Saturday, May 18, 2013

Major General John Borling: "The Strongest Weapon Is The Ability To Create."

Chris Cooper – 2,931 Words

“The Strongest Weapon:
 “the ability to create”
      February 12, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of when over 140 Prisoners of War were released from the Hoa Lo Prison, more famously known as the Hanoi Hilton Hotel in North Vietnam.  One of those POWs was John Borling, at the time a Captain and fighter pilot in the United States Air Force.  To commemorate the 40th anniversary, Master Wings Publishing has published Borling’s book of poetry Taps on the Walls:  Poems From the Hanoi Hilton by John Borling, Major General, USAF, Retired, with the foreword by Senator John McCain.

What makes this book of poetry different from others is that Borling mentally composed all of the poems and communicated these poems to his fellow prisoners of war via a special, but forbidden, tap code.  Unable to use a pen, pencil, or paper to write anything down at all, he committed thousands of words to memory, only to record them upon his release almost seven years later. . . .
Borling became a serious poet when he met his high school sweetheart and wife of almost 50 years Myrna.  He’d always been a great lover of poetry – and a fan of the Elizabethan sonnet: 
            “I’m a lover of the Elizabethan sonnet because of the structure, the meter, the rhyme of that approach.  In the book I’ve used the Elizabethan sonnet a lot.  The first eight lines establish a theme, the next four counter the theme and the rhyming couplet at the end resolves matters and all done in iambic pentameter and the rhyming scheme that goes with it.”  Borling comments that the rigor of construction made for good use of time.
            Borling attended the United States Air Force Academy where he received his engineering degree but with a major in Humanities and a minor in management in 1963.

            In his book he describes how as a F-4 pilot he was shot down while he was performing his 97th fighter mission based out of Ubon Air Base, in Thailand on June 1, 1966.

            “So, on that bright moonlit June night, it was low and fast over the mountains northeast of Hanoi in an F-4 Phantom.  Reaching the target area, heavy ground fire ripped into the jet.  Out of control.  No controls.  Upside down.  The jet was dead.  I had to get out.  Eject.  Ejected and hit the ground; it was that close.”

            “I hit on a long, steep, furrowed hill and went bouncing downhill like some kind of crazy jumping bean and ended up in a beat-up heap at the bottom.  That hill probably saved my life.  I was alive, but with disabling pain in my back, ribs, and ankles.  There was blood everywhere.  I couldn’t walk.  I was broken.  The locals were all around me, shooting into the bushes and jungle to flush me out.  I had to get away.  I crawled into a log and passed out.”
            When he regained consciousness, he crawled fifty yards to a traffic road with the plan of hijacking a vehicle with his service revolver as his weapon and a tree branch as a crutch.  Unfortunately, the vehicle that stopped was a truck full of North Vietnamese regular troops and, in less than 24 hours, he was dragged into the Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton, where he would be a POW for six years and eight months.

            The name Hoa Loa refers to a potter’s kin, but loosely translates to “hell’s hole” or “fiery furnace.”    It also is sometimes translated as “stove” since the name originated from an actual street name, which consisted of numerous stores that sold wood stoves and coal-fire stoves along the street from the pre-colonial times.   The prison buildings itself was built by the French between 1886 and 1898 when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina, and its intended prisoners were Vietnamese political prisoners.  And in the 1960s it became a prisoner of war camp for American soldiers. 
            By the time Borling was dragged in, the prison consisted of numerous buildings that would later be given nicknames by the POWs:  Heartbreak Hotel, New Guy Village, and Little Vegas.    The walls were made of brick and plaster, 20 foot long, 2 to 3 ½ feet thick, and topped with barbed wire and broken glass.   The entire compound was infested, bricked up, with no ventilation.

            The room Borling was confined in was 6-feet-by-7-feet with no windows, no ventilation, an often-overflowing bucket for a toilet, and a mat for a bed.  He, like others, was also subjected to very harsh treatment and lived in these conditions, in isolation or semi-isolation for years.  He found hope through a Being higher than himself. 
“God responds to desperation and either becomes very close or very distant.  I believe that faith provided a strong rope to hang on to - not just for me but also for the whole group of us.  There were multiple miracles that happened to me where divine providence had to be involved--at least to my mind.  I think that everyone who survived that experience knew there was a great supporting factor that religion gave us.   People will follow a faith that is in common and in many respects different than others but in the end responds to individual need.  The practice of religion was not encouraged, even punished, by our captors.  They did not understand it and knew that there was a power there impossible to reign in.  Faith for me, and I can only speak for me, was an important component for battling those years and months.”  
Borling also found comfort in the tap code that was developed by Colonel Carlyle Smith “Smitty” Harris, who was shot down in 1965.
Borling describes the code in the introduction of Taps On The Walls“The easy-to-learn code uses a 5 x 5 square numbered from 1 to 5 horizontally along the top and then again vertically down the left side, with the letters of the alphabet running in order across each row of boxes.  Each letter is tapped with two numbers.  The first tap signifies which horizontal row is being used, and the second signifies which vertical column for each letter.  By example, to send the letter “O”, tap three times, quick pause, then tap four times on the cell wall.  Roger, or  “Got it,” was two taps (normally after every word).  “Don’t understand” or “Repeat” was a rapid series of taps.  “Call up” was “shave and a haircut.”  The letter “C” is used for “K”, or tapped as a 2, 6.  For example “pilot” is tapped 3,5  2,4  3,1  3,4  4,4.  Nightly sign-off was “GBU” 2,2  1,2  4,5:  God Bless You.”

