely, they must have water, I thought as we slowed to a stop. I didn’t know how terribly acute thirst could be.

My blindfold was finally removed. We had stopped in a courtyard with shrubs and trees that made me wonder if we were indeed at a prison. I tried to disembark but was unable to move my knee from its bent position in the crowded backseat. Guards pulled me roughly from the vehicle and half carried me through a corridor into a smaller courtyard and then into a narrow, dark hall with four cell doors facing it. Now I could clearly see that this indeed was a prison.

The cell was similar to the one in Thanh Hóa, except there was no toilet—just a rusty bucket. At the rear of the cell was a barred window above eye level, through which I could see a high wall. Embedded in the concrete on top of the wall were thousands of pieces of broken glass—old wine bottles—and above that three strands of wire strung between electrical insulators. I knew immediately that this was French construction because I had seen identical walls, minus the wires, surrounding French villas in the city of Casablanca when I had been stationed in French Morocco.

My first concern was my knee. Painfully, I was able to straighten it out, and I walked stiff-legged between the two concrete beds that were staggered, one at each end of the cell, which was about fifteen by seven and a half feet. There was no other furniture, only a short broom made of a bunch of twigs tied together and an old worn-out shoe. The previous occupant had obviously not used the broom—the place was filthy.

I sat on one of the beds, keeping my injured leg straight so that when it stiffened up, at least I could walk. I found that when I was sitting, my shoulder continued to give me much pain, so I lay on my right side with my arm resting on my left side. Just as I was getting more comfortable, I heard the keys rattle in my door. Again, I felt myself tense up and felt great apprehension. Those damn keys! For the next almost eight years, I would almost always feel some apprehension when I heard my cell door being opened.

An old guard motioned for me to follow him. We went to a windowless room, draped at one end by a dirty blue cloth. The same type of cloth covered a table in the center of the room, and a bare lightbulb hung down over the table. I was directed to sit on a short stool in front of the table. Two Vietnamese officers in uniform and a young man in civilian attire entered. I rose and saluted the older man. We had been taught to recognize senior officers when in captivity. He did not return the salute but motioned me to sit.

The young man, an interpreter, began with a well-rehearsed spiel that I was not a POW but a criminal who had perpetrated heinous crimes against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. My mind wandered as he droned on about the righteousness of the Vietnamese cause and how my Yankee imperialistic government persisted in the warmongering, obdurate falsehood that the United States was legitimately involved in the Vietnam War. He looks like an owl but acts like a parrot, I thought, as I listened to his memorized lines. From then on, I called him “the Owl.” Suddenly he stopped.

The older man spoke at length in Vietnamese. The Owl said, “Tell us about your mission. From what base did you fly? What type of aircraft did you fly? What is your squadron?”

Ignoring his questions, I replied, “Please have a doctor look at my shoulder and give me some water.”

Comments were exchanged between the Vietnamese, and the Owl said, “Now you return to your cell.”

Back in my cell, I felt my first real depression. I was tired, thirsty, and injured. The realization finally sank in that I was not going home to my family—today, tomorrow, or perhaps ever.

The Owl had said I would be punished for my so-called crimes. What did he mean?

I noticed for the first time the French and Vietnamese names carved in the stocks at the end of my bunk. Had they been punished? How? Where were they now?

This was undoubtedly the “Hanoi Hilton.” What an awful place! Room service, food, and accommodations are terrible, I thought, trying to keep a semblance of my former sense of humor.

Keys rattled in my door. The old guard stood there with articles in his hands. He put them on the floor and slammed the door closed. Stoneface, I thought. I had never seen such an unemotional countenance. He must be completely inured to the human suffering he has seen in this god-awful place. But Stoneface had brought me water! It was in an old, stained, galvanized metal pitcher, and my tin cup was even more disreputable, with most of its original porcelain coating chipped off and rusting. Nevertheless, this was water, and my parched mouth eagerly emptied the cup again and again. He also had brought a too-small set of pajamas, a bowl, and a mosquito net.

Later, he brought some rice with a few small pieces of an unknown meat and gravy. I was really surprised. For some reason, I had not expected them to bring food that day. My survival training had stressed that the enemy would try to keep us alive, for we were more valuable to them alive than dead.

At least, I surmised, they want to keep me around for now.





