CHESTERTON | It is almost unfathomable to imagine the horrors of being held as a prisoner of war in a Hanoi prison after being shot down and captured during the Vietnam War, but John Borling attributes his survival, after six years and eight months, to his fellow prisoners, his poetry, and the ability to keep marching on.
Ret. Major General John Borling, a native Chicagoan, fighter pilot in Vietnam, and veteran of 37 years, spoke to a group of students, parents, community members, and veterans at St. Patrick’s Church in Chesterton on Friday afternoon, giving them advice and telling of the struggles contained in his nationally-acclaimed book, Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton.
He stood on the floor of the chapel rather than ascending the stairs and speaking from the altar so he could be on the same level as his audience, he said, just as he did when he spoke to his fellow classmates recently at the United States Air Force Academy.
“I spent more time in isolation or semi-isolation than you will spend from all of fourth grade through all of eighth grade,” Borling told the students.
To help “fill the endless empty days,” Borling told the group that he and his fellow prisoners would tap on the walls using code “so we would bolster each other’s spirits, let them know we’re still alive.”
He also began writing poetry, but without a pencil and paper, Borling committed his works to memory which have been published in his book.
“The ability to create is the essence of the human condition, be it poetry, art, or even coaching a Little League team. You have to express what is important to you and hopefully it will be important to someone else,” Borling said.
His family also kept his spirit alive, including his wife of 50 years and high school sweetheart, Myrna, who didn’t know if Borling was alive or dead for seven years, and his daughter who was just born and grew up with only a photo of her father before he was rescued. She was then 7 years old.
“We wanted to come home and we wanted you to be proud of us,” he said.
Sharing a few lines from his poems, Borling told the students that the key to survival was not only creativity and family, but it was the human will and he encouraged all of them to never give up, even in the darkest days.
“Each one of us has a sense of being alone. Reach out. That knotted rope is always there. You’re going to be faced with things in life that are going to be really hard. You just keep going. You keep marching on,” he said.