            Communicating through the walls, though forbidden and those committing the forbidden act would be severely punished, was the primary factor in keeping Borling and his fellow POWs from giving in completely to the despair, kept their minds sharp, helped them overcome the isolation and loneliness, and was a major tool in how to pass the long days and the long nights.   The first thing Borling tapped was his name.
I wanted people to know that I was alive.  No one thought I was alive anyway due to the certain circumstances in the crash.  My wife said she could feel me.  Three years later – at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night – she was feeling particularly down and there was a knock at the door and there were a couple of guys in uniform, which is not a good sign.  They told her that I was alive.  She had to labor without any contact with me for many years more.  And I labored without any contact.”
Borling epitomized the saying “art saves lives” during those almost seven years of captivity by mentally creating poems and tapping them to his fellow prisoners of war.  Borling described the poems as very private and a piece of his soul.  His intention was to keep them private and as a legacy for his wife Myrna and daughter Lauren, who was three months old when he was shot down and 7 1/2 when he returned.
“The need was to keep faith with your fellows so you did this through the walls with your chain of command, make sure people knew you were alive, what demands were upon you, and keep your mind working to fill the long hard days.  Every morning you face that interminable 24-hour period where you had to fight the way through it.  To make time your ally – and one of those ways was to pass poetry through the mind and through the walls.”
After many years of harsh treatment, Borling and his fellow POWs found conditions improving to an extent.  The POWs were placed in larger groups.  Even still, the POWs did experience some punishment.
            While the Geneva Conventions were never fully respected, conditions approximated a more POW like experience but the captors never relented that we were war criminals and deserving to be punished and killed." 
            On February 23, 1973 Borling was officially no longer a prisoner of war, and part of the 140 POWs, the first group, to be set free.  Those men to be released first were those who had been shot down first, still injured or wounded.
            Borling, along with the other POWs, were flown to Clark Air Base in the Philippines where all were greeted with a celebratory reception, then placed on busses and driven to the Clark Field Hospital.  The first meal was a buffet with rice and vegetable as well as good old American food. Borling along with his fellow soldiers wanted the all American meal – breakfast.
            “When you are really hungry you think of the meal you want to have – steak and eggs and bacon and potatoes and toast and coffee like a bunch of lumberjacks coming in from the field.  They thought we were going to be basket cases but were just a bunch of fighter pilots wanting to get back to serious living.”
            The first person he spoke to on the phone was Myrna, which he described as a very odd conversation.
            “We dealt with my absence much like I went out to the store for groceries.”
            It was agreed by the couple that Borling hopefully would be competitive enough to rejoin the force and go back to the fighters.  If not, then they would join the civilian world.   Fortunately, he was competitive enough and would remain in the Air Force until August 1, 1996 when he retired as Major General after 37 years. 

            At the hospital he was pleased that he and Darrell Pyle were in the same room. He and Pyle had shared the same small cell for 3 ½ years at the Hanoi Hilton and then were separated.  They didn’t see each other until just before their release.
            “Darrell Pyle – and I were extremely close – and we got together at the end.  We moved in together again.”

            The two men also snuck out of the hospital to go to the Base Exchange to get a tape recorder so Borling could download his poems into the device and hopefully preserve the poems.  Borling told the clerk that he wanted a tape recorder.
            “The man came back with a shoe box thing and I told him I wanted a tape recorder and not a radio.”
            Borling and Pyle had experienced a small bit of culture shock – he was expecting the only tape recorder he knew of before he became prisoner of war – the kind with the reels.
            “An hour after hitting Clark Air Field Base in the Philippines I owned a cassette tape recorder.  That was how we conserved the poems initially.”
            He continued to experience culture shock but only mildly, and with the help of the Reader’s Digest special issue geared toward the POW While You Were Away, Borling was able to overcome it and adapt.

