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Major General John Borling: The Poet POW

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When he retired as a Major General in 1996, John Borling’s career had spanned 37 eventful years. His most challenging period occurred when he endured 6.5 years as a prisoner of war (POW) in North Vietnam. Here, the Rockford resident shares his story.

John Borling

John Borling

Born on Chicago’s South Side in 1940, John Borling seemed headed for a military career at an early age. Inspired by his uncle’s service in World War II as a B-24 navigator, and a weekend visit to West Point as a high school junior, Borling applied to all three academies after graduation in January 1958. (The big three U.S. Federal Service Academies are the U.S. Military Academy [West Point], the U.S. Naval Academy [Annapolis], and the U.S. Air Force Academy).

Difficulty with the entrance exam eliminated West Point, and a Navy physician disqualified him for Annapolis because of “extreme ugliness,” due to chipped front teeth from a childhood biking accident.

“I passed their exam, but my family couldn’t afford cosmetic dentistry,” says Borling, “and I missed an appointment to the Air Force Academy by one place.”

After a brief period at the University of Illinois and Augustana College, Borling entered the USAF Academy at Colorado Springs in June 1959, and graduated in 1963, the same year he married wife Myrna.

“It was one of the most important days of my life,” he recalls about graduating. “Ours was the first class to have a sitting president – JFK – speak at our graduation. He was made an honorary member of our class, and became our first combat death in November 1963.”

During his first summer at the Academy, Borling got a ride in his first jet, a T-33, the trainer version of the USAF’s first operational jet fighter, the Lockheed Shooting Star. His instructor, a Korean War ace, told Borling in the back seat, to “stay with me” on the controls as they took off.

“As we got 30 to 40 feet in the air, he said, ‘Your airplane!’” recalls Borling.

After several exciting minutes of aerobatic maneuvers over the Colorado Springs campus, the pair returned to Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.

“I could feel I had the ‘touch’ to land that plane,” he says. “I told myself, ‘I’ve got to fly fighters!’ My whole focus from that moment forward was to make that happen.”

Borling received pilot training, and his wings, in Texas in 1964. He completed combat crew training in Arizona in the F-4C Phantom II, a twin-engine, 2-seat fighter-bomber, and was the first in his group to qualify to fly from the front seat. By December 1965, he was posted to Southeast Asia as part of the 433rd Fighter Squadron.

“As trained fighter pilots, we were in a hurry to get to Vietnam before [the war] was over,” says Borling.

His unit was stationed at Ubon, in Southeast Thailand, one of four “secret” bases utilized by the USAF to fly missions over North Vietnam. Thailand did not want to publicize their role in support of the air war, for fear of becoming “officially involved.”

“We were kinda there and not there,” Borling says.

He never flew a sortie [mission] in South Vietnam. All his targets were in the North, interdicting the flow of men and material to the South, suppressing anti-aircraft missile sites, and other jobs, as part of the Rolling Thunder air campaign. Although his plane was equipped with air-to-air missiles, he never saw an enemy aircraft and was never intercepted. A typical load included 750-pound bombs and external fuel tanks. The heavy load and high temperatures required a lot of runway to get airborne.

In later years, new pilots would be sent to lightly contested areas for their first missions, to become used to the terrain and the other pilots. But not Borling.

“We arrived in-country just before Christmas 1965, and were sent just north of Hanoi on our first mission,” he remembers. “We immediately picked up AAA [anti-aircraft artillery], and one of our planes was shot down. The next day we lost another plane. When we got back to the bar that night, we all agreed it was going to be a very long – or very short – war.”

Myrna gave birth to their daughter Lauren in 1965.

By the end of May 1966, Borling had nearly completed his 100-mission tour and was scheduled to rotate back to England. Instead, he volunteered for another tour, and called his wife and 9-month-old daughter to inform them of his change of plans. His paperwork came through a couple of days before he was shot down.

***

On June 1, 1966, while flying a volunteer night mission to destroy a bridge at Bac Giang, about 30 miles northeast of Hanoi, Borling’s plane was hit by 37mm cannon fire, taking off the tail, and he was forced to eject over a heavily populated area.

“I got injured by the ejection and the landing,” says Borling. “I suffered a compression fracture in my back, sprained everything. I landed on a furrowed hillside at very high speed, rolled up at the bottom, all broken up and bloody.”