8

SMITTY


APRIL 9, 1965

For the next several days, I was interrogated two or three times a day—sometimes in the middle of the night. When I would not answer their questions, they became angry and told me that their superiors demanded answers and were losing patience with me. But mostly the Vietnamese officer would speak at length and Owl would translate.

I was given the entire history of Vietnam, stressing how they had repeatedly defeated foreign “aggression.” The long war and final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu were covered in detail.

After about three days, I noticed that some minor burns on my neck from my parachute were becoming infected. Stoneface led me from my cell for my first bath in the DRV. The bathroom, for lack of a better name, faced the small courtyard adjacent to my cell. The dark room contained a recessed tiled area and a rusty showerhead. I turned the handle, but no water came out of the shower. Stoneface pointed to a spigot near the floor and with sign language told me to fill my bowl and pour water over my body. Only a trickle came out of the spigot, but I tried my best to clean myself, particularly my neck. It felt wonderful! My flight suit and boots had been taken away and replaced with a second set of too-small pajamas. About every two days I was permitted to bathe with strong lye soap, and I found pleasure in washing myself and one set of pajamas in the ten minutes allotted for this purpose. However, my infected neck continued to get worse.

The patience of my interrogators wore thin. The older man often got up and took a swing at me when my lack of response infuriated him. He did not use his fist as an American would but hit me with the heel of his palm. What a punch for a little man! One blow to my head often knocked me sprawling from my stool. I tried to control my emotions and be absolutely impassive. The armed guards standing in the doorway were a reminder that physical resistance would be a losing endeavor.

In one session, my interrogator seemed very pleased with himself. He said that my knee clipboard had been recovered. I knew he was lying. It had been on my knee when I ejected, but I believed it very improbable that my maps and charts could ever be found. However, he told me I had taken off from Korat, Thailand, in an F-105 and described my route of flight.

Although it was true, he must have been guessing. I would not confirm this information. In succeeding sessions, it became clear to me that indeed he did have my papers. My heart sank. Not only did my charts reveal my base and flight plan, but a careful analysis would reveal speeds and the capabilities of my aircraft. Times between checkpoints and fuel consumption were carefully annotated on my paper—all information I did not want our enemies to have.

I was taken to the blue room for another interrogation. The interrogator gave me a friendly greeting and said he had good news for me.

“You will be permitted to go home,” he said proudly.

My heart leaped. “When?”

“Very soon. Perhaps one or two weeks.”

I sat dumb and incredulous. I was completely unprepared for this but finally managed, “Why? Is the war over?”

“No, the war continues. Our president, Ho Chi Minh, is a very reasonable and caring man who loves the American people but hates the warmongering reactionaries who control your government and military forces. To show his love for peace and as proof of his reasonable concern for peace-loving Americans, he has agreed to release one American prisoner.”

I thought it significant that this was the first time I had not been referred to as a criminal, even though I still was not given the correct title of “prisoner of war.” However, I was still dubious.

“Why me?” I asked. “What must I do now?”

I knew there were other American POWs (Alvarez, Shumaker, and Lockhart), and my captors had bragged of capturing other American “criminals.”

“You must show your appreciation to the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam by writing a letter to Ho Chi Minh thanking him for his leniency and telling him you are sorry for your acts against the DRV.”

So that’s what they want—some kind of confession that they can use for political purposes, I thought, as my tiny window of hope shut decidedly in my mind. How dumb could I be to even get my hopes up? These people have no regard for humane treatment or leniency. They only want to exploit their captives for political purposes.

“No,” I answered as firmly as I could.

My answer visibly shook my interrogator. His face reddened with anger, but he retained his outward composure and asked me to be reasonable and to think about my family and loved ones. “It is only a small thing for you to do, and since Ho Chi Minh himself has showed his concern for you, it is only proper that you should show your appreciation.”

Grasping at a fleeting straw, I said, “I can thank Ho Chi Minh for releasing me, but I cannot state that I am sorry for my acts. I was following a legitimate order of my government that was justified by your government waging war against South Vietnam, against the Geneva Agreements of 1954.”

Again, with difficulty, he retained his composure. “Now you return to your cell and think about what I have told you.”

For the next three days, my interrogators pressed me to be reasonable, but finding that I would not agree to provide them a propaganda statement, they dropped the subject. My struggle was only beginning.





