Not long after John Borling was thrown into a North Vietnamese prison, he heard a man from another cell shout out a set of instructions to him, the key to a secret code that American prisoners of war used to communicate with each other.
The system was simple, based on a grid of letters, which they tapped out on the walls. The man who relayed the code was severely beaten afterward. Prisoners were forbidden to communicate with one another, but they did anyway, day and night. Week after week, year after year, they tapped their knuckles against the stone walls of their cells, often until their hands were bloodied and bruised, or they coughed out their messages, hacking as if they had pneumonia.
They did it to boost spirits, to pass the interminable days and inspire hope in a horrific place.
“Our lifeline was the tap code,” Borling, now 73, recalls as he sits in a sun-filled room facing the Rock River at his home in Rockford, Ill. “You’re hurt physically, beaten down with hunger and thirst, cut off, and somehow you had to fill the unrelenting minutes and endless days with something that could help you.”
The POWs got pretty good at tapping out their messages quickly, often up to 35 words per minute. “Once you got it, you could go like the wind,” Borling says.
The days dragged on, and Borling had no idea whether he would ever be released, so he turned to the tap code to create something lasting, words his wife and then 9-month-old daughter, Lauren, might remember him by. He turned to poetry.
Borling, who had a broad liberal arts education, knew his poetry. He tapped out fragments of Shakespeare and Kipling, and his own poems about love, hope and military themes. He had no writing materials, so Borling committed his verses to memory, and his fellow POWs, who heard his taps, memorized them, too.
“I had an appreciation for certain forms, the Elizabethan sonnet, for quatrains and rhyming schemes, meter… a love for the mellifluous edge of the language,” he says. He composed scores of poems from his prison cell. “I started to create the essence of the human condition,” Borling says. “God knows we needed to be human because we were in a subhuman circumstance.”
Now, 40 years since his release, Borling’s 2,450 days in captivity are chronicled through those verses in a new book, Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton, which evokes his drive to find strength in a horrific place that constantly tested his mental and physical stamina.
Borling is as comfortable speaking in military terms as he is about jazz, opera and literature. As he walks through his home to show a visitor around, he stops at a piano to create a few flourishes, explaining that he learned to play jazz piano as a boy, in the bedroom of his parents’ 600-square-foot home on the South Side of Chicago.
In high school, Borling became interested in military history and collecting World War II memorabilia. He hoped to attend West Point but didn’t get in. Instead he spent a year at Augustana College, a small liberal arts school in Illinois, before being accepted into the Air Force Academy.
It was a perfect fit. Borling recalls the first time he took control of a training plane, alongside an instructor. “I get chills just thinking of that day,” Borling says. “At that point I knew not only did I want to be an officer in the Air Force, but I wanted to be a fighter pilot.”
Borling graduated from the academy in 1963, the same year he married his high school sweetheart, Myrna. Soon he was assigned to a training base in Laredo, Texas, where he received his orders. His fighter wing headed to Ubon air base in Thailand. Borling was to perform 100 missions over North Vietnam. Myrna and tiny Lauren went to Chicago to stay with family.
Ninety-six of those missions were completed without incident, until the night of June 1, 1966, when Borling took off in his F-4 Phantom on a mission over the mountains northeast of Hanoi. Nearing his target, Borling was hit by ground fire that disabled his jet, sending it out of control. He ejected and landed on a hill, severely injuring his back, ribs and ankles.
He used a branch as a crutch and hobbled to a road where he intended to highjack a truck with his service revolver. The first truck rolled by, but the second, filled with North Vietnamese soldiers, stopped. They stripped him naked, tied him up and took him to the Hôa Lò Prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton.
There, Borling’s wounds went untreated. He received barely any food or water and had a bucket for a toilet. His captors regularly beat him, often hanging him by his feet. “They were too cruel to kill us,” he says. “They would just hurt us.” Borling thought to himself, Bend, don’t break. At one of his lowest moments, writhing in pain inside a cell, Borling somehow found a sense of humor. “I look up and, on this beam, there was writing in red ink or marker. It said, ‘Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.’ I laughed then and I still laugh now. Some brave soul put that up there, and we never found out who that was.”
Through their tapping, Borling and his fellow POWs were able to endure the harsh treatment. “The first years were really brutal,” he says. “You had nothing. It was a blankness. You were locked in a small space with no ventilation to speak of, suffering from the hot and cold, and so I turned to the devices of the mind. You can do all these things to me, but you can’t take my mind.”
Borling tried to lift his fellow POWs’ spirits, creating compositions that were accessible, not too deep or obscure. All the while, he longed for his wife and daughter, wishing they knew he was alive.
