COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --
“It’s such a pleasure to be here today with you,” began retired Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, former Vietnam War prisoner of war. “One of the things I like most is to be with and talk to those folks in blue suits.”
He acknowledged the crowd, and congratulated the newly graduated Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 18-06.
After thanking the wing and the families he spoke to the graduates about their accomplishment, and how it will change their lives, like it had his.
“The things that have led you to this point are significant; intelligence, education, positive attitudes, perseverance, sacrifice and God given abilities,” Harris said. “The most important attributes however concern character. You have values you learned your entire lives … All of the attributes have been honed through your pilot training.”
He went on to explain a story from his life, to show the power of the attributes all pilots develop through their training and through their lives.
“On one bombing mission my concentration on task and target was interrupted suddenly,” he said.
Harris spent 2,871 days as one of the first prisoners of war in the Vietnam War after being shot down April 4, 1965, during a bombing run. Hismission was to target the Thanh Hoa Bridge, one of the most important transportation routes the North Vietnamese had throughout the Vietnam War.
“After ejecting from my crippled airplane, I was captured almost immediately upon landing,” Harris said. “The conditions were very, very rough in captivity. We were mistreated malnourished, denied medical attention, and constantly denied POW status; rather we were told we were criminals of war and must pay for our crimes against the North Vietnamese people. Never before had I been so called upon to rely on training and the values learned during my life.”
In the early days of his incarceration there were about 350 pilots held as POWs in North Vietnam. They were isolated and unable to communicate with each other.
The POWs we tortured and interrogated consistently for information and propaganda, but resisted with strength and resiliency more powerful than the North Vietnamese could have imagined.
“Our most important assets turned out to be our communication with each other. One day early in 1965 four of us were taken out of solitary confinement and placed us in a cell together. We were ecstatic and stayed up all night talking … Four days after that we were put back into solitary confinement.
Harris taught the three men in the cell the TAP code, which led to the POWs ability to communicate and organize inside of the camps.
They risked their lives to teach incoming captives about the code, to continue the organization and communication throughout the war.
“We went to extreme efforts and jeopardized ourselves sometimes to transmit the TAP code to new shoot downs,” Harris said. “If we were being walked by a guard we would yell out instructions for the TAP code. It was that important. We knew we were putting ourselves in great physical jeopardy by doing so but usually the guards were so startled we were defying them, but since they were in charge of us that act would reflect poorly on them, so sometimes they wouldn’t turn us in.”
The TAP code brought a chain of command to the camps and helped the POWs keep their morale up. They worked together to keep secrets from the enemy. They practiced everything their training and careers taught them in order to, in some cases, successfully return home many years later.
“The keys to our success in North Vietnam, are all those same attributes you have now,” Harris said. “We were not different from other Air Force and U.S. Navy pilots, but our training and values, when needed, gave us the opportunity to step up to significant challenges. “You are now a part of a brotherhood of air force pilots. To get to this point today you have performed consistently and impressively both in the ground and in the air, and you have now joined an elite band of men and women who through war and peace have worn with pride and honor those same wings you will put on today. I wish you luck, success, and,” he paused to tap the letters G-B-U, standing for ‘God Bless You’, a common phrase that brought him and his fellow POWs in Vietnam hope all those years ago.