Maj. Gen. John Borling

Maj. Gen. John Borling in his flight suit, poses for a portrait at the Pritzker Military Library, Monday, March 18 2013. (Alex Garcia, Chicago Tribune / March 18, 2013)

For the better part of four years, Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling lived in a cell that was about 21/2 paces wide and 31/2 paces long. There were no windows and little ventilation, except for three small holes. One of the holes contained a naked light bulb that was always on, and another held a speaker that played a mixture of propaganda and foreign music, sometimes for hours on end. Worst of all, he was alone.

Borling was a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo Prison, known as the "Hanoi Hilton" to its hundreds of American prisoners. He arrived at the jail in 1966 and spent six years and eight months enduring psychological and physical torture. For most of that time, he toiled away in a cell alone, but as the years went on, he and other POWs were consolidated into larger groups.


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When isolated, the prisoners communicated by tapping on the walls using a special prison tap code. They relayed messages, news, jokes, prayers and poetry. "We were trying to stay sane," Borling said.

February 12 marked the 40th anniversary of Borling's release from Hoa Lo in 1973. It was also the day Master Wings Publishing, the Pritzker Military Library's imprint, released Borling's collection of poetry, "Taps on the Walls: Poems From the Hanoi Hilton." The book is made up of the poems Borling tapped through the walls to the other POWs in the infamous prison.

"This is not just another book," Borling said. "This is a (collection of poems) that kept me alive."

Sitting in a bright orange flight suit emblazoned with patches he collected over the years, Borling, 73, of Rockford, is spirited and animated. After spending 33 years in commissioned service, Borling, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, attended executive programs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy's School of Government and the Harvard Business School, was chosen to be a White House fellow and spent two years as the president and CEO of Chicago's United Way.

Forty years later, Borling still remembers the prison tap code. When he talks about it, he begins to tap lightly on the large wooden table where we are sitting.

In the book, he explained that the code "uses a five-by-five square numbered from one to five horizontally along the top and then again vertically down the left side, with the letters of the alphabet running in order across each row. ... Each letter is tapped with two numbers. The first tap signifies which horizontal row is being used, and the second signifies which vertical column." (The same signal denoted the letters C and K.)

The tap code was the prisoners' only form of communication. It was a "lifeline," Borling said, and a way to keep their minds sharp. Borling chose to keep his brain agile with poetry.

"Mental hunger was easily the most ravenous," he writes in the book's introduction. "Poetry was my meat and potatoes."

Tapping to each other was also a way for the prisoners to pass the seemingly endless days: "We had to make time an ally, so I (wrote) poems in my mind," he said. "I kept them memorized and would tap them through the walls to guys, so I could lift their morale."

U.S. Sen. John McCain, a fellow POW in Hoa Lo, wrote in the book's foreword that Borling "contributed greatly to the morale and survival of the rest of us with his poems and incredible talent for storytelling."

After he was released, Borling immediately got a tape recorder and started "downloading" his poems. When he shared them with his wife, Myrna, the couple decided to keep the poems private.

"We both said, this shows a lot of soul," Borling said. "I wasn't sure I wanted the public roaming around in there, but now, 40 years later, my spine is sufficiently stiff and I will let (readers) roam around inside ... my being."

When the Pritzker Military Library approached Borling a year and a half ago and asked to publish his book under its new imprint, Master Wings Publishing, he agreed.

The story of Borling's endurance was what drew retired Army National Guard Col. J.N. Pritzker to Borling's book. Pritzker is the founder and chairman of the board of the Pritzker Military Library.

"Gen. Borling is a genuine American hero," Pritzker wrote in an email. "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's book is an expression of his life."

Kenneth Clarke, president and CEO of the Pritzker Military Library, said the library hopes Borling's book, which is in its fourth printing, is the first of many published by the library. Borling, too, hopes to publish more books and is at work on two more.

Early on in his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton, Borling remembers, a message was passed through the walls that sustained him during the darkest days and that he still holds dear today. The message came from "the highest levels of our government." It was simple: "Hang on and keep faith."

"That's exactly what we did," he said. "We hung on and we kept faith."

Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.

"Taps On the Walls"

By John Borling

Master Wings Publishing, 176 pages, $19.95