9

SMITTY


APRIL 11, 1965

As I sat in my concrete bunk in that stinking, squalid cell, the events of my life that had led to my presence there passed in an array before my mind. What would I change? What mistakes did I make? How was I singled out for this despicable end? Yet I felt certain that the pattern of my life had led almost inevitably to a career in the Air Force. I had not thought consciously and deeply about patriotism and duty, but my religious beliefs, family, school, and cultural background had imbued in me a deep love of my country. A large part of my satisfaction with an Air Force career was derived from the sure knowledge that I was contributing to a vital instrument of our national power.

But here I sat—miserable, dejected, and sweating in the tropical spring heat of Hanoi. My cell was dirty, dark, and depressing. Drawings and names carved in the walls told a poignant story of their own—a crude drawing of a bird and one of a sunrise, a lewd sketch of a couple fulfilling a basic human drive, a crucifix and chalice, a dagger dripping blood. All reflected the moods, fears, aspirations, and thoughts of previous inhabitants.

Some of the carvings in the cell had almost been obliterated by repeated coats of whitewash many years in the past; for now, the walls were dark gray and splotched with water marks and mold, giving the cell a look of antiquity. It was almost as if someone had purposely tried to create a dungeon that would contribute to breaking the minds and spirits of hapless inmates.

The passing of time and political regimes was attested to by the names C. Duprey, Nguyen Van Tho, Richleau, and Minh Quoc Chi carved into the same heavy wooden stocks on the end of one of the concrete bed platforms. The stocks themselves, which could lock the ankles in two undersized apertures, were worn smooth by years of use in inflicted misery. I wondered how many victims in the past had shared my abode and the almost incomparable odds that would operate to make me join the experiences of such people as Duprey and Nguyen Van Tho. Just a few years earlier, I had barely even heard of Vietnam or Hanoi and knew only that they were located in some part of Southeast Asia on the other side of the earth.

Why me? I thought dejectedly.

Then quickly I began to reason with myself. Should I be depressed and regret the chain of events that led me here? Does that help anything?

The answer was clear. This miserable cell, the pain from a broken shoulder and sprained knee, the fear of the unknown that lay ahead, the arrogant captors bent on breaking my will, and the incessant worry about my family were the source of my mental and emotional anguish. These and other factors had contributed to my depressed state, which I was having a hard time getting around.

But then I saw it. Glancing at the wall of my cell, the crucifix reminded me that I was not alone, and the sunrise sparked a ray of hope in my tortured mind.

There will be a tomorrow. That simple thought brought with it a glimmer of hope, just as a glimmer of light shone through the barred window.

Taking stock of my situation, I realized that I had gladly accepted the challenge to give my life for the things I believed in. I was not dead but alive. My conduct in the ensuing months (perhaps years) was important to my country, my family, and myself.

With God’s help, I will prevail. Now is not the time to quit but the time to fight. I must recognize my own mental, emotional, and physical weaknesses. I may have other times of low morale and resolve, but I am still an Air Force officer and must be able to bounce back from whatever comes. With these thoughts, my hope continued to rise, for whoever hopes in God will never be disappointed, as the Scriptures had told me. With renewed resolve, I felt proud to be part of the fight, part of the U.S. Air Force. I would not quit.

Of course, this mental battle continued to be a constant foe. In solitary confinement, there is much time to remember, and memory is a fickle bedfellow. It often brought smiles and even a slight comfort, but in the next minute, it would bring agitation or sadness. Even so, remembering was my constant companion.




The first U.S. Air Force bombing mission on North Vietnam had occurred on March 2, 1965, against the Xom Bang supply dump just north of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Vietnam. I had been on temporary duty at Korat Air Base in Thailand for about one week and was extremely pleased to be on this mission. Preceding our F-105 strike aircraft, a group of F-100s flying out of Da Nang AFB in South Vietnam had flown a flak-suppressing mission over the target. Our intelligence had told us that the target was strongly defended by 37mm antiaircraft guns and a large number of smaller automatic weapons dispersed in doughnut-shaped revetments. Their predictions proved to be true.

Just before arriving over the target, we heard over our radios that one F-100 was down and that the pilot had parachuted, landing very near the target area. We were forced to delay our F-105 strike until his position was determined so we wouldn’t drop our ordnance near him. Lt. Col. Robinson Risner was in the lead F-105 over the target. His wingman, Capt. Boris Baird, was hit and had to eject from his burning aircraft.

