Inspiring True Romance Stories from Vietnam POWs
By Col. Lee Ellis (retired Air Force pilot)
Captured by Love shares the inspiring romance and love stories of POWs who returned from the Vietnam War after five, six, seven and even eight years of incarceration and mistreatment in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison system. Can you imagine many long years isolated from your country, your family, and especially your wife? Imagine being locked up in cells with male combat veterans for 2,000 or more days. Those hardships are what make these successful romance stories so special. But they have never been told.
Upon our return home, we stayed somewhat connected through military assignments but mostly through hanging out at our NamPOW reunions. It was during those events that I heard more and more of the guys telling stories about how they met their wives, and how great their marriages were. Many of these stories were so amazing that even Hollywood screenwriters could not dream up or dare make up such incredible examples of romance, love, and marriage success! How ironic that the POWs physical and mental suffering and years of separation actually helped them create great romance and lasting love.
It’s written to entertain readers and inspire them with the “Love Lessons” from these individuals and couples who overcame incredible pain and suffering to return to the loves of their lives.
Here is a quick overview of the kinds of men and stories we have gathered for you:
- Those who were married when captured and their wives were waiting with open arms when they came home.
- Those who came home to find that their wives had moved on—yet they met their future wife within a few months and have now been married more than 45 years.
- Those who were single when captured and came home ready to date girls again and in no rush to get married—until they met their true love in a matter of weeks and were married in a few months.
- One single guy was engaged when shot down and his fiancée waited for him for seven years. Another was engaged and his fiancée waited for five years.
- One POW’s wife died while he was in prison and he returned to discover that his best friend had been declared Killed in Action (KIA) when the war ended. Then his friend’s widow and he met…
- A Navy pilot’s wife was told that her husband was captured and a POW. She waited six years and he did not come home and was officially declared dead. Within a year she met one of her husband’s friends who had been a POW for seven years…
Get a sneak peek, and read two stories from Captured by Love
God Is Our Pilot
The Story of Ralph & Bobbi Gaither
By Bobbi & Ralph Gaither
posthumously via excerpts from his book With God in a P.O.W. Camp
To start, I wore Ralph’s POW-MIA bracelet for several years before we met.
Soon after he regained his freedom, I didn’t simply meet Ralph, but it was on a blind date! It was secretly arranged by his cousin Judy (my hair stylist) and his sister Shirley. During that date this handsome, rugged fighter pilot recited poetry to me. “Is this guy for real?” I wondered. Yes, he was. Eighty days later we married. Forty-six years after that—during which we had the happiest marriage I could have imagined—Ralph passed away in 2019.
Here is one of many poems Ralph composed during his imprisonment in North Vietnam:
Like a new day’s dawning
Your face comes to my mind;
With the fresh breeze of spring
And fall of summer’s rain
Into this standing time.
Your face is like a light
Bursting through the dim fog
Giving this lost man sight
Through these lonely nights
To Freedom, home and God.
Whatever fate may be,
I face it without fear;
For in this tempest sea
Shines the dream to be free,
And meet with you, my dear.
This love poem wasn’t written for a specific woman. It expressed Ralph’s yearning for a love partner, and the depth of his faith. I like to think he wrote this touching poem for me—years before we met!
I think that great couples are built on shared values, and often on parallel experiences. Ralph and I both grew up in Miami but went to different schools. We both flew for a living—he as a fighter pilot and me as a stewardess (admittedly a much calmer career!). We both grew up in loving families, in the Christian faith, and in a patriotic environment. Oh! And when we met we both owned Corvettes: His was a silver, 1963 split window, and mine was a 1964 red hardtop convertible. How’s that for being in synch with each other?
But for the first three decades of our lives Ralph and I followed different paths. I married at twenty-three, had a beautiful daughter, Nikki, and was divorced at 30. When Ralph was twenty-three and single, he was an Ensign in the Navy, and then, as a Naval Aviator began his Vietnam tour in 1965, flying F-4B Phantom II jets off the USS Independence. He was shot down by the North Vietnamese and spent 2,675 days—more than seven years—in captivity. As he was among the first captured and longest held, he was among the first to return home after the Paris Peace Accords were signed early in 1973.
[A POW cellmate of Ralph’s, and co-author of this book.