Unable to walk, Borling crawled into a huge log to avoid being found by villagers who were searching for him, and then passed out. When he came to, the search parties had moved on. He found himself near a busy highway, full of trucks heading north. He formulated a plan to hijack a truck with his service revolver and force the driver to take him to the coast, where he hoped to work his way south in a boat. But the first vehicle he encountered when he reached the road was a farmer on a bicycle.

“I couldn’t ride the bike, but I had all this money in my pocket from gambling debts I had collected the night before,” says Borling. “I figured some American ‘green’ would get me through, so I peeled off a bill to bribe him to help me. I noticed it was a $100, so I put it back and gave him a $20 instead – being frugal even under such circumstances! I finally figured my war wasn’t with this farmer, so I sent him on his way.”

Borling ultimately succeeded in stopping a truck, but it was filled with North Vietnamese soldiers, who quickly took him captive, stripped him naked, tied him up and tore off his dog tags. His tags included a ring his uncle had worn in World War II, when he survived a shoot-down over Germany.

“He called it his get-me-home ring,” says Borling, “but when they took it from me, I thought, this is a get-me-shot-down ring!”

The next day he was tied up, tossed in the back of a jeep, and driven to downtown Hanoi.

“It was the Trip from Hell,” he says, “bouncing around for a day in that jeep with my injuries. They finally gagged me because they got tired of hearing me scream. I had received survival and paratroop training in the States, so I thought they would never get me if I crashed. I just never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to walk.”

Borling was brought to the infamous Hoa Lo prison, known to POWs as the Hanoi Hilton, where he was tortured and interrogated for the next month in an area the prisoners called Heartbreak Hotel. There were 15 POW prisons in North Vietnam which eventually held Americans, five in Hanoi alone. Borling stayed in three of them during his imprisonment.

The POWs referred to their interrogations as “quizzes” and the torture sessions as “purges.” Although North Vietnam was a signatory to the Geneva Convention which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, the POWs were routinely subjected to beatings, rope bindings, ankle shackles and hand cuffs, prolonged solitary confinement, broken bones and teeth, and starvation, among other atrocities.

The Code of Conduct adopted by the U.S. Armed Forces in 1955 established standards of behavior for persons captured by the enemy, and most of the American POWs in North Vietnam attempted to “measure up” to those standards. They include:

Accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
Give no information nor take part in any action which may harm your comrades.
When questioned, give only name, rank, service number, and date of birth. Evade answering further questions to the utmost of your ability.
Make no oral or written statements disloyal to your country.

On July 6, 1966, members of the North Vietnamese army paraded 52 American POWs through the streets of Hanoi before film cameras and thousands of civilians, in an apparent attempt to call world attention to what they considered the illegal bombing of the North by the U.S. The march quickly deteriorated into a near-riot, as civilians beat the POWs along the route. Borling avoided participation in the march, since he was still unable to walk.

“They considered us war criminals, not prisoners of war,” he says. “They threatened to try us and kill us. When the purges came through, they would ask if you wanted to sell your country for a cigarette and a cookie, or do you want the way that leads to death? Screw the cigarette and the cookie – we’ll take death!”

Borling soon learned, however, that everyone has a breaking point. His came when his captors demanded he verify information about his family, where he was based, and other facts about his service.

“Apparently, there was something in the newspapers about my loss, so they had all this info on me,” he says. “When I broke down, I agreed the info about me was true. I thought I was a traitor to my country.”

By this time, Borling had learned how to use the tap code, which POWs used to communicate through the walls of their cells (see sidebar). When he tapped out his shame and disappointment to a fellow prisoner, the man answered back: You are just like all of us. Just do the best you can. Don’t give them something for nothing. Make them work for it. Better still, give them something useless.

“When they asked me about the navigation system in my airplane, I told them it was a secret, all about a code word,” says Borling. “I went into an elaborate act about how it worked, but it was all bogus. For three or four days, they let up on the ropes, gave me some water and rice. But the next time they quizzed me, they were accompanied by two MiG pilots. In three minutes, I was back in the ropes, getting punished for wasting their time.”

To help him cope with prolonged isolation and keep his mental faculties sharp, Borling began to create poems in his mind (he had no way to write anything down), then transmit them to fellow prisoners by tapping out the verses on the wall, one letter at a time. He also wanted to create a “legacy” that might someday reach his wife, Myrna, and his young daughter, Lauren, in case he didn’t make it home. The poems became a morale-booster for other prisoners, as well as mental exercises for themselves.