Within the next twenty minutes, two more F-105s were shot down. Maj. George Panas nursed his crippled airplane to Laos before having to eject, and Lt. Ken Spagnola flew all the way into Thailand before ejecting. All three of my squadron mates—Baird, Panas, and Spagnola—were subsequently rescued, but my initiation into combat proved the vulnerability of our aircraft to intensive ground fire surrounding military targets in North Vietnam. This was not going to be a picnic.

In mid-March, I returned to Okinawa to rejoin my family for one wonderful week. Our household goods had arrived from the States during my three-week absence, and Louise had the new home we had bought looking great. We were happy; the girls had met some playmates and were having fun; and we were all excited over the prospect of our tour in Okinawa.

I had always told Louise about the close camaraderie that existed in overseas squadrons and the lasting friendships and great times that could be had. From the moment she and the children arrived, the squadron wives fulfilled every expectation. They brought over dinner the first night she arrived, took her shopping for some of the beautiful and useful locally produced household items that would make our house a lovely home, and displayed spontaneous friendship and helpfulness. I was certain that these friends were taking care of my family.

A few nights after I returned from Korat, we hosted a small dinner party with three other couples from my squadron. The atmosphere was joyful and lively. Looking back at that night, it resembled a memorable evening when four couples who had been lifelong friends had gotten together after a long separation. There was no talk of war, even though all four of the men had recently returned from combat and would be involved again in a few days.

We went to bed tired but exhilarated after our first party in our new home. The next morning at breakfast, Louise was glancing at the Stars and Stripes newspaper when she read an article about Lt. Hayden Lockhart, the F-100 pilot who had been shot down over Xom Bang. He had evaded capture for one week in the rainforests of North Vietnam but had finally been captured. A Hanoi news release was quoted as saying that even after capture, Lt. Lockhart had “persisted in the warmongering, obdurate falsehood that the United States was legitimately involved in the Vietnam war and that he had mouthed the same lies of his Yankee imperialistic government.”

Louise remarked, “I don’t even know Hayden Lockhart, but I like him.”

The following day, Louise prepared a picnic lunch for our family, and we headed out in the car, not knowing exactly where we would go. We drove along the western coast of the island and finally found a rocky area with a steep path leading down to the sea. There we found a sandy cove protected on three sides by huge rocks and laid out our picnic.

The girls, now three and a half and four and a half years old, giggled and laughed as they ran in and out of the shallow surf, trying to beat the waves to shore.

I wandered off for a few minutes to look around the rocks for old weapons or other evidence of the invasion that had taken place over this same beach when the U.S. Marines landed in 1944. I found only some unidentifiable chunks of rusted metal, but stumbled onto a cave that had been carved into rocks by centuries of tidal action.

I called the girls, who thought this cave was the neatest place they had ever been. There were two entrances, and they had great fun running in and out, playing hide-and-seek with me, and listening to the echo of their voices in the cave. After a while, we returned to Mommy, and two tired little girls fell asleep on the blanket as the gentle breeze, warm weather, and swishing of the sea lulled them into dreamland. At dusk the girls awoke, and we returned home.

The day before I left, I had made great preparations. If anything should happen to me, I wanted Louise to be as well prepared as possible to take care of our affairs when she would have to move and sell most of these items. Had I known? Deep down had I known something was going to happen? I didn’t know the answer to that, but I believed Someone had known, and I had been prompted to prepare Louise for a possible future without me. How I hoped it would not be forever!

What an enjoyable week I had spent with my family, but sadly, it ended in the middle of the night with the honk of a horn. At Naha, the C-130 that was to fly me to Korat was out of commission but would be fixed momentarily. We did not depart until 3:00 in the afternoon after spending a hot, tired, frustrating night and day waiting for the aircraft to be fixed.




I looked up at the tiny window of my cell. Though I could not see a true picture of the outside world, the shadows in my cell indicated that it was dusk once again—a dusk that brought a swifter and darker darkness than I ever experienced in my memories.





10

LOUISE


APRIL 11, 1965

I could hear the girls playing outside with Shieko as I washed the dishes. Warm, soothing water ran over my hands and brought a respite of relaxation. The little-girl squeals and easy laughter that drifted into the house through the open window were a balm to my soul. Smitty was still considered MIA—Missing in Action—which was devastating until I thought of the other acronym that would have caused unsurpassed grief, KIA—Killed in Action. If Smitty had been captured, I knew from my casualty officer that he was most likely being held at the Hanoi Hilton. The very name sent shivers up my spine. If I let my mind wander to what he might be enduring, it would be my undoing. My motto had become “if he can do that, I can do this.”