I find it fascinating that the first line of Ralph Gaither’s book With God in a P.O.W. Camp is “When I left North Vietnam, I had not planned to write a book”—and yet his book was the very first book written by any of the many members of our Vietnam POW brotherhood. Ralph had a burning desire to share his story—and his testament—with the world, even though he was rather humble. (He didn’t even include a biography in his book!) His first paragraph clarified his motivation…
…The other prisoners had so much more to tell. But I knew I had a story to tell about Christ. As a Baptist, I believe in personal witnessing for Christ. I had seen His love and felt His hand in many difficult times. I had come to know and understand God in a way that should be told to others so that they, too, might understand Him…I told myself, “Ralph, you have two of the greatest things in the world going for you. You have, first, the love of God, and He will never let you down. You have, second, the United States of America, with a President and a people who will never forget you or let you down.”
When Ralph returned home in 1973 from Vietnam after more than seven horrid years I was recently single, had a two-year-old daughter—and the last thing on my mind was meeting someone on a blind date! Exactly one month after Ralph regained his freedom, we met at his cousin Judy’s in Miami and drove (in his Corvette) to Ft. Lauderdale. After a surprisingly fun and comfortable dinner, as we were driving home, Ralph reached over and held my hand. Outwardly I remained calm—but inside I jumped! It had been a long time since I had been on a date, and I wasn’t expecting things to progress so quickly—and easily! We came to a stop light, we gazed at each other, he reached over—and kissed me! While the kiss was a bit of a surprise, the big surprise was that, for the very first time ever, I felt sparks flying! (I’d thought that only happened in the movies!) I was thrilled—and a little scared. But not too scared to willingly throw myself into a whirlwind of dating him!
It wasn’t long until the deal was sealed when my daughter Nikki and I met Ralph’s family in the Florida Keys for a weekend. His family embraced us. They were all warm and kind, and we felt like family right away. Nikki loved his parents. Ralph’s mom, Frances, was a lovely lady and the strength of the family. I miss her chocolate pie but especially her warm smile and hugs.
Later that evening, after scuba diving together, Ralph and I took a walk in the moonlight. We sat under the palm trees and started talking about how fast our relationship was going. He reached over, tenderly brushed his fingers thru my long blonde hair, and kissed me again. He asked me to marry him. I knew it was genuine and spontaneous because the ring he gave me was not a pre-planned classic diamond engagement ring, it was a nearby scuba gear rubber ring! I still have it today.
We decided not to tell anyone right away because we thought it was a bit early for them to accept it. After all, he had been imprisoned for more than seven years in North Vietnam, and I had only recently divorced after seven years. How could anyone be ready to marry after only a few weeks of knowing each other? You’ve heard the old saying, “You know when you know”? Well, it’s true. Ralph and I connected on many deep levels—spiritual values, family focused, genuine, loving—not only on a romantic, infatuation level.
SNAPSHOTS OF LIFE AS A POW
The years were very short. The days were longer. The minutes were even longer. The moments were longest. Time functioned in that inversely logarithmic manner. If a man could make the minute, he could make the year.
* * *
[Ralph’s worst experience was “The Hanoi March,” in which filfty-two of the POWs were marched down the streets of Hanoi, through a frenzied crowd of tens-of-thousands of people.]
The North Vietnamese officer in charge ordered us to march with our heads down…but we would not. Guards grabbed our hair and jerked our heads down. We raised them up again…We were determined. We were Americans…Women and men hammered at our shoulders and bodies with their firsts, and hit us with rocks. The children kicked our legs and flayed at us with their firsts as high as they could reach. Women removed their shoes and beat on our heads with the wooden heels. Men broke into our paths and spat into our faces.
[The prisoners were handcuffed together in pairs. They bled, stumbled and fell many times during the harrowing hour-long walk.
We took turns supporting each other. Jim Bell [whose story is told elsewhere in this book] repeatedly said to me, and I to him, “Stand tall, you’re an American.” [At one point the two of them spoke aloud the entire Twenty-Third Psalm.
[The parade lasted about an hour and was filmed by the North Vietnamese and other international media. The spectacle was designed to generate worldwide sympathy for the suffering of the Vietnamese people. But this propaganda backfired, and instead generated sympathy for the suffering of the American POWs.]