            While You Were Away tried to capture the six or seven years we were gone.  There were elements – the mini skirts came and gone, the cars were different, the feminist had reared up, technology had changed, and there were a lot of stuff that was the same, and a lot of stuff that was different.  Myrna hung in there and we were still there and we were able to put our life together.”

            Borling’s primary goal was to return with honor.  He dreamed of walking his little girl to school.   His daughter Lauren, who was three months old when he became prisoner of war, was now 7 ½. 
            “The kids gave her a hard time because she didn’t have a father and she wanted to show me off.  The Chicago Tribune had stalked us and got a picture of me walking her to school.”
            Neither Borling nor his daughter Lauren was aware of the photo until November 2010 when they attended the exhibition Service Over Self.  Someone had found the photo and turned it into a big banner.

            “We walked in and saw that picture for the first time and my forty something daughter collapsed in my arms crying.  Of course, I’m a big tough guy so I was totally unaffected, right?  I collapsed in her arms crying.”
            When Borling returned that February of 1973 he told Myrna about his poems he had tapped all those years.  It was agreed that the poems would remain private.  
            “It’s all very private stuff and that is why we kept it buried and just to ourselves for all these years.”
            The town fathers of Rockford approached Borling and Myrna about the Service Over Self project and asked if they would consider submitting his poems as an exhibit at the Memorial Hall in Rockford, Illinois.  The exhibit was geared toward Borling and his 37-year career in the United States Air Force. 

 The couple agreed to make the poems public at the exhibit due to numerous reasons – they wanted to help out with the exhibit, pieces of the poems had already been leaked over the years, and close friends and family wanted them to share the poems with the public.

            It seemed only fitting that when approached by Master Wings Publishing, the new imprint of the Pritsker Military Library in Chicago, to publish the poems in book form to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of the POWs – the answer would be a positive and complete yes.
            Taps on the Walls:  Poems from the Hanoi Hilton is divided into four sections.  The first expresses a passion for the sky and the great missing of the freedom that flying provides.  The second section speaks of the dark, hard days, when an awful loneliness and punishment and pain were routine.  The third section deals with “the Holidays” and the need to remember, and be grateful but offset the enormity of prolonged and uncertain incarceration.  Finally, the fourth, SEA Story (South East Asia Story), is an epic poem that took many years to compose and, as Borling notes, “offers commentary on just about everything.”  The book includes a glossary of military, aviation, and historical terms as well as substantial introduction and other supplementary material that gives insight into the total work.

            Borling’s friend and colleague Senator John McCain wrote the foreword to the book.
            “John did the foreword which was very generous.   We lived together for a time in North Vietnam.  I support John politically.   I think he’s a fine American.  Don’t agree with everything he says but who does?  I think he has the best approach which is country first.”
            There will be a 40th year reunion with all the POWs on May 23 to May 26 in Newport, California at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library.  This will be the second time the POWs have come together – the first was at the White House in May of 1973, when President Richard Nixon invited all of the POWS to tour the entire White House, including his own personal and family quarters.  Six months after that event 50 children were born, one of which was Borling’s daughter, Megan.
            “This is the one where we will have an informal accounting of what we all have done for our community, city, state, and nation.  There is a sense of lifelong commitment and the need to give back to country."  

Presently, Borling is working on another book titled Comrade and Emperor:  Be Your Own Best Friend and Ruler of Your Soul In the book he takes quotes from Russia’s Vladimir Lenin and France’s Napoleon Bonaparte.
            “I take quotes from these two historical figures, adding my own words and philosophical spin around those quotes, with a view to offering themes of renewal and encouragement and some humor too.”
            Borling not only writes but he also gives speeches around the country.  He speaks on the “Eight Virtues of Leadership”, four principles from the Greeks and an additional four that he added himself.  He maintains that here is one principle that stands out and is represented by Taps on the Walls.
            “It is the seventh principal that I commend to you because it is the essence of the human condition – and it is the ability to create.   And I argue, I would hope, persuasively, that we need to put an emphasis on the study and practice of liberal arts because that is what democracy needs in terms of an informed and an involved electorate.  We need to have people who are thoughtful and are comfortable with the thoughts of the millennium.  And to project those thoughts into our own experiences in families, communities, cities, countries, and nations.”
            Go to Service Over Self’s website at or for more information.


  1. Chris, where can you get this book?

  2. You get the book from
    So glad you're interested.

  3. You can also go to
    and order the book directly from there or they will have a link to the publishing website. You might get the book faster that way.

  4. Chris, is the photo of the F-4 Phantom II depicted here one actually flown by Gen. Borling, or is it a generic photo?

    1. Dear Terry

      I honestly do not know. But I can find out for you. I'll get back into with you this week.


  5. Dear Terry

    I don't have a record of if it is an actual photo of the plane he flew, a photo he took, or a generic photo.

    But you can contact him at

    to find out.