Resilience on the Homefront: A POW wife's story

  • Published
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

When Capt. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris ejected from his F-105 Thunderchief Apr.  4, 1965, he left behind the cockpit of a doomed airplane and a family he dearly loved. 

At his 67th Tactical Fighter Squadron’s base in Okinawa, the captain’s wife was unaware her husband’s plane had been destroyed by antiaircraft fire and she was expecting their third child in a matter of weeks.

North Vietnamese villagers nearby had witnessed the plane lead an attack on what had been the  second strike on the Thanh Hoa bridge in two days.  With a broken shoulder he suffered from ejecting at 690 miles per hour and a banged up knee sustained during his parachute landing, Smitty was easily overpowered by a large group of men.

He could still hear bombs exploding and anti-aircraft fire around his target in the distance.

“They correctly identified me as the pilot who was bombing their bridge and they were very unhappy,” Smitty said.  They stripped him of both his flight suit and boots and took him to their village.

One man pointed a finger at Smitty’s forehead to designate a target for riflemen twelve feet away.

“I guess your mind will not let you comprehend such a dire thing.  I tried to say a prayer and I tried to stand up straight and look as military as I could in my skivvies,” Smitty said.

At the last minute, an older man intervened speaking Vietnamese and apparently convinced the would-be executioner to spare Smitty’s life.  Americans, Smitty found out later, were more valuable alive than dead.

Later, in a room all alone where his captors had bound him to a vertical pole, Smitty reflected on his and his family’s situation.  He had married Louise less than six years earlier.  She was nine years younger than he, but she had impressed Smitty with her independence, her maturity and by the way she stood up for herself. 

Once, for example, when they were dating, Smitty had introduced Louise to a friend with a different girl’s name – ‘Jane,” he had called her.  Unrestrained by shyness, she warned him, “well, ‘Tarzan,’ you better get my name straight at least.”  The “other girl’s name” episode became a joke between the couple--typical of their light-hearted relationship.   

Back in Okinawa, Louise Harris had not slept well the night after Smitty flew away and at 6:30 a.m. on Apr. 5, her phone rang.

“I’m so sorry,” Louise’s mother said from her home back in the states.   “Smitty’s been shot down and they don’t think he made it.”.

Her mother explained to Louise how Smitty’s elderly parents in Maryland had been the first to be notified.  Louise was confident there had been a mistake, so she hung up and called Smitty’s squadron commander’s wife. 

On hearing “Louise, somebody will be right there,” she knew the grim news was true.

“I had those few minutes before the little blue cars arrived to think,” Louise said.  “I knew instantly that he was alive; if he hadn’t been alive, I would have felt it.”

Ordinarily when something like this happened, families were shipped out back to the mainland.  Louise and her daughters, ages four and three at the time, had already moved several times in the last year. 

They also had a house, a car and support.  Louise, at the time “very pregnant,” also had consistent medical care, which at this stage of her pregnancy was very important.    

“They said I had to leave, but I said ‘No, I won’t.  I’m staying right here until this baby is born and I know what I want to do and I’m going to stay here until I have all the information I can possibly get.”

In the months that followed, Louise accumulated scraps of information from squadron and base leaders; to her surprise, she would also hear encouraging news from the Okinawans. 

They would say “your husband is alive” and “your husband is OK according to Japanese radio reports,” she said.

Louise recalled how other wives looked after her and provided a baby shower, as well as how the other officers in Smitty’s squadron were sensitive to her situation.  She recalled how, one day, she went to the Officer’s Club for Sunday brunch and when she stumbled getting up, the whole squadron rose in unison as if spring loaded to keep her from falling.

“One of my best friends told me you will never be tested beyond your power to endure,” Louise said.  “Every time I would get to a low spot something would happen to lift me up.”

Every day, she went to the church and prayed, remaining confident Smitty was alive. 

On May 14, 1965, just six weeks after Smitty’s capture, Louise packed a bag and went directly to the hospital.  At first, the nurse told Louise they would not admit her. 

“I am here to have this baby and this is my third child and you will be keeping me,” Louise recalled telling the nurse.  When the doctor saw what was going on, he intervened and 45 minutes later Louise gave birth to her son. 

Left to her decide their new son’s name alone, Louise gave the baby his name despite what she thought Smitty might have wanted. 