* * *
A few days after my first Christmas in captivity I was taken in for interrogation. I had been in handcuffs for several days, and they told me that my handcuffs would be removed if I would give them a biography. I refused, and they kept me in handcuffs. They were always seeking information from us that they could use as propaganda, and we always resisted. I agonized over the decision to tell them the least little thing about myself. I felt I would be betraying my country, my God, my honor and my fellow prisoners. But then I recalled that some of the guys had told them all kinds of wild things, such as that aircraft carriers have wheels so they can drive on dry land, and the North Vietnamese had believed the story. The lower level soldiers running the prison camps were pretty naive, so I figured a fabricated story would be pretty easy to sell to them.
So finally, I decided to give them my biography. My father, I said, was a Big Foot Indian who belonged to the Foot-Washing Baptist Church of America. My grandfather was Chief Crock-a-gator who lived in the Happy Hunting Grounds and hunted alligators and mudfish for a living. My wingman, I continued, was Dave Brubeck; my briefing officer was Walter Winchell. The interrogator obviously was pleased with himself. During my three previous months as a prisoner, I had given only the stock regulation answers. Now here I was “spilling my guts.” They still weren’t exactly nice to me, but they sure were proud of making progress.
My captors removed the handcuffs, and I was especially grateful for many little things that everyone takes for granted. I could go to the bathroom in a normal manner. I could scratch when I itched. I could sleep on my back with my shoulders straight.
It being the Christmas season I began missing having a Christmas tree. The camp, what little we could see of it, was overgrown with vegetation, but we were not allowed to go anywhere near the growth; we were not allowed to bring a stick even the size of a match into our cells. Outside, we were not even allowed to make a bending motion as though we might pick up something from the ground. Nothing was allowed into our cells, and frequent searches guaranteed the barrenness.
I prayed. Then one afternoon after washing my dishes, I turned to take the one step back into my cell. I looked down, and on the threshold of my door was a tiny leaf blown by the wind. I picked it up with my toes and carried it inside. The door slammed behind me. I carefully took the leaf from between my toes and looked at it for a long time. I held it to my nose. The perfume of freedom raced up my nostrils and infused my mind with its power. I fondled the leaf. It was real. I held it in my hand. God had not forgotten me! I set the leaf on the little ledge by the window. Its greenness stood out in stark contrast to the dull, gray bars. Tears rolled down my cheeks. God had given me a Christmas tree.
[Bobbi adds, “Years later when our four-year-old grandson Wyatt heard this story he finger-painted a leaf for his Pop’s Christmas gift. This cherished gift is framed and hanging in our living room.”]
BACK IN AMERICA
Returning to an American culture that had transformed radically between 1965 and 1973 Ralph was slow to adjust to some things. He had slept on concrete so long it was an adjustment sleeping on a comfortable bed. The style in clothes was interesting and he liked the miniskirts he had heard about from the new shoot-downs.
Ralph was not a stereotypical rugged, macho fighter pilot. I know it probably sounds overly romantic to say, but he was sincerely a very kind, calm, poised person. He was creative, sensitive and attentive. He was a gentleman, and soft-spoken. God only knows how he retained all these qualities and was able to express them immediately after seven years of inhumane treatment. I’m certain that, literally, “God only knows” how he did this!
Ralph and I thanked God every day of our four decades as husband and wife.
Ralph embraced fatherhood and loved his girls. They grew up learning to love poetry. He would recite poetry for bedtime stories, played guitar and sang for them. It wasn’t until they were much older that they were surprised to learn that their friends’ fathers didn’t sing and make up their own bedtime stories, but read from books instead! Ralph adjusted easily to the advances that women in America had made in eight years, and he taught the girls how to use all of the tools and machines in his wood shop. To this day they can still fix a leaky faucet, a toilet, change the oil filter in a car, and confidently tackle any mechanical challenge.
Ralph continued to serve in the Navy for fourteen more years. His ongoing military career took us from the East to the West coast. He was a flight instructor at Miramar, California, in charge of training in Land Survival at North Island, and Water Survival in Pensacola.
Now let me tell you about Ralph and his “toys”: Planes, boats, cars and the many tools and heavy equipment necessary to keep everything running smoothly. He used to say, “If a man made it, I can fix it.” And he was right! He was an artistic craftsman of many talents. Besides writing and doing artful calligraphy, he made beautiful furniture, and hand carved doors and many other things. My favorite is a baby cradle he made for our daughter Amy, who was born two years after we met. Decades later her children were lulled to sleep in that same cradle.
