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Book Excerpt from "Tap Code"


Looking back, the middle years of my captivity in Vietnam seem like an endless movie reel that plays over and over. We were transferred from one camp to another, where our living conditions were always primitive—usually a seven-by-seven-foot cell with two heavy board or concrete bunks, often with leg stocks at the end. A thin straw mat was our mattress. There was never any heating or cooling, and the oppressive heat or freezing cold marked the changing seasons year after year.

A hinged door, about ten by ten inches, was in each heavy wooden or metal cell door so that the guards could look in. We were usually fed two times a day with rice or bread and some watery soup. We received very little protein, and many of us suffered at least once from beriberi, a vitamin deficiency. Most lost about 20 percent of their normal weight.

We were not allowed outside our cells to exercise or to mingle with other POWs. We spent countless hours chained to stools or forced onto our knees, and we endured endless hours of propaganda, coercion, and ultimately torture. Then, for unknown reasons, we were blindfolded, loaded in trucks at night, and hauled away to the next location, where the endless movie replayed itself yet again.

When times were really bad—and especially during those times when I feared I might not survive—I prayed frequently and fervently, because I had nowhere else to turn. I knew I needed help. And help came.

No, I didn’t experience a personal miracle. The torture didn’t stop. I wasn’t free and back home. But I gained more than I even knew to pray for. After prayer, I knew I was no longer alone. Prayer gave me renewed strength to continue resisting a brutal enemy. And all those miracles I prayed for came true—just not on my timetable, but on God’s.

Now I feel that I have everything I could have ever wanted. Through the difficulty of my years of captivity, I found a renewed belief in a Supreme Being—God, my Father—who looked after me then and still does today.

During the middle years, our communication gained momentum from that providential meeting of four friends in 1965, when I first taught them the Tap Code. It was a little slow at first, but we eventually used the code successfully.

Soon the others in the cellblock were using the code, and extraordinary efforts were made to see that every POW knew the Tap Code.

Soon, tapping on a cell wall was not the only way the Tap Code was transmitted. Almost any sound the POWs could make was in Tap Code. Sweeping a cell corridor, chopping wood, hoeing down weeds, snapping a towel, and coughing were all in code. These noises would be carried from one building to another without our captors being aware that any communication was happening.

We tapped about anything and everything. Any special talents—from music to chess to Scripture memory—were passed from cell to cell through the Tap Code.

The North Vietnamese always became incensed when they finally realized how well we were communicating. They went to almost insane efforts to stop it, including torture. But they were never successful.

We could send the Tap Code silently with a hand or a note on a piece of paper through the cracks under our cell doors. We used rough toilet paper and makeshift pens to write out notes that were hidden in a commonly used wash area. We developed our own mute code, using one hand to form letters. It was similar to American sign language but modified so that we could speak with only one hand. If we could crawl up to a barred window that could be seen from another cellblock up to fifty or seventy-five feet away, we could communicate silently and swiftly, one hand forming the code, the other grasping the bars tightly.

Much of each day was spent either in the role of communicator or in the role of lookout while my brothers made efforts to communicate. Whenever our captors tried to stop one form of communication, we just developed another more secure method.

The importance of communication between POWs cannot be overstated. It boosted morale. It provided a vehicle for the chain of command to be utilized. It shared information to counter the efforts of the enemy to divide the POWs and helped POWs form a common resistance to their aims. It provided information from friends and family back home and in our units as later shoot-downs joined our ranks. It provided educational opportunities from a wealth of knowledge. All POWs needed to make some productive use of time spent in prison, and we achieved this through our covert communication methods. Communicating, watching for guards, and all efforts to assist the communication process (not just the Tap Code) helped pass the time.

Through the Tap Code, POWs gained the strength of unity. Shared information of torture and mistreatment created peer pressure for every POW to resist to the best of his ability. When POWs were depressed from recent torture or isolation, the Tap Code provided a means of group support. Under difficult circumstances, we operated as an effective organization to counter our captors’ efforts to exploit us. Communication helped us to come home with honor, knowing that in the end, we had prevailed over a brutal enemy.

Through the Tap Code, we helped each other. Sometimes it was in the normalcy of lighthearted communication. If someone tapped GNST—Good Night, Sleep Tight—we would, of course, respond by tapping DLTBBB—Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite. While this may have been a common expression for parents in their nighttime routine with their children, for us it was much more literal. We all had experienced the misery of bed bugs!

However, our most frequent sign-off had much more significance for each of us.

We each had terrible experiences of being forcefully taken out of our cells and led to the interrogation rooms. There we experienced untold misery through sadistic torture methods—sometimes for days at a time.

When we finally returned to our cells—broken and beaten physically, mentally, and emotionally—within minutes of the turnkey throwing us in our cells and locking us in, we would hear Tap tap, tap tap—G. Tap, tap tap—B. Tap tap tap tap, tap tap tap tap tap—U. GBU—God Bless You.

Those three words became a symbol of strength and understanding for us. Tapping GBU not only meant we wished the blessings of our Creator on our brother; it also meant we understood. It meant we were not alone. It meant that no matter what we had just endured, men on the other side of the wall were praying for us, rooting for us, and believing we could endure. And somehow that helped us endure.

Little was I to know that the Tap Code would become the standard talk throughout all the survival schools in all the services for covert communication. Even now, the Navy introduces it as the Smitty Harris Tap Code. For that contribution, I can only credit my curious mind and the providence of a loving God.

Taken from Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything by Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris (ret.) and Sara W. Berry. Copyright © 2019 by Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris (ret.) and Sara W. Berry. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.TapCodeBook.com.

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