Smitty Harris: What sustained this Vietnam POW in those first moments of captivity

A look back at Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s

Jennifer Griffin takes us back through the history of US-Vietnam relations.

It was 11:00 a.m. on April 4, 1965.

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.

LOUISE HARRIS: THEY SAID MY HUSBAND VANISHED IN VIETNAM — BUT I KNEW HE WAS ALIVE

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.

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.  

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 15-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.

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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.

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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 was now missing in action, and a prisoner of the Vietnamese. And I didn’t know if would take almost eight years to make it back home to my darling wife, Louise.

Excerpted from Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything by Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris (ret.) and Sara W. Berry. Copyright © 2019 by Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris (ret.) and Sara W. Berry. Used by permission of Zondervan. 

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