“Smitty always said he would not have a junior, but he had a junior,” Louise said of Carlyle Smith Harris, Junior, named for his POW father.

At the same time, in an infamous North Vietnamese prison the captured pilots had nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, Smitty was enduring torture and agonizing periods of isolation. 

“I was focused on trying my very best to live up to the Code of Conduct... I wanted to do what I was supposed to and do and what I knew my squadron mates would expect me to do,” Smitty said. “I tried to act and react in a manner that would not give [the North Vietnamese] any advantage.”

Isolation meant that there was very little opportunity to communicate with other American prisoners.  

By sheer chance, Smitty had learned a communication technique during Air Force survival training that prisoners could use to tap out coded messages for each other.  He was so proficient doing it he was able to teach others the code.  As the number of POWs were growing,  the code started to have a profound effect on morale among the prisoners as time passed.

“Within six months, six of my buddies from the 67th Fighter Squadron had come up to North Vietnam to see how I was doing,” he quipped, now looking back on the spring and summer of 1965 when downed American pilots were imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton. 

One of those new prisoners delivered the news to Smitty his wife had given birth to their son and that his family was doing well.

In Okinawa, Louise decided to return to Tupelo, Miss., where her sister and her sister’s family lived.  Her baby was just six weeks old.  She sold the car and their house and headed to the states with the three children and no certainty she’d ever see her husband again. 

To make matters worse, she was warned to keep a low profile because Smitty could suffer at the hands of his captors if they heard anything she might say.

“It was when I got back to the States that everything kind of fell to pieces,” Louise said.  “That is when I started having to stand on my hind legs and say, wait a minute...but I was prepared.”

After flying to Maryland enroute to Tupelo, Louise was reunited with family and friends.  An “apple-cheeked second lieutenant” sent to be her escort then delivered her unwelcomed news about the Air Force’s decision concerning her family’s financial affairs. 

The officer explained the Secretary of the Air Force had decided Smitty’s pay, minus $350, would be held in an interest bearing account until he was released and that it was a good deal.  Louise and the family, they had said, could suffice on the fraction of pay that Smitty had routinely set aside in a separate account long before the two were married.

“That isn’t happening; I am responsible for the children and I’m going to stay at home and take care of the children and that’s what’s going to happen,” Louise told her escort. “When we get to the house you can get [the Secretary of the Air Force] on the phone.” 

Louise had worked as a legal assistant and she had her general power of attorney and all the other paperwork she needed to manage the family’s personal affairs. 

Furthermore, Louise knew $350 a month wasn’t enough to care for the children.  She had no house, no car and was tired from the overseas trip with three small children, but she wasn’t about to back down. 

“When somebody was essentially threatening my children’s well-being, there was no doubt that I was going to do what I was going to do and I was going to take care of my children,” Louise said.

Back at the house after a few phone calls had been made, the reluctant lieutenant handed Louise the phone.  On the other end was the Secretary of the Air Force himself.  After quick introductions, Louise took a stand.

“Sir, I really don’t care what decisions you have made,” she told the Secretary of the Air Force.  “I have a power of attorney and the papers my husband signed that I am to receive 100% of his pay allotment; this is what I intend to have happen.”

Within an hour, Louise had heard back with the news she would get the full pay entitlement she had insisted on.

However, that was just the first of many hurdles Louise would need to overcome as she settled in Tupelo and the first of several temporary dwellings.

Before their trip back to the States, Louise had sold the family car to take advantage of a General Motors program overseas that allowed buyers to purchase a car with delivery to a port of choice.  She had selected New Orleans as her port of choice because it was close to Tupelo, but then a GM representative contacted Louise and unapologetically directed her to pick the car up in Baltimore. 

Knowing the hardship a trip to the east coast would cause, Louise appealed to the representative, but he was unmoved and insisted she travel to Baltimore, a full 500 miles from Tupelo one way. 

“I called Mr. [Elliot M. “Pete”] Estes, who was the president of General Motors and I called him collect,” Louise said. 

Estes provided Louise a code and his phone number and instructions to go to the nearest GM dealer in Tupelo.   She did as instructed and thirty minutes later, Louise had a new Buick station wagon.