“I tried to make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em think,” says Borling.

Communication among POWs was forbidden by their captors, and when discovered, the perpetrators were severely punished. But the tapping continued, as fellow officers tried to maintain a chain of command and adherence to the military Code of Conduct.

“Despite the punishment, we persisted,” he says. “We stayed organized and resisted as best we could. Some bent, some broke, and some died, but with rare exception, we stayed true to one another.”

***

In late August 1966, Borling and others were transferred to another prison the POWs called the Zoo, located in a Hanoi suburb. He and fellow pilots Darrel Pyle and Jeremiah Denton were tortured in attempts to extract propaganda statements. When they refused, they were handcuffed and shackled in isolation cells they called the Gatehouse. Denton was the Navy flier who, earlier that year, blinked his eyes during a televised propaganda interview, spelling out the word TORTURE in Morse code. This was the first confirmation to Americans that U.. POWs were in fact being tortured in North Vietnam.

“I remember the day Denton broke down,” says Borling. “It was so hot, like a steam bath in those cells. I tapped, with almost no strength, ‘Hot’, to Denton. His reply was, ‘Dying.’ There was nothing I could do, but pray for rain. About 30 minutes later, a big thunderstorm broke overhead, and the temperature dropped. It stayed cool for the next two or three weeks, the first of many miracles.”

While at the Gatehouse, Borling had secreted a small nail in his mouth, which he used to loosen his “hell cuffs” and shackles. He was able to pass the nail to Pyle in the next cell through a small hole in the wall to do the same. By freeing himself, Pyle was able to learn how to climb through the ceiling and gain access to the roof. Both men then began to plot an escape, which they planned for a rainy Saturday night, when the guards typically were not around. Once out of the building and over the compound wall, they would hightail it downtown to the Metropole Hotel, where foreign diplomats stayed, and request asylum.

On the night they decided to go, Borling made his escape into the ceiling, but Pyle was unable to unlock his shackles. The guards had changed the lock.

“He bent the bar, trying to escape,” says Borling. “Darrel said, ‘Please don’t go without me!’ The noise alerted the guards, so I went down and had barely enough time to get back into my cuffs and shackles.”

The guards soon discovered Pyle’s bent lock and the hole between their cells, and beat both prisoners in anger. Years later, two other POWs escaped from the Zoo, were recaptured and beaten. One of them died from his injuries.

After Ho Chi Minh’s death in October 1969, the torture seemed to lessen and life for the prisoners became somewhat more tolerable. Many POWs, Borling included, believed that “Uncle Ho” had been personally responsible for their mistreatment.

On Nov. 21, 1970, 56 commandoes from the U.S. Special Forces landed at Son Tay prison camp 23 miles west of Hanoi and assaulted the camp to free the POWs inside. Unfortunately, the prisoners had been moved months earlier, so none were rescued. However, the raid caused the North Vietnamese to consolidate their prisoners, mostly into Hoa Lo prison, so they would have fewer locations to keep secure. This put the men together in communal rooms which held up to 50 POWs, and allowed them face-to-face human contact for the first time in years.

“We called it Camp Unity,” says Borling. “I saw Darrel Pyle there for the first time in 3.5 years. It’s also where I made contact with John McCain. I knew he had been shot down, because he got a lot of publicity, since he was the son of the CINCPAC commander. He was also a great communicator and an energizing spirit for us all. He later wrote the foreword to my book of wartime poetry.”

Although his overall situation improved at Camp Unity, Borling contracted a disease and came closer to death than at any other time during his imprisonment.

“In 1971, we began to receive some highly pilfered packages from home,” he recalls. “Someone found a couple of tetracycline tablets in one of the packages, and I took them. Also, they occasionally fed us a hot, sweet milk and dry bread, and several fellow prisoners shared their rations with me. They pulled me through my illness.”

Due to a lack of contact with the outside world, the men were unaware of major world events, such as the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969. In 1970, Borling had a chance to pilfer letters from POW families, hidden in a desk drawer. As he quickly read their contents to report later to his fellow prisoners, he saw a stamp on one of the envelopes, commemorating the lunar landing.

“Later I ‘broadcast’ the message: ‘We own the moon!’” says Borling. “It became a rallying cry and a morale booster.”

