Few letters of the alphabet have come to mean more to Retired Col. Carlyle Smith “Smitty” Harris than GBU. As a prisoner of war in Vietnam for “seven years, 10 months, and some days,” hearing — and sending — the secret tap code for God bless you through cell walls helped save sanity.
“Over there, our friends were in adjacent cells,” the former fighter pilot, now 82, said Saturday by phone from his home in Tupelo. “When POWs would be taken away and mistreated and came back after a few days, or however long they were gone, they would always be down, physically, spiritually and emotionally. And the first thing they would hear would be GBU tapped out.”
Harris’ faith, and its importance to his survival as one of the longest-held prisoners of the Vietnam War, will be his message Thursday at the annual Town and Tower Prayer Breakfast at the Columbus Country Club.
“Col. Harris is credited with actually introducing the tap code to POWs in Vietnam so prisoners could communicate,” said Sid Caradine, current president of Town and Tower, an organization promoting mutual interests of Columbus and Mississippi University for Women.
Two taps and a pause …
The code, which became a lifeline to prisoners, is based on a matrix of the alphabet. On the dreary prison walls in Hanoi, for example, two taps followed by a pause and then two more taps signaled “G.” One tap, a pause and two taps were a “B.” Four taps, a pause and five taps meant “U.”
Harris talked of the code’s origins and how he came to instigate it after his jet was shot down over North Vietnam. He recalled a survival school he had attended in Reno, Nev.
“They talked about communication in the camps and how important it was,” he began. “The instructor brought up the fact that in World War II, Americans were held in groups in barracks, but they were able to communicate to other barracks by tapping on a water pipe.”
He continued, “It was just by chance, as I was walking out of the classroom and the instructor was walking out, too, that I said, ‘Tell me, how did they send the dashes?’ because I was thinking it was Morse code.”
The instructor took Harris to the chalkboard and drew out the alphabet grid.
“I recalled it when I was a POW,” Harris stated. “I was one of the early ones shot down, and it was so important that we be able to communicate.”
Thanks in great part to the colonel, the code was put into use and passed on. With it, otherwise isolated prisoners could exchange information ranging from who had been added to their ranks to who was hurt and needed donations of meager rations.
“We would go to unbelievable risks and dangers to teach the code to new people,” Harris told a symposium at Randolph Air Force Base in 1998. “The importance of the tap code could not be underestimated. It helped morale. It kept the chain of command alive and gave us support.”
The code is now taught throughout the armed services, Harris said Saturday.
Bound by beliefs
Caradine said, “No one should ever again complain about anything in their lives after hearing Col. Harris’ story and others who were POWs in Vietnam. We should all drop to our knees and thank God for living in the most free country in the world.”
In an earlier account Harris wrote of his experience, he shared, “When things were really bad, there was a hierarchy of beliefs without which we could not have survived. The first was a belief in God, then our country, our fellow POWs and our family and friends back home. We simply must not let them down. And we gained strength to prevail over a brutal enemy by our firm foundation in these beliefs.”
He continued, “No matter what our religious practices had been prior to captivity, there were no atheists when we reached a point we were not sure we would survive. We prayed. Somehow almost all of us gained the strength to continue and eventually came home with our honor intact. Unfortunately, there were some who were killed or could not survive their treatment.”
The forged bond among those remaining POWs is still strong today. And it’s not unusual at all, Harris said, to find “GBU” at the end of an email or letter from any one of them.
The event begins at 7:15 a.m. Cost to attend is $10. To make reservations, contact Andrea Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 662-329-7148.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.