He was one of four Vietnam prisoners of war to receive the award during the Air Force Association’s Air Force Anniversary Dinner.
“I’m the oldest of this group,” Harris, 83, said in a phone interview. “Because of that, they bushwhacked me to say a few words – very brief words – of thanks to the Air Force Association.”
Lt. Col. Gene Smith, a West Point resident, was among the Vietnam POWs who were honored.
He’s a past AFA president and served as the organization’s chairman of the board from 1996-98, Harris said.
The other two honorees are Col. Elmo Baker of Ft. Worth, Texas, and Lt. Col. Orson Swindle of the Washington, D.C., area.
“These guys are all friends of mine,” Harris said.
The awards dinner took place during AFA’s 2012 Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition.
Lifetime achievement awards also were presented to Berlin Airlift aircrews, Korean War airmen and World War II fighter pilots.
Harris’ F-105 Thunderchief was shot down over Vietnam April 4, 1965, and he came home on Feb. 12, 1973. During his captivity, he developed a “tap code” that allowed prisoners to communicate with each other.
In those days, two taps followed by a pause and two more taps signaled “G.” One tap, a pause and two taps were a “B.” Four taps, a pause and five taps meant “U.” Put GBU together, and it was shorthand for God bless you.
“You’d come back from one of their torture sessions at a very low ebb, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Harris said in an earlier interview. “The first thing you’d hear was GBU, and it really meant something, let me tell you.”
Harris said he and his wife, Louise, got word of the AFA award about two weeks ago.
“We consider this quite an honor,” he said. “We don’t consider ourselves that exceptional. There are a lot of people who are very deserving. It’s just that we were chosen this year.”