In 1995, while working at the Ford White House, Borling met former astronaut – then Senator – Jack Schmidt, and related his story about the effect the moon landing had on him and his fellow prisoners. Later, Schmidt presented Borling with a photo of himself on the moon as part of Apollo 17, the U.S. flag “flying” and the Earth rising in the background. The inscription read, “Glad we could help.”

“At one point, we had three enlisted men with us, survivors of a helicopter that was shot down about six to eight months before I was,” says Borling. “They went through all the same crap we officers had endured. I suggested we put them through an officer training program and award them battlefield commissions to qualify them for the higher pay and benefits.”

With their senior officer’s blessing, Borling and four other officers did just that, complete with a swearing–in ceremony. Theirs were among several battlefield commissions to be honored after the war. The military leadership recommended them, and President Richard Nixon approved them.

“I’m very proud of that,” says Borling.

***

When the bombing campaign resumed in earnest in 1972, many POWs, Borling included, were transported to a remote camp near the Chinese border, which they called Dogpatch.

“We assumed they moved us to avoid the B-52 bombings, or maybe they suspected an invasion,” he says.

A few weeks after Borling’s return to the Hanoi Hilton, the Paris Peace Accords were signed and protocols for the return of the POWs were established. Borling and fellow POWs were given fresh clothes. On Feb. 12, 1973, they were loaded on buses and driven around Hanoi. When they reached the Gia Lam airport, they were loaded onto C-141A Starlifters and flown to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

“We made sure we went out as military men,” he recalls. “Smart salute to the officer in charge, as we marched up to the airplane. We tried to show no emotion, didn’t want people to think we were a bunch of unrulies. On board the plane, we all hugged and kissed the nurses, but were gentlemen about it.

“We were still thinking something could go wrong to prevent our leaving. We all cheered when the pilot released the brakes, and again when the wheels left the ground. But the biggest cheer came when the pilot announced, ‘Feet wet!’ indicating we were over the ocean.”

At Clark, amid all the cheering from the welcoming crowds, the physical exams, and the de-briefing to military personnel, Borling and Pyle sneaked away from the hospital to find the PX, the base store.

“I wanted to buy a tape recorder, so I could ‘download’ (that word wasn’t even in my vocabulary in 1973!) my poems,” says Borling. “But the manager came back with a shoebox-looking thing and not the reel-to-reel device I expected. He laughed as he explained what a cassette recorder was.”

A call to his wife and daughter got a response like he had “just gone out for cigarettes” instead of being gone for 6.5 years. They agreed he would stay in the Air Force as a fighter pilot if he was able to compete with his contemporaries. Otherwise, they would find something else. When Borling returned home, daughter Lauren was 7 years old. She asked him to walk her to school, where she proudly announced to classmates, “This is my dad!”

Borling went on to a highly decorated and distinguished career in the Air Force, including leadership roles in the Strategic Air Command during the first Gulf War and the invasion of Panama; a war-fighting think-tank in the Pentagon; the largest fighter/support base outside the U.S. (in Germany); at NATO headquarters in Belgium; and the integrated NATO/National Command in Norway. He has piloted most planes in the USAF arsenal, including the F-15, F-16, SR-71, U-2, B-52 and B-2.

The Borlings moved to Rockford in 2001, so Myrna could be close to her widowed sister, Sharon McFarland, since John is often traveling.

Currently, he occupies leadership positions in several civic and business organizations, including the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, SOS-America (Service Over Self), Synthonics Corporation, and Air-Chicago. Borling is frequently in demand as a motivational speaker and an emcee. This Nov. 16, he will narrate Walt Whitman poems to the accompaniment of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra at the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford, a world premiere event.

The couples’ daughter Lauren lives in Phoenix and has a daughter in college who excels at volleyball. Their daughter Megan, born in 1974, lives in Michigan and runs a hospitality business with her husband.

When he thinks back on his experience in Vietnam…

“The battle was to return with honor,” he says. “We wanted people to be proud of us. We gained an appreciation for life and a resilience that only someone who’s been interned for a long time under difficult circumstances can understand. It was a kind of ‘honorable prison.’

“Now, I don’t deal with life’s reversals, other than as reason to keep moving. People who agonize over little stones in their path… They don’t know how fortunate we are to live in a nation like America. We need to thank the Lord each day that we live here.”

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