Tap Code: Former POW, wife connect with Columbus AFB Airmen

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hannah Bean
  • 14th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

Retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris and his wife Louise signed more than 130 books for members of Team BLAZE at the Columbus Event Center here Jan. 10.


Smitty, originally from Preston, Maryland, now living with his wife Louise in Tupelo, Miss. released a book titled “Tap Code: the Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything.”


“It’s a huge opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity, to interact with somebody who has been there and has experienced things like this,” said Capt. Joshua Castagnetta, 50th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot. “It’s a chance for us to learn from their experiences so that we can carry it on and pass it to the next generation.”


The book, written from the perspectives of Smitty and Louise, shares never-before-told details of underground operations during the Vietnam War while showcasing a true story of having the strength, dignity and resolve necessary to endure challenging circumstances.


The story begins when Smitty was shot down over Vietnam on April 4, 1965, having no idea what awaited him in the infamous Hoa Lo prison, also known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’ Smitty was the sixth American Prisoner of War captured in the air war over North Vietnam.


In the midst of the struggle, Smitty remembered learning the Tap Code from an instructor pilot during his time in an escape and evasion school. Unlike Morse Code, consisting of variously spaced dots and dashes or long and short sounds used for transmitting messages by audible or visual signals, Tap Code is based on a five-by-five alphabet matrix, where each letter was communicated by tapping two numbers: the first designated the horizontal row and the second designated the vertical row.


Simple and effective, this code was covertly taught by Smitty to many POWs, which quickly spread throughout the prison and became one of the most covert ways for POWs to communicate without their captors' knowledge. It became a lifeline, morale booster and was instrumental in helping them prevail over a brutal enemy.