Praying became like breathing to me. If tears came, I quietly went to the safety of my white bathroom. Shieko was the only person who had any idea how difficult that time was. She would quietly take the girls outside or distract them with a game until I could regain my composure. I had to stay strong for my children. Each night, the three of us knelt by the couch before I tucked them into bed.

“Please keep Daddy safe and bring him home soon” was their standard prayer. I hoped their childlike faith would rub off on me. I had slowly come to realize that we might not see my beloved Smitty for a long, long time. But I had to control my thoughts, lest an overwhelming wave of sadness crash over me like a tsunami, washing away my strength and resolve. No. I will take every thought captive, as the Scriptures say. I will cast down imaginations and destroy speculations, I would often quote to myself. I had memorized that verse in 2 Corinthians 10, and it had become my go-to when despair tried to invade my thoughts.

Today was particularly challenging. I had been dreading this day for several days. It was Smitty’s birthday. How I longed to prepare his birthday breakfast—eggs, bacon, toast, and fruit. Breakfast was always his favorite meal. And I would have bought him a gift, which he would have protested due to his frugality. How I longed to hold him. Since I could do none of those things, I could at least remember him. I could celebrate him. I could rejoice that he was alive. And that would have to be enough today.

“Girls!” I called out the back door. They both looked up and smiled expectantly.

“It’s time!” I said as cheerfully as I could. They came running as fast as their little legs could carry them, with Shieko close behind.

We gathered around the dining room table as we paused to admire the homemade cake. It was chocolate with chocolate icing, Smitty’s favorite.

“Who can tell me why we’re having cake?” I asked my girls. Both raised their hands high in the air.

“Okay, Carolyn. What do you think?”

“Because it’s Daddy’s birthday!” she said proudly.

“That’s right! It’s Daddy’s birthday. And that is something to celebrate.”

And then I led them in a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” Tears filled my eyes as we sang. But I would not let them spill over. Not now in front of my girls. Later, maybe. In the safety of my white, heavenly bathroom.

As we enjoyed the delicious cake, I wondered what Smitty was eating. Were they feeding him? According to the terms of the Geneva Convention, they must. But I had seen photos of other prisoners of war in other wars, the memory of which sickened me. Was he sick? Was he injured? Had he lost weight? If his stay in the Hanoi Hilton was extended, would he come out looking like those photos I had seen—emaciated, weak, and sick men who looked more like sticks than robust soldiers? Oh, I couldn’t bear to picture Smitty like that!




I had learned through my mother’s example what it meant to be an overcomer. When I was five years old, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given months to live. Of course, I didn’t understand at the time. When my father received the news of her diagnosis, he simply said he could not handle any more. He left me, my mother, and my sister Janice, who was seven years older than I was, to fend for ourselves. My Grandmother and Grandfather Rindeleau came and took us to their home. When the doctor in Asheville, North Carolina, said Mother had possibly a year to live, Grandmother and Grandfather took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Grandfather literally carried her in and said, “Fix her.” It took a long time, and many return trips over the years, but miraculously they cured Mother’s illness.

During this time, Grandmother and Grandfather Rindeleau swept in to care for me, my sister, and my deathly ill mother. We lived in North Carolina with them after that. Because I was little more than a baby when all that was happening, it was years before I knew this story or was greatly affected by it. I was loved and surrounded by people who cared for me and nurtured me.

When I was six, I entered St. Genevieve of the Pines in Asheville—a private Catholic boarding school for girls. Only a small percentage of the students were Catholic—the rest were Protestant and Jewish. The nuns were wonderful, loving, kind, and firm, but always reassuringly present. At St. Genevieve I received a thorough education, well rounded in Latin, French, history, math, literature, English, religion, science, and, of course, moral guidance. The nuns’ sure, steady hands and soft voices guided us. We had chapel each morning, followed by breakfast, classes, phys ed, and music education. Friday nights were movie nights, and we had plays and could go off campus for concerts or special events.

I went home on many weekends and always for holidays, summers, or special times. At home, Grandmother was in charge, but Mother was loving and close to me. Janice and I had a typical big sister–little sister relationship—we loved each other and needed each other, but she was a teenager and I was a pain most of the time. We became very close after we were grown up. Mostly, we became friends. This would serve us well in the coming years.