Within a two-year period, Louise and her children had lived in four different rental houses in Tupelo.  When the fourth house was put on the market, potentially putting her and the children out of a house yet again, Louise decided to buy it utilizing a Veterans Affairs loan.

“The VA said sorry, but you can’t have a VA loan because your husband can’t sign the papers saying you can have a VA loan for this house,” Louise said. “I told them that if I could get him to sign a piece of paper of any kind, I’d be thrilled to death, but he happens to be a POW.”

Never one to back down from a challenge, Louise contacted Senator John Stennis, who at the time was the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The senator jumped in and by the next day, the head of the VA in Jackson, Miss. was knocking on her front door to help.

Louise said people did try to help, but the world had changed since previous wars.

“I wasn’t the first wife of a POW, but they were playing catch up.  They didn’t know what they were doing.  There were lots of experiments.  I was one of them.  Groundwork was being laid.  Every single case was different.  It was a mess,” she said.

Nevertheless, Louise had to maintain a positive attitude.

“Children look to you for what they are going to believe in,” she said.  “You had to be upbeat and focus on their well-being.  I always figured that if he could do what [Smitty] could do, then I could do my job.”

One day in August of 1965, Louise received a call from the Tupelo postmaster, saying he thought they had a received a letter from Smitty for her.

In a propaganda ploy to convince the world it was treating prisoners humanely, his North Vietnamese captors had allowed a few POWs to write letters home.  While most of the other letters were never mailed, Smitty said his letter was smuggled out by a British diplomat.

“The message I wanted to send Louise was that I was well, that I loved her and the kids, and for them not to worry, when we got back together everything would be just as it had been in the past,” Smitty said.

Days turned to weeks and weeks to months and finally, months to years, while the children grew up.  In his absence, Louise kept Smitty alive in everything the family did. 

“Every day, because it was so uncertain and yet there was the certainty in my mind and I wanted to always convey that to the children that any day that door could open and Smitty could walk through it,” she said. “So we lived every day as though he would come through that door. We talked and we lived as though he would come home any day.”   

She told the children humorous stories Smitty had told her, like how jackrabbits and armadillos would sometimes crossbreed and create “jackadillos.” 

“(The children) loved daddy stories; it gave them a vision of daddy,” Louise said. 

The family made regular trips to visit Smitty’s parents in Maryland and to see military airplanes at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. 

“We were focused on family all the time and [Smitty] was much a part of that,” Louise said. 

Then one day in 1973, Louise was planting magnolia trees at the Tupelo library in honor of the POW’s when a National Guard general delivered the news Smitty and the other POWs were going to be released.

“The whole town of Tupelo was celebrating,” Louise said.

After 2,871 days of captivity, on Feb. 12, 1973, Smitty was among the first POWs to be released and he began his return trip home though the Philippines. 

Louise was barraged by calls, one after the other, which she dismissed in rapid fire as she waited on the call from her husband.  Then the phone rang and just as she was ready to hang up she heard a voice telling her not to hang up and that her husband was on the line.

“In that moment, I thought oh please God, just let him say something that lets me know that he feels the way I do,” Louise remembered.  “Then he came on the phone and said, ‘hi Jane this is Tarzan.”

Louise knew in that moment everything was going to be alright.

“We had not missed a beat.  And we still haven’t,” Louise said.

Smitty was eager from the moment he returned to never waste a minute, with Louise describing him as hyper and never wanting to miss anything. 

Despite missing out on eight years of their lives, Smitty quickly bonded with his daughters Robin and Corlyn, as well as son Lyle.

Smitty retired from the Air Force in 1979 a colonel, also earning a graduate and law degree, with a successful career in business. 

The Harris’s and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have thrived.  Despite a high divorce rate nationally and among other POW spouses, the couple says they have never quarreled. 

“We have such a finely tuned appreciation of life.  Why would you fight?  Why would you waste a minute?” Louise said.

To this day, they continue to live among tall pine trees in the quiet city of Tupelo.

An F-105 in woodland camouflage pattern sits on a platform at Tupelo’s Veteran’s Memorial Park.  Smitty’s name is painted on the left side of the cockpit and a placard below the plane tells not just Smitty’s story, but that of his whole family and their personal victory.

“We are happy, blessed and gifted,” Louise said.