American hero 'overwhelmed' by Quincy response

Posted: May. 1, 2013 10:55 pm Updated: May. 15, 2013 11:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

John Borling paused, his eyes slowly searching a crowded Hall of Fame Room at Quincy University.

The 73-year-old war hero was making an effort to collect the proper thoughts, to convey what it meant to be held captive, beaten and tortured for almost seven years at the hands of the North Vietnamese in one of history's most notorious prisons.

The pessimist, Borling explained, felt he would be forgotten following his death in the midst of that godforsaken place in southeast Asia. And most importantly, the pessimist feared his body would not be returned to loved ones in the United States.

"The optimist," Borling said, again pausing, " ... believed his body would be returned."

A turnout of about 250 sat in a respectful silence Wednesday night during much of Borling's 45-minute address, one that saw him move up and down a main aisle and interact with a crowd that very much appreciated his presence. The standing ovations illustrated that point, to which Borling, at one juncture, said he was "overwhelmed."

Borling was in Quincy at the request of close friends Delmer and Barb Mitchell, promoting his recently released book, "Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton," published by Master Wings and made available to the public on Feb. 12 -- the 40th anniversary of his release in North Vietnam.

Much of the book is made up of poems Borling wrote -- and memorized -- over the course of his six years, eight months of confinement. Most is written in the form of Elizabethan sonnets, a favorite form of verse for Borling.

The essence of the human condition is to create, Borling told the crowd, and that is exactly what he did during the time he was a prisoner.

Now a retired Air Force major general, Borling was a captain when he was shot down over North Vietnam in June 1966. He was flying his 97th mission over hostile territory.

Borling was ultimately captured and wound up in the "Hanoi Hilton," the prison that became synonymous with brutality during the Vietnam conflict.

"The days, they came hard," Borling said.

Time could be a mental enemy. Remaining sane -- and with some sort of honor and chain of command -- drove the U.S. prisoners during the horror of the days, weeks, months and years of their confinement.

"We wanted (those back home) to be proud of us," Borling said. "We wanted to stay sane."

The North Vietnamese did everything within their power to deny the Americans their faith, their pride and the belief in any sort of positive outcome to their predicament.

Borling introduced the "tap code" to fellow prisoners, a way of communication that is illustrated in his book. Letters and numbers were relayed through specific numbers of taps on the walls separating the tiny, darkened cells. If caught trying to communicate, unimaginable torture -- or worse -- could follow.

"There were times when the only hope was hopelessness," he said. "You would think of your youth and how you've grown old. You (constantly) dreamed of going home."

The first thing Borling asked for after his release from the North Vietnamese was a tape recorder, so he could begin reciting all of the material he had memorized. Borling's book provides unique insight through by an equally unique means.

Borling. who will be in Quincy through Thursday and involved in a number of community activities, returned to North Vietnam some years after the end of the conflict and visited the region that once housed the Hanoi Hilton. Part of that same infamous area was now a children's playground.

"I was surprised at the interest in and the love of America and (what it stood for) that the kids there showed when I went back," Borling said.

A native of Chicago, Borling now resides in Rockford with his wife of 50 years, Myrna.

Borling enjoyed a 37-year military career that saw him serve throughout the world in high-level assignments, including overseeing the Strategic Air Command in Europe. He has also served as a White House Fellow and is a trustee of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois.

Borling is often asked about his Vietnam experience, and he will faithfully answer any question to the best of his knowledge. It's important not to forget, he said, but it also important to understand and know how to deal with the kind of experiences he -- and others -- endured.

"It's OK to look back ... just don't stare, or carry burdens," he said.

One of the most touching stories Borling relayed involved his wife, who after more than four years following her husband being shot down still had received no word whether he was alive or dead.

"She lost it one night," he found out years afterward.

He told of Myrna holding the couple's young daughter, crying out to God that she needed a sign, any sign, that her husband was not dead.

"It was after 10 o'clock that night," Borling said. "And the doorbell rang."

Myrna gathered herself together, as much as possible, and when she opened the front door there stood two Air Force officers in uniform.

Her heart sank, but for only a moment.

"He's alive," they told her.