As all the realities of Smitty’s situation began to close in, the irony of it all dawned on me as well. Our children, at least for some time, would be without their father, just as I had been without a father. My experience growing up without my father took place during the years of World War II. Daddies were at war. My friends’ fathers were away from home many times too, which made it easier to handle my own situation. Looking back, I realized that I really had a good childhood and was well loved and cared for. Not until much later did all of the story become clear. And that would be my prayer for my own children. How grateful I was for my legacy of strength passed down to me from my mother and my grandparents. They were overcomers, and I would be too.

I rose from the table to gather the dishes. Sweet Shieko stopped me and took over. She knew how tired I was. My rotund belly continued to grow. It moved in ripples whenever the baby kicked or moved, which was basically all the time.

“It won’t be long now. A few more weeks and our son will be born,” I said to Shieko. Our son—why do I keep thinking that? I wondered to myself. But I just felt that it would be a boy. Just like I felt that Smitty would survive this ordeal. And so would I.

Carlyle Smith Harris Jr. And we will call him Lyle, I thought, resolving to name our son after Smitty, regardless of what he had said. See you soon, little one, I thought as I patted my belly.





11

SMITTY


APRIL 16, 1965

After about ten or twelve days, my neck was a mess. Pus oozed constantly from a large scabby area. There was much swelling, and I was running a fever. I asked repeatedly for medical attention for my shoulder and neck. Although my knee was painful and stiff, I was not worried about it. The only comfortable position for my shoulder was lying on my right side. Within a few days, my right hip, knee bones, and ankle bones were almost as painful where sores had developed from lying on the concrete bed. I switched to my back, and my tailbone became sore. I thought that the Portland Cement Company would make a fortune building the Vietnamese version of mattresses.

My interrogators told me repeatedly that I would get medical attention only after I answered all their questions. After about two weeks, I was called to interrogation, and a different officer had joined my inquisitors. I noticed him looking at my neck when I sat on my stool. He actually winced, and I saw his face pale. An hour or two after the interrogation ended, Stoneface opened my cell door, and there stood the interrogator and a Vietnamese man and woman dressed in white robes.

In fairly good English, the interrogator said, “In accord with the lenient and humane policies of the DRV, the doctor will treat your injuries.” He rambled on that he and the doctor hated me and my criminal government, but they always acted in strict accord with humane principles. The doctor and nurse then cleaned the scabby area on my neck with alcohol. From their rough treatment, I truly believed they hated me, but I was determined to show no evidence of emotion or pain. They sprinkled a white powder (perhaps sulfa) on the wound and bandaged it. When they finished, they started to leave.

I said to the interrogator, whom we later called “Dog,” “Please have the doctor look at my shoulder.”

Dog spoke in Vietnamese, and the doctor came over and lifted my arm and let it drop. My shoulder was not displaced, though broken.

Comments in Vietnamese were exchanged, and Dog said, “Your shoulder will heal in time.” With that, they departed.

Though still in pain, I was elated. I had called their bluff on “no medical treatment until you talk” and won.

In my cell, I thought often about my family. I was truly worried. How could Louise cope with the challenges of two children, another one on the way, selling our home, moving back to the States, and the uncertainty of my situation? Where and when would she move? Did she know I was alive? I took some consolation in the knowledge that our friends, squadron mates, and the Air Force would do everything possible to help her.

At other times, I thought of our past life together. I recalled Louise telling me that after I left for Okinawa, she spent some time with her sister and brother-in-law. He asked her to deliver an old car to the dealer from whom he had bought a new car and to drive the new one home. As she parked the old car in the lot of the dealer, the main brake cylinder ruptured, losing all its brake fluid. When a salesman tried to move the car, he put it in reverse, and the car started accelerating backward down a steep incline, across a busy street, and into a tree on the opposite side. I pictured the panic of the salesman as he applied the useless brakes and his thoughts about someone trading in such a car. I broke out in laughter.

In my peripheral vision I saw someone watching me through the small barred opening in my cell door. He must have thought I was crazy, lying there on my bunk laughing. When I turned to look at him, he closed the door over the eight-inch-square peephole. I got up, walked over to the door, and peeked through a crack to see if he was still there when he opened the peephole again. Our faces were about six inches apart, and it completely startled him. He jumped back, hitting the wall on the other side of the corridor, and then left shaking his head. If there was any doubt in his mind about the sanity of Americans, it must have been removed.

