By Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb, 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published February 07, 2018
COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
Stepping off the bus, recently freed American prisoners of war formed up from the tallest to shortest, stiff at attention facing Capt. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris and with a salute they defied their Vietnamese captors one final time.
Proving their grit and American pride could outlast any amount of torture or pain, they stood tall in defiance as a C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft in front of them prepared to bring the men home.
The now-retired colonel recalled the moment he and his fellow POWs were released from captivity by American troops; and the moment seemed surreal to him.
Harris spent 2,871 days in Vietnam as a POW after being shot down April 4, 1965, during a bombing run targeting the Thanh Hoa Bridge, one of the most important transportation routes the North Vietnamese had throughout the war.
He said after they were loaded onto buses with better clothing and no blindfolds, they were still unsure of the situation. They arrived to their aircraft, the buses stopped and they were let out.
“We lined up by height in lines of two at stiff attention, I gave my facing movements and a salute because we knew it would really frustrate the North Vietnamese,” Harris said.
He explained how their names were called and how they loaded onto the aircraft, preparing to leave the life they had lived in Vietnam, it was almost too good to be true.
“They did take us onto the airplane and we sat down, and we were really happy but we were so stoic,” he recalled. “We didn’t know if we would taxi around the runway and be re-incarcerated or what, so we just could not get our excitement out until we felt the wheels let out underneath us.”
He took multiple stops before getting home, going from base hospital to base hospital, until finally stopping at a base near his wife and family. Here they would finally see him and his son would see him for the first time since birth, almost eight years earlier.
“Everyone was doing well, it was 2 o’clock in the morning and my whole family was there,” he remembered fondly. “I hugged the girls. They had come screaming because they had still remembered me but my son, when I hugged him, he didn’t really hug back because I was a total stranger.”
While receiving gifts from his family, he noticed his son staying away from the action. Harris opened his arms to his son and was welcomed to find his son run and jump into his arms. He recalled knowing in that moment, they bonded as father and son.
Harris said there are many memories that have faded, but none of them will ever fully leave him.
He recalled the day before his capture when they executed a mission in which they attacked the Thanh Hoa Bridge, and were told to follow the same exact plan for a follow-up mission, with an exception to use bombs rather than guided missiles.
“We went in at the same time from the same direction and at the same altitude,” Harris recalled. “I was part of the first flight of four and boy, were they ready for me.”
Harris was the first aircraft to drop his bomb on target and explained what happened after he dove down.
“There was so much anti-aircraft fire bursting everywhere,” he laughed. “They were sitting there with their fingers on the trigger … they knew precisely where to aim and they really let loose!”
He explained the amount of focus it took to drop a bomb and he was unable to register what was going on; the training kicked in and instincts began to drive his actions.
“All that took up every bit of my attention,” he said. “It didn’t affect me until after I dropped the bomb and bottomed out, doing six G’s or so, and my aircraft was hit. I wasn’t able to stay with it very long. I tried to radio my squadron mates and tell them I’d been hit and would probably have to eject, but the transmission was never received.”
He was captured and kept alive for information as he was transported to multiple POW camps, most notably the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ an infamous camp that held U.S. prisoners throughout the Vietnam War.
“One of the things I was driven by was to never do anything that would bring dishonor to me, the Air Force or my family,” Harris said.
His wife, two daughters and newborn son wouldn’t see him for over eight years, but would remain in some form of contact whenever possible with letters sparsely being sent back and forth throughout his time as a prisoner.
Communication with his family was important, but the communication inside of the camp was absolutely essential for everyone’s survival. Harris taught the TAP code to other POWs and it proved to be one of the most effective ways for individuals to have some form of conversation.
“We had to have some kind of communication to carry out the senior ranking officers directives,” Harris said. “It was also wonderful for our morale to have another American to talk to about anything.”
They were tortured periodically, moved from camp to camp, and had every opportunity to break, but didn’t. By watching their fellow POWs return with honor, it reinforced them to stay strong when it was their time for interrogation. Surrounded by the military family, they pushed each other to be outstanding even in the hardest of situations.
“We had a lot of peer pressure to do the best that we could,” Harris said. “When all of us would accept torture to a large degree before giving them anything, it denied the North Vietnamese the objective of what they were trying to do. We became tougher and gained pride. We were doing something that was beneficial.”
The TAP code proved to be beneficial and had saved his life and many others on many occasions. It was even used after his release in February 1973.
“We assumed that release was coming up very soon,” he recalled. “So when we came back to Hanoi we provided a notification of our release. We were really enthralled, happy it was going to be over, but we were also very weary that would actually happen. We kind of took it with a grain of salt, hopeful, but not sure.”
Now 45 years later after that uncertainty, Harris said keeping connections with his fellow POWs is also important to him. A large group of them meet every year and have kept up with each other outside of the reunions as well.
“We bonded pretty well as a brotherhood, because everyone there knew that any of us would go through the ultimate trials to save his buddies,” Harris said.
Many years after his repatriation and return home, Harris said he can look back now and see nothing had changed. He stood his whole life with pride in America, in the Air Force and with his work.
“I think the greatest lesson I was most proud of was the service, the honor, the integrity and importance of our service to the country,” Harris said. “We were all proud to be able to do what we did to the best of our abilities ... I guess that is what I’ve taken away from it all.”