About three years after her husband was reported missing in action, Myrna Borling took their daughter to visit Santa Claus at a department store. “I always told her that her dad was alive and that he was in prison, even though I didn’t know that,” she says. “She told Santa, ‘I want my daddy to come home. Daddy is in jail.’ ”
Santa gave her a quizzical look. “That was the lowest point,” Myrna Borling says. “I cried. I was very angry at God. I told God he had to tell me something. I was praying.”
Later the same day, two Air Force men visited Myrna at her home. “They told me he was a POW. I didn’t know until then that he was alive. That’s all they could tell me. It gave me great relief. I always felt he was alive. I just needed something extra to carry on.”
The conditions in which Borling was held became less harsh as the war continued, and he was eventually moved into facilities where he had more contact with other prisoners, including John McCain, in 1970. Then, on Feb. 12, 1973, six years and eight months after being captured, he was released. He was flown to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where he was hospitalized. He called his wife as soon as he was able and told her he was coming home.
After they spoke, Borling, still in his bathrobe, sneaked out of the hospital to buy a tape recorder. He was expecting a reel-to-reel, but got something called a cassette recorder, which he had never seen. He spilled his poems on tape, intending them to remain private between Myrna and himself, which they would for more than 30 years.
When Myrna first heard the poems, she was moved and impressed. “They showed love and caring for his fellow man, and to keep pressing on no matter what,” she says. “And no matter what, you have to keep your honor.”
With his wife’s blessing, Borling resumed his career as a fighter pilot, earning the nickname, “Viking.” He continued rising through the ranks, serving in command positions at the Pentagon, in Germany, Belgium and as a White House fellow. During the Gulf War, he was head of operations for the Strategic Air Command.
Borling retired as a major general in 1996, went into several private business ventures and even ran for an Illinois Senate seat. “I’ve always had that competitive streak, wanting to succeed for success’s sake,” he says. “But noble goals count—being committed to something outside yourself.”
In that spirit, he founded SOS America (Service Over Self), a national organization that advocates one year of military service for men ages 18 to 26. “It was an idea that I thought would help make better fathers, husbands, citizens,” he says. “A national resource—the noble goal of service over self.” His idea hasn’t been realized, though he still believes it can work.
In 2002 Borling and his wife visited Vietnam with a White House delegation. It was his first time back since the war. When he arrived, he says, he felt a sense that America had won the war after all, concluding that the Vietnamese had a high regard for Americans and their way of life. During his visit, Borling met with the former commander and defense minister of the North Vietnamese forces. In his book, Borling writes: “There was a strange warmth between us, perhaps a sense of affectionate sadness. You never really leave combat, but you feel differently about the ‘enemy.’ ”
Since his release, Borling has worked to put his wartime experience behind him, but not to forget. Until recently, he had shared his poems only with Myrna. “I thought, This is really a piece of my soul. I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone else running around in there. And Myrna had some reservations.”
Myrna has felt uncomfortable in the public eye and has tried to remain in the background since her husband decided to share his poems and wartime experiences. “This is his story. He has held onto these for a long time,” she says.
Encouraged by friends and colleagues, Borling says he hastily published a small book called Poems for Pilots (and Other People) in 2010. It didn’t get much publicity or wide distribution, but the poems caught the attention of retired Col. J.N. Pritzker, founder of and chair of the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago. Pritzker was impressed with the poems and offered to publish them under a new library imprint that would reach a broader audience. Taps on the Walls includes more than two dozen poems, some in sonnet form.
Pritzker believes Borling’s poems are an important addition to the literature of the citizen soldier. “Gen. Borling is a genuine American hero,” Pritzker says. “His military achievements and civilian achievements certainly put him in that category. He is beyond someone with a distinguished collection of medals. What makes him a hero is his willingness—no matter how many setbacks he endures—to always come back to fight another day.
“Gen. Borling represents the best in us and he is also human like the rest of us. We can all be heroes if we choose to work at it and take the risk. Gen. Borling’s book is an expression of his life and it gives us the inspiration to make the best of our own lives.”
The book offers a message of hope, just as Borling’s taps on the wall did four decades ago. “I don’t want people to give up on themselves or this country,” he says “We’ve got an obligation to keep advancing, and that takes inspiration. So I hope there’s inspiration in here.”
Read an excerpt from one of Borling's poems below:
Mommy, Where Is My Daddy?
by John Borling
I hear you walking in the night;
You think I’m fast asleep.
I know your sounds of loneliness;
I hear you pray and weep.
You think that I’m too young to know
The agony and pain
Of missing the man gone away
In search of war and fame.
He didn’t come home with all the rest;
It’s been four years and more.
His squadron mates don’t know his fate,
O cruel, unending war.
I try to fill the gap he’s left,
For emptiness adjust.
I love him though he’s just a dream,
And picture that we dust.
Oh Mommy, where is my daddy?
Won’t he ever be coming home?
You say he loves us so very much,
But he’s left us so long alone.
©Master Wings Publishing LLC, an imprint of the Pritzker Military Library
Courtesy of John Borling