My interrogations continued. Between threats and harangues, they gave me many hours of political indoctrination and their version of history. I was shown articles by Americans that supported their position. They told me that other American criminal pilots were cooperating fully with them. They named Morgan, Shumaker, Alvarez, Lockhart, and Vohden. They said that Alvarez, the first American POW, was living very comfortably and was writing and receiving several letters each week. I asked to write too. My request was ignored, but perhaps soon they would let me write also. By the Geneva Accords of 1947, to which North Vietnam was a signatory, POWs must be permitted to write letters and receive packages from the International Red Cross. Again and again I was told that their superiors were very displeased with my arrogant, die-hard opinions and lack of cooperation. Soon their patience would be exhausted, they said, and I would be punished for my crimes—by death.

During one interrogation, my interrogator was very angry and knocked me off my stool three or four times.

“My superiors have lost all patience with you,” he said furiously. “You must answer my questions,” he insisted as he knocked me off the stool once again.

A guard then entered the room with a piece of paper that he gave to the interrogator. He read the paper and seemed pleased. Translating the contents, he informed me it was from the Vietnamese High Command.

“My order is for you to be punished in two days if you do not cooperate with us,” he threatened.

The next morning at another session, the interrogator was still in a foul mood, and again he knocked me off the stool. He threatened me, called me stupid, and asked if I wanted to die. I was sure the whole thing was an act. The interrogation lasted about three hours. In the afternoon, I was very surprised that his mood had entirely changed. Now he was very friendly, almost fatherly.

“For your own safety you must change your attitude,” he said.

He spent about two hours telling me about his life, his children, and his role in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Finally, he said, “I like you, Captain Harris. I would hate to see you die. I will see if I can talk to the High Command and persuade them to rescind the order for your punishment tomorrow.”

My head was spinning. What was the truth and what was a lie? At about nine that night, I had another interrogation that lasted about two hours. No mention was made of the previous session, and the interrogator was very angry with me. I was reminded that at eight in the morning, my punishment would take place if I did not cooperate.

As I returned to my cell, I began to worry—I had called their bluff once, but 8:00 a.m. was just a few hours away. Should I continue to refuse to give them information that I knew they already had? Yes, I told myself, I am more valuable to them alive. This is still a bluff. I was resolved that I wouldn’t answer their questions.

At 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., I was still awake when keys rattled in my door.

Is it eight already? I wondered. Are they taking me somewhere else for my punishment? My pulse quickened.

Stoneface motioned for me to follow him. We entered the blue room. The friendly interrogator was there, but this time he was not friendly. He explained that he had asked the High Command to be lenient, but they refused because of my bad attitude. “In a few hours you will be taken to another place for your punishment,” he said ominously. “If you will just tell me the type of aircraft and the base from which you flew, I may be able to get the order changed, even at this late hour. We know you flew an F-105 out of Korat, but the High Command will recognize a change in your attitude if you will just answer these questions.”

I sat silently for a while, head down. I then looked up at him and affirmed that their information was correct.

Stoneface led me back to my cell. I felt crushed. I knew I had provided no useful information, but I felt duped and tricked.

How stupid of me! I berated myself. Just an hour earlier, I had resolved to call their bluff—if it was a bluff. I tried to rationalize that I was exhausted and not alert, but still I felt a terrible guilt. I had not lived up to my own standards, my code of honor. I had lost my resolve to never answer any of their questions except name, rank, service number, and date of birth.

What now? I wondered. I remembered another moment of depression and my resolve then to recognize my own weakness.

Snap out of this, Smitty, I told myself, knowing I must tame these feelings of self-pity and guilt and do my utmost to deserve the trust my country and family had placed in me.

Please help me, God, I prayed, and felt a tiny flicker of peace. I finally fell asleep, trusting that tomorrow would be better.





12

SMITTY


MAY 1965

“Why me?” I must confess this was a sentiment that often plagued me in the early days of my incarceration. Trying to find the answer to this unanswerable question, I often thought back over my childhood. I was a typical boy from a middle-income family in a small rural town. Though I hadn’t thought of it back then, I realized as I sat in that dank and humid cell that my childhood had been a very happy one. I had grown up in Preston, a small farming community on the eastern shore of Maryland