Mississippi is home to many military heroes, but Tupelo resident Colonel Carlyle “Smitty” Harris is one of the state’s finest.
He and Louise, his wife of 64 years, raised three children, Robin, Carolyn, and Lyle. Now, at the age of 94, Harris continues to be a source of encouragement and inspiration for his family and community.
Harris enlisted in the Air Force in January 1951, entered the Aviation Cadet Program in August 1952, and was awarded his pilot wings in September 1953. After advanced pilot training and a stint as a flight instructor, he was eventually transferred to the 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron, where he flew combat missions in Vietnam.
On April 4, 1965, the F-105D he was piloting came under heavy fire. Harris was forced to eject behind enemy lines and was immediately captured, stripped, and forced to march to the nearest village filled with angry, armed captors. Suffering from a broken shoulder and a badly injured knee, the prospects for his survival were grim.
But Harris learned later that American soldiers were much more valuable alive than dead. So, he spent the next 94 months of his life as an American prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam. In those eight years, Louise never lost hope for her husband’s return. In turn, she and their children, one of whom was born six weeks after his capture, were the reasons Harris was determined to make it back home as well.
Their story of courage, hope, and love is documented in Tap Code, written by award-winning author Sara W. Berry in conjunction with Harris.
The biographical book also details the atrocities Harris and his fellow POWs faced, and it highlights the precious mode of communication that he taught his brothers during their internment. This “tap code” was a lifeline that connected the prisoners who were often isolated for long periods. Many of the POWs credited Harris and his tap code with their survival and sanity.
Ironically, Harris gathered the basics for this code from a single, brief conversation with an Air Force instructor. With a simple alphabetical grid as its foundation, the code consisted of five rows by five columns, using 25 letters and omitting the letter K.
The POWs tapped on whatever was available (walls, pipes, floors) to talk to each other while providing information and hope. Their tap code was a lifeline, tying them to each other and to the possibility of a life beyond the walls of their prisons – a life back home with those they loved.
When Harris did make it back home, Louise was waiting faithfully, and like her husband, she had used their long years of separation to encourage and support other POW wives and family members.
After his release on February 12, 1973, Harris and Louise had one goal in mind: Never waste another day of their lives together. And they have faithfully kept that vow, constantly living and loving each other and those around them with a magnetic vibrancy garnered from the darkest days of their lives.
Please take the time to thank Col. Harris and other great Mississippi heroes like him. Their sacrificial service and the sacrifices of their families helped provide the freedoms we enjoy today.