I sat with my friend, Robin, as we talked home décor and paint colors, casually sipping our hot, afternoon coffee. My “new” friend was quickly becoming my dear friend. We had known of each other for years, as we both lived in the idyllic town of Tupelo, Mississippi, and shared many common interests not the least of which was love of God, country, and family.
Both her sister, Carolyn, and her brother, Lyle and their families have been my kind neighbors in North Tupelo for years. I knew of her family’s tremendous story, as I had watched from afar as snippets of the story came to me through newspaper articles and my children, who were in school with her nieces and nephews. Her dad, COL Carlyle Smith “Smitty” Harris, had been held captive as a POW for almost eight years, and he was well respected in our community. I knew bits and pieces of his story, but I had never met the man himself.
On this day in my living room, Robin began to share more details of their family’s story, and I was fascinated. Having read some of my books, Robin asked me if I would consider writing the story in book form.
Though flattered, I immediately thought, “Me? What do I know about the Vietnam War?”
I was not yet born when Smitty was shot down in enemy territory. When he was suffering torture and malnutrition, I was growing up in a loving family, filled with joy and fun memories, in an even smaller town, fifty miles down the road from Tupelo. When Smitty returned home, I was finishing kindergarten. Though as a writer, I was attracted and tempted by this story, drawn to it like a moth to a flame, I still was not convinced I was the one to write.
“You write it, Robin. I have read some of your writing. You can do it! I will help you!”
“It needs to be written by someone who is not so close to it. Someone who can see all the details from far away,” she explained. “At least pray about it,” she said.
“I promise I will pray,” I replied, and we even prayed together right there at my dining room table.
That night, I reached for my Bible, which is my daily custom. I like reading the One Year Bible, which gives assigned readings for each day and takes the reader through the Bible in one year. On this day, my assigned reading included Jeremiah 30. By the end of the chapter, I was thunderstruck at what I read.
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says, ‘Write in a book all the words I have spoken to you. The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their forefathers to possess,’ says the Lord.”
Stunned, I continued reading as I made my way to Chapter 31, verse 8 “See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth.” And verse 16 and 17 continued in this theme with, “They will return from the land of the enemy. So, there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord.”
These words written thousands of years before seemed a mirror image of what little I knew of the story of Smitty and Louise Harris.
“Okay, Lord. I will do my best,” I prayed.
And my best I have done. This work is not perfect, nor is it complete. A hundred books could not hold all the beautiful, intricate details of this story of one faithful family. I could have written it from so many different perspectives, and all would have been worth telling. But as I gleaned more and more information, I realized that my focus should simply be on Smitty and Louise and their human spirit and great love for God, country, and each other.
I will never forget the first of many days I spent on their sofa in North Tupelo. The room—their den—is both comfortable and elegant. Smitty, now 90, and Louise, 81, are as sharp, witty, and together as any persons decades younger. Though they sat on opposite couches, I noticed how they looked at each other, as if they were speaking at once—together—in unison—as one told a snippet, then allowed time for the other to speak. Louise, with her beautiful, clear blue eyes and pure, soft white hair, seemed as if she were holding Smitty’s hand, just by the way she looked at him across the room when he spoke.
“We get along very well,” Louise commented one day. “We never argue. Why would we waste time on that?” she said as if it made perfect sense. And that small piece of wisdom has crossed my mind many days since, etching its way into my own life.
When the inevitable delays in writing came, they were filled with grace and patience. They approached this project as if they were delighted to share, but unconcerned when or if it ever happened. The story was told to me with great detail and superb memory. I marveled at their grace. I marveled at their healing. And I marveled the many times they insisted that the main objective was for people to see that overall, the net effect has been positive on their lives and that of their children and grandchildren. “We are truly blessed in every aspect of our lives. God’s been good to us,” they repeatedly told me.
As you read through this true story, know that an imperfect person took a brilliant accounting which Smitty started in the late 70’s but never finished, and wove in many more details, scenes, and memories which were told to me by Smitty and Louise as we sat in their lovely home. From there I researched websites and articles and read more wonderful books by other POWs than I would have ever imagined to read. And yet, our readers, if you find mistakes in my accounting of the details of the most complex war our nation has ever fought, those mistakes are mine alone and were unintended. I hope you see this book as I see it—an amazing and inspiring story of the human spirit.
COL Larry Guarino spoke of Smitty and the tap code in his book, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, saying, “Neither Smitty Harris nor any of us realized that this would be the most valuable life and mind saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.” After reading Tap Code, I hope you will be inspired, as I have, to emulate the grit, honor, and courage of both Smitty and Louise. Through the telling of both sides of their story, which were lived out on opposite sides of the world, I believe you will not only learn important details of American history, but will also see a glimpse of true and enduring love.
As I tearfully told them one day after a lovely session at their home, I am profoundly honored to be given the opportunity to help them tell their inspiring, life-changing true story. It is my great desire that this book brings honor to both of them, their family, our military men in all walks of service, and their families. Most of all, I hope to bring honor to God, who has set me free from my own captivity, just as He has every believing soul. To Him be the glory.
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