In A North Vietnamese Prison, Sharing Poems With 'Taps On The Walls'
Originally published on Tue February 12, 2013 7:12 am
The United States was fresh off signing the peace accords to end the long and bloody war in Vietnam when, on Feb. 12, 1973, more than 140 American prisoners of