Yes, our life was an adventure !. I never knew what he would do next! One day he bought a sunken sailboat for $500. Yes, sunken. He and his buddies scuba dived for hours to attach the mechanisms for raising the wreck. They raised it and towed it with Gator (his fishing boat). It sat in the canal behind our house for nearly a year. I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t run us out of town from the smell of dead fish and seaweed. After he refurbished it, he sold it and made a small fortune!
Ralph loved flying. Over the years he re-built several Varieze airplanes. They were high-performance homebuilt aircraft that were invented shortly after his return from Vietnam. The “EZ” has been described as “a little airborne sports car” that was designed by the company’s creators’ desire to have their own little fighter plane. Nothing could have been more perfect for Ralph! He often buzzed the house when he flew locally. He especially got a kick out of flying over the gulf when he knew his buddies were fishing. He would check their coordinates and tease them later about having discovered their secret fishing spots. Once, when we were flying cross-country together we had traveled through (what I thought were) dangerous clouds in dangerous and disorienting whiteout conditions. At first I was scared, but then I said to Ralph through his earphones, “If you can fly an F-4 in the middle of the night that is dark as the inside of a cow, and land on a postage stamp in the middle of the ocean, you can get me down out of these clouds. He responded “sweetheart, I’m doing the best I can. I heard a click…Silence…He had turned off my mike.
When we were stationed in San Diego Ralph and his POW buddy George Coker bought a twenty-seven foot sailboat, the “Thursday’s Child” (apropos, as the nursery rhyme states that “Thursday’s child has far to go!”). Now here’s the crazy thing: Neither of them had ever been sailing! But they confidently announced, “We learned how to sail through the Tap Code while in prison!” George’s wife Pam and I looked at each other and declared that if they go out, and if they make it back, we’ll go the next time!
Our biggest challenge was in the fall of 2004, when Hurricane Ivan ravaged Pensacola, Florida, and destroyed our home. We found our baby grand piano upside down in the front yard, our refrigerator across the street, and some splintered furniture down the road. The most heartbreaking thing is that we lost most of our family photos and baby books. But miraculously Ralph’s toys survived unscathed! His airplane “Freedom” was safe in a hanger, his boat, the Gator, rode out the storm in the canal, and his heavy tools stayed put, although full of saltwater, in our demolished garage. At first we were in shock. But faith and love held us together. You’ve heard the saying that “God is my co-pilot.” Well Ralph and I were able to set our egos aside, and we turned the piloting of our lives over to God.
We were happy with our supporting roles as co-pilots. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this certainly worked wonderfully well for us! A small but profound miracle just for me was a small, silver cross that I had laid on a closet shelf. After the severe wind and rain had destroyed our house, I found that cross hanging on a nail on a still-standing section of wall. Seeing it gave me strength, and I knew we would get through this.
Our last twelve years together were challenging and painful, as Ralph suffered from Parkinson’s and Lewy Body dementia. It was a long, sad descent for the war hero, adventurer, poet, father and lover that I married. His final day was bittersweet and full of fond memories for me, as I sat by his side, and we were holding hands when he died peacefully in his sleep.
Here is a poem that Ralph wrote about a year before he was freed. I still marvel at how this man could maintain a positive mindset while being in prison. (I have italicized two lines that foretold our love story.)
I Thank Thee Lord
I thank Thee Lord for blessings big and small;
For spring’s warm glow and songbird’s welcome call;
For summer’s lease with clouds that dance and rain;
For autumn’s hue and winter’s snow-white shawl.
I thank thee for the harvest rich with grain;
For tall green trees, a park with shadowed lane;
For rushing streams, for birds that love to fly;
My country’s land, the mountains and the plain.
I thank thee for each sunset in the sky;
For sleepy nights, the bed in which I lie;
A life of truth and peace, a woman’s love;
Her hand in mine until the day I die.
I thank Thee Lord for all these things above;
But most of all, I thank thee for thy love.
A good friend, Larry Zimmerman, set Ralph’s poem to music, and arranged to have it performed. If you want to be inspired please watch it on YouTube. Please search for “Larry Zimmerman, Gainesville Master Chorale.”
