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Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling says poems written as POW 'a piece of my soul'

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — John Borling's poems were so personal that he and his wife, Myrna, decided to keep them private.

Borling, a retired Air Force major general, spent about 6 1/2years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He decided to publish the poems he wrote in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison after getting encouragement from Sen. John McCain and others. The book is called, "Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton."

"It's a piece of my soul," Borling said. "More than that, it's a piece of our collective soul."

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Borling spoke, answered questions and signed books Sunday at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. He said he composed the poems, memorized them and passed them on to fellow prisoners tapping on the prison walls using code.

The prisoner recognized letters by the number and timing of the taps. Borling demonstrated the message G-B-U, which meant "God Bless You" and was how prisoners signed off for the night.

Prisoners caught tapping on the walls were severely punished, Borling said.

"We never stopped," he said. "We needed that human interaction."

Borling described a few of the conversations he had with fellow prisoners by tapping, including one with a soldier who had been a prisoner of war with his uncle during World War II. The prisoners shared their names and encouraged each other.

"The most important thing was looking after your buddy," he said.

Borling said the poems helped him cope on the long days.

"You have to make time an ally," he said.

Borling said that when he was shot down, his daughter was 3 months old. She was 7 1/2when he got out.

"I dreamed that if there was something I could do to bridge those years, it might be as simple as holding her hand and walking her to school," he said.

On his first day back home, his daughter looked up at him and asked, "Will you walk me to school?"

Borling said he encourages people facing difficult circumstances to "keep marching."

"Never quit," he said. "To quit is to die."

Borling described what he considers four important principles for life:

1. Have a sense of humor.

2. Develop a faith-based relationship that is your own with your God.

3. Recognize that the essence of the human condition is the ability to create.

4. Have real affection.

"You've got to be able to love," he said.

A woman in the audience asked Borling what advice he'd give to her son who flies F-15s.

"Remember, it always happens to the other guy," he said.

Borling said fighter pilots sing in bars as a way to deal with fear and laugh at death.

"It's a coping mechanism," he said.

On whether any American prisoners from the Vietnam War could still be alive, Borling said it might be an unpopular opinion, but he doesn't believe so.

devanes@fayobserver.com

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