Retired Air Force Col. Carlyle Smith “Smitty” Harris speaks Thursday morning during the annual Town and Tower Club Community Prayer Breakfast at the Columbus Country Club in Columbus about his ordeal as a prisoner of war. Photo by: Kelly Tippett
February 3, 2012 11:55:00 AM
On Sundays, they knelt in their dirty prison cell and prayed. At the end of every service, they pledged allegiance to the country no enemy could make them betray.
Their North Vietnamese captors tried everything to silence the prisoners of war and thwart their weekly worship. They told them to stop. They threatened them with tear gas and bayonets. Finally, they dragged three men out to be tortured. As rifle butts struck already-bruised flesh, the men heard a song rising on the wind: "The Star Spangled Banner," sung so loudly by their cell mates that it could be heard from blocks away.
The POWs clung to each other and they clung to their faith, retired Air Force Col. Carlyle Smith "Smitty" Harris said. They risked death to pray -- a privilege nearly 200 people openly shared at the Columbus Country Club Thursday morning during the 12th annual Town and Tower Club Community Prayer Breakfast, where Harris was the guest speaker.
Harris, a resident of Tupelo, was held prisoner in Vietnam for nearly eight years after his F-105D Thunderchief fighter-bomber was shot down over North Vietnam on April 4, 1965 -- a week before his 36th birthday.
He had just dropped eight 750-pound bombs, destroying the Thanh Hoa Bridge, which spanned the Song Ma River in the Thanh Hoa province of Vietnam. When he ejected from his plane, he immediately landed in enemy territory.
For the next week, they interrogated him, but his answers were always the same: Name, rank, service number, date of birth. Nothing more.
When ordered to write a letter to Ho Chi Minh, president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, apologizing for the United States military's actions, Harris refused. He was promised leniency and possible release in return for cooperation. He was threatened with "the ultimate punishment" for disobedience. But he just bowed his head and prayed.
He spent a lot of time praying during years punctuated by solitary confinement, mistreatment, malnourishment and torture at several prison camps, including Hoa Lo -- sarcastically called "Hanoi Hilton" by prisoners.
"Not only did my life change instantly -- it made me a different man," Harris said.
As time wore on, the prisoners became emotionally and physically broken. When their minds and bodies failed them, they turned outside themselves for help. They turned to God.
They prayed for themselves and for fellow POWs. They tapped on the walls of their cells, sending secret messages of encouragement to one another by way of a private code, which Harris is credited with introducing.
His imprisonment taught him the power of prayer, Harris said. It taught him that God answers all prayers, but it is according to His wisdom, not our own. It taught him the gifts of love, acceptance, peace and faith.
"I stand before you one of the most fortunate people," he said. "Every prayer will be answered, and the answer will be grander than you would ever expect."
Columbus resident Jo Shumake said she was surprised at how uplifting Harris' message was, given the experiences he faced as a POW.
"It was a very inspiring story," she said Thursday afternoon. "I'm very proud to have actually had a chance to meet him. I think he hit just the right tone in how important your beliefs are in keeping you whole when you're under an unbelievable amount of stress. The torture, the mind games -- it's just amazing how he can see that as a life-changing, almost positive event in his life."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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