Love isn’t really love until you take action on it. Communicating your deepest feelings is absolutely essential for creating a life-long, loving relationship. Choose your own methods for expressing your love: Gifts or activities that touch his/her heart; a simple touch; poetry (yours or someone else’s); or just plain sitting and talking together.
If you can remember to be thankful for what you do have, you have a super power that can get you through the worst of circumstances. (See the poem above.)
People who are living “happily ever after” marriages all share one characteristic: The happiest couples spend time together. Quality time. Fun time. Intimate time. Whether it’s going on dates, or playing board games, or just sitting side by side while watching TV, it’s those shared moments that are important.
Tarzan & Jane
AKA, Carlyle “Smitty” & Louise Harris
As of this book’s publication date, Tarzan and Jane have been happily married sixty-two years.
Author’s note (fellow POW Lee Ellis):
Forty-six years after returning home following nearly eight years as a prisoner of war in a North Vietnam POW camp, my former cellmate Colonel Carlyle “Smitty” Harris wrote the marvelous book Tap Code: The epic survival tale of a Vietnam POW and the secret code that changed everything. In the Foreword to his book I wrote that, upon our return to America, “Most of us had a wonderful reunion and moved on. It seemed that the Harris family just stayed in the reunion mode.”
That’s the kind of couple that Tarzan and Jane, aka Smitty and Louise, are.
(What do they know that most people don’t know? What do they do that most people don’t do??)
“Louise and I started over where we had left off. lt was as if I had simply taken a walk around the block.”
Smitty’s “walk around the block” included 2,871 days during which he endured torture, starvation, fear and loneliness. Louise’s walk included raising their three children, single-handedly taking on the Air Force bureaucracy, and fighting various cultural norms and business practices that discriminated against women. During those years she also sent more than a hundred care packages to Vietnam for Smitty. Much later she learned that he had received only two of them.
Several factors contributed to Smitty’s surviving the POW camps. His religious beliefs, his family, and his cultural background. Oh, and humor.
Referring to the “Hanoi Hilton,” where he spent most of those years, Smitty said, “The Hanoi Hilton: What an awful place! Room service, food and accommodations were terrible!” After a pause he observed, “Humor helped me keep a semblance of my former self.”
For example, Smitty’s first letter to Louise included this: “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 I can be the idol of a million American women—what do you think of that?!”
It was a miracle that this letter got delivered at all! It was among a handful of POWs’ letters that the North Vietnamese Communists showed to several foreign diplomats, in an effort to prove that they were in compliance with the Geneva Convention. The captors never delivered any of those letters. But one of the British diplomats slipped one of the letters into her bag when no one was looking, and she later mailed it to Louise from England.
At one point Smitty and some other POWs were being moved to a different camp. He was blindfolded as he sat in the back of the hot, jolting truck. He glanced down and spotted on the floor his most prized possession: A letter from Louise that had fallen out of his pocket. He chuckled as he retrieved it, saying, “I’ve always been a very lucky person—or perhaps Someone was looking out for me.” (Do any of you readers think it’s astounding—and funny—that a prisoner of war would consider himself to be “lucky”?)
Meanwhile, back in America…
…Smitty’s wife Louise had been a very adventurous airline stewardess, but now the challenges she faced as the first wife of an Air Force MIA wife were beyond anyone’s imagination. At the time of Smitty’s capture she—and their two infant daughters (ages three and five) and one son on the way—were living with him on the Japanese Island of Okinawa. As the first POW wife to be living overseas she was the first person to experience some newly established, untested military procedures—which she found totally unacceptable. The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. government were completely unprepared for the power and influence that one determined woman can wield! They were about to learn.
Louise was eight months pregnant with their third child when Smitty’s aircraft went down. The commanders on the base in Okinawa had never experienced a situation like this. They were uncomfortable with how her presence might send a message of loss and fear to the other fighter pilot wives. They were also concerned that her presence might even lower morale among the pilots as well. So, they decided to ship her back to the States to give birth.
The military was accustomed to dealing with cooperative and non-questioning military wives. They were not used to female grit and sound logic. Knowing more about babies than the military brass did, Louise informed them that she was going to stay right there in Okinawa until after the baby was born. She got her way.
