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In September 1965, five months after my husband, Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, crashed his plane over Vietnam and disappeared, I was getting accustomed to living in Tupelo, Miss.
I was told by the casualty officer that they didn’t know if he had survived the crash, but I knew in my heart that Smitty was alive.
Although we had only lived in Tupelo a couple of months, I already knew I could not have picked a better spot to raise my three small children. With a population of 17,000, everyone knew everyone, and in the hospitable Southern way, the town quickly welcomed me and the children warmly and without question.
While other POW wives were experiencing the negative effects of antiwar activists, I was experiencing the open arms of acceptance and support.
As I settled into my new home, I fluctuated between being grateful and overwhelmed. It was tough navigating so many changes without Smitty’s help and support, but not knowing how he was faring was simply terrible.
One day, around four in the afternoon, I received a call from the local postmaster, Banks Livingston. I answered the phone, and he quickly got straight to the point.
“Mrs. Harris, I think I have a letter for you from your husband,” he said all in one breath.
“You have what?” I practically screamed in the phone.
“I think I have a letter from your husband. It is addressed to Louise Harris, Tupelo, Mississippi. There’s no street address on it. In the top left corner, it says Carlyle Smith Harris.”
“Oh, Mr. Livingston! Where are you and how can I get it?”
“I’ll meet you at the back door of the post office,” he quickly replied.
I called to my niece, Deb, to please watch my three small children, and I hopped into my car and practically flew to the post office. True to his word, Mr. Livingston was waiting at the back door.
He handed me the letter, and with one look I exclaimed, “It’s from him! I recognize the handwriting!”
My name and Smitty’s name were definitely in his handwriting, though the partial address was in a different script.
Overcome with joy, I threw my arms around a startled Mr. Livingston. He seemed as excited as I was, and he hugged me right back.
I immediately took the letter home, intent on opening it with the children, wanting to share this moment, this precious memory, with them. I ran into the house, and Deb helped me gather all three around me on the couch.
With shaking hands, I opened the envelope and unfolded the paper that Smitty’s hands had also held. It was dated Friday, June 25, 1965.
Careful to keep my emotions in check, I read the letter aloud.
Words cannot express my love and concern for you and the girls and our new baby boy. My thoughts and prayers are with you constantly. The people here found out and advised me of the birth of our son and that you both were OK. I have never had happier news. Because of you and the kids, I can still say I am the luckiest man on earth.
Louise — please don’t worry about me because it is completely unnecessary. I am uninjured, healthy, in good spirits, and well taken care of. I am living with other American pilots, and we get plenty of good food, clothes, medical care if required, and adequate living and hygiene facilities.
I paused slightly, wondering if this part was true. I knew Smitty might try to paint a better picture so that I wouldn’t worry, and I had been informed that if he sent letters, it might include some propaganda — information that the North Vietnamese wanted portrayed.
I could not dwell on that thought long, as the children were antsy to hear more.
I have started daily exercises and am sure that when I am released, I can get a job on TV with an exercise program and be the idol of 1,000,000 American women—what do you think of that?
Now that sounds like my Smitty, I thought as I laughed out loud. The children didn’t understand what I was laughing about, but they joined in anyway.
I know that Mother, bless her heart, is very upset over my capture. Please help her, and Dad and Mary too, to understand that I am just fine and it is just a matter of time until I am released. Give them my love and tell them I demand that they not worry and that if they do, I will fuss with them when I get home.
On a serious vein, Louise—I am convinced that there is a reason for all of this. Perhaps we are being given an opportunity to strengthen our faith to merit some very special graces in the future. Whatever the reason, I am sure we can use this time to become emotionally and spiritually stronger. We are separated, but we still have our love and will have years and years together after I am released. So we are really losing nothing important, and I am sure will gain in other ways.
Louise, I know the big responsibilities you suddenly are facing at a time when you are having to take care of the almost constant demands of a new baby. I have absolute faith in your good judgment and your ability to take care of all of this and still maintain your sense of humor and composure, and remain your own lovely, lovely self. I will never understand how I was lucky enough to fall in love with and marry the most wonderful girl in the world. I am addressing this to Tallahassee because I imagine that you will be or are in the States now. My guess is that you will spend some time with both our families and perhaps stay with one until I am released. Later on, you may want to get a place of your own. In any event, please get a maid to help you with the kids and to give you some free time to entertain, go to parties, etc. See how much fun you can have, and I am sure the time will pass quickly until we are together again.
I am anxious to hear from you and get all the news about our little boy, also to hear about the latest doings of Robin and Carolyn. You might try regular mail, a peace organization, or a U.S. Senator as a means of getting me a letter.
Give Robin and Carolyn a big hug and kiss for me and tell them I love them very much. They are such good and sweet little girls, and their daddy misses them very, very much. I am popping all my buttons with pride over our little boy. Give him an extra hug for me too.
Louise, I must repeat, I am in excellent health and spirits. I keep mentally and physically busy so the time passes quickly. In retrospect I am sure this separation will seem short. I love you with every ounce of my heart and soul. Please take care of yourself.
All my love,
When I finished reading the letter, I refolded it, placed it back in the envelope, and held it close to my heart. I scooped my three children in my arms and hugged them closely. As tears began to form in my eyes, I dismissed myself so they would not see my emotion. Such bittersweet words of comfort and encouragement!
It would be more than seven years before I would see my beloved Smitty again.
Taken 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.