And that was only the beginning.
When she arrived back in the States, she was met by a young lieutenant escort who told her that she would be receiving only $350 (less than one-third) Smitty’s pay with which to raise three children while the larger portion would go into a ten percent savings account until his return. Louise was having none of it.
The young Air Force officer who tried to help her was rattled when she said, “This is unacceptable.” She then demanded that he get the Secretary of the Air Force on the phone.
“Ma’am, I can’t call the Secretary of the Air Force,” he said nervously.
“You do the dialing, and I’ll do the talking. Tell them that you are with the wife of the MIA Captain Carlyle Smith Harris, who insists that she talk to the Secretary of the Air Force. Tell them she is very upset and is threatening to call a news conference.”
Her actions were all the more remarkable when you remember that this was 1965—a time when few American women broke ranks from their expected roles as good mothers and obedient wives.
On the phone, when confronted with the problem, the Secretary of the Air Force said, “Ma’am, we are just looking out for your husband.”
“Well, you better think about his children! I expect to hear back from you by close of business today.”
“Mrs. Harris, I need some time to look into this. I’ll get back to you soon.”
In her oh-so-polite Southern drawl Louise said, “Sir—soon is unacceptable. I need an answer today. I have three babies to care for. Please get back to me by five. Thank you.” And she hung up.
And she got what she wanted. And she got it by five.
Meanwhile, back in Vietnam…
In addition to his sense of humor Smitty brought with him into captivity one piece of knowledge that none of the other POWs had. A piece of knowledge that was the key to their sanity and survival. That piece of knowledge was the Tap Code. Aircrews know Morse Code—but you can’t make a dash when your only means of communications is tapping on a wall.
In the 1960s the Tap Code was a virtually unknown method of communication that had been used by American soldiers during World War II, and it wasn’t taught in any military classes. During his survival training Smitty became fascinated with it when one of his instructors, Sergeant Claude Watkins, mentioned it in passing. Smitty reached out to him to learn more.
“As we were walking out of class I asked, ‘But how did they send the dashes?’ as I was comparing it to Morse Code. He took me to the chalk board and showed me the Tap Code. He explained it to me with a simple grid on the chalkboard. It was surprisingly simple and easy to memorize. I filed it away and nearly forgot about it.” But just a few years later, Smitty was in a POW camp with plenty of time to reflect—and then it popped back into his mind. After a few months Smitty was moved from solitary confinement, and for the very first time was put in a cell with three other POWs. The men were overjoyed to have company! And they quickly realized that they needed a way to communicate when they were separated. Smitty, the Code Bearer, had the answer. [Editor’s note: See the Tap Code illustration at the end of this chapter.]
Over time, and in secret, nearly every POW in captivity in the Hanoi-area camps learned the Tap Code. It saved their sanity and built morale. In nearly eight years their captors never deciphered it. The enemy knew that some form of communication was going on, but they had no idea of how extensive and ongoing the POWs’ communications were. The guards tried tapping on the walls of empty cells, but the prisoners next door never responded because they knew it was the enemy. The POWs tapped on walls and pipes. They blinked the coding. They swished code using the bamboo brooms, and they even had a slightly modified version for coughing code in the winter. They tapped on the arm or leg of the person blindfolded and handcuffed to them in the darkness of night when the V were moving them to another camp.
Meanwhile, back in time…
Back in 1959, when Louise and Carlyle Smith Harris (who had received the nickname “Smitty” in grade school) first met, he was quickly smitten. But she took her time. He was 30. She was 21.
“I had been a freewheeling flight instructor for five years, flying to a different city nearly every weekend. I dated a lot. A lot. But I hadn’t met a girl who was the Right One. Until I met Louise.”
As Smitty related this story he reached over and grasped Louise’s hand. Now that’s romantic.
“We shared so many of the truly important things in life. Values. Background. A positive attitude about life.”
“We were both solidly Catholic.”
“And we both grew up in small towns.”
“And we both had strong family values.”
“And we both had a very strong sense of humor.”
They both laugh.
“She’s also witty and quick on her feet.”
On an early date at the Officer’s Club Smitty introduced Louise to a friend using a different girl’s name: Jane. Without missing a beat Louise snapped back with, “Well, ‘Tarzan,’ you better get my name straight at least!”
Meanwhile, back to the future…
“When I finally regained my freedom, on February 12, 1973, my top priority was to call Louise. Long-distance, from the Philippines to Tupelo, Mississippi.”
Louise recalled, “Oh, I was so nervous! What if we’d drifted apart? What if we simply couldn’t continue on? Would we really know each other after all this time?? We had not seen each other in more than eight years. My heart pounded in my chest, and I sent up the same prayer I had been praying for many days: ‘Lord, please let him say something that lets me know that he remembers like I remember, and still feels the way I feel.’ And then the phone rang! And the very first words Smitty spoke to me after almost eight years apart were—”
At this point in our interview they both spontaneously and simultaneously said, “Hi Jane. It’s Tarzan.”
And that’s how a marriage can withstand circumstances that are incredibly horrible, longstanding and stressful.
Smitty said, “I hadn’t planned on saying that, honestly! I just said it spontaneously.”
Louise observed, “And in these lighthearted words I knew that God had heard my prayers. I cried with happiness and relief. Smitty remembered as I remembered. His voice was warm and filled with humor. The conversation was us. I knew that whatever adjustments we faced, we were going to be just fine. Much better than fine, in fact! After I hung up the phone, I let out a deep sigh of relief. It was as if I had been holding my breath for eight years.”
There is an aura of true fondness, humorous lightness, and deep connection around Smitty and Louise.
“From the very beginning we knew our marriage would last. We believed that wedding vows are exactly that. Vows.”
“Right. I knew there was no way out!”
Louise jabs him gently on the shoulder.
“We are simply thrilled to be together.”
“Right. We’re independently interdependent. I’m happy for him to spend four days away golfing with his buddies.”
“And I’m happy that she volunteers for several charitable organizations.”
“We trust each other completely and implicitly. Always have.”
Author’s note (fellow POW Lee Ellis):
Smitty and I were cellmates, and you get to know a fellow’s life story really well when you’re cooped-up 24/7 for several years! For Smitty’s sixth anniversary as a POW the fellows in Cell 3 of Camp Unity put together a special evening program: “Smitty Harris, This is Your Life!” (playing off the classic TV show of the 1950s). Several of us huddled in a corner of the big cell that held about fifty of us, and put together some highlights of his life. One man dressed up as a woman, using a scarf over his head and a towel tied around his waist and some stuffing under his prison shirt to give him a (somewhat) shapely chest. He was chosen because he was tall and skinny and had very slender legs. He brought the house downplaying one of Smitty’s old girlfriends, “Bird Legs Bradley.”
Three months after the POWs’ release they were all invited to a “welcome home” gala at the White House. Louise remembers, “The evening was surreal. Dignitaries and VIPs were everywhere. Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Stewart sat at our table. Imagine that!”
Following his return home Smitty and Louise spent a few months getting reacquainted with family and friends, and then escaped for a second honeymoon. Upon their return Smitty was assigned to the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama, and after graduation he remained on the faculty until his retirement in 1979. They moved back to Tupelo where Louise had bought a house next to her sister when she had returned to the States. All three of their children grew up there and have raised their children there as well. Harris family get-togethers are frequent and boisterous as they include seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren!
Smitty was the sixth POW to be captured in North Vietnam. He survived nearly eight years in the camps—2,871 days—and he returned home with honor. Louise survived a different battle, and her example of courage and duty is inspiring to all. Smitty recently celebrated his ninety-second birthday. He remains active, he still drives, and he and Louise travel together to conduct book signings and presentations. They say they have never quarreled. Louise explains, “We have such a finely tuned appreciation of life. Why would you fight? Why would you waste a minute?”
The happy couple is still enjoying life—and they show no signs of slowing down. After sixty-two years of marriage Tarzan and Jane seem to be having fun just swinging free amongst the trees.
Smitty and Louise both take their wedding vows seriously, and their unshakeable faith in each other sustained them through their many years apart.
The happiest couples have the deepest connections. And sometimes that connection can be seen in just a few words: “Hi Jane. It’s Tarzan.”
Smitty: “Humor kept all the guys’ morale alive during Vietnamese captivity. Humor also keeps Louise and me connected. We’re very self-entertaining; our shared experiences and inside jokes help keep the spark of love alive.”
Louise: “He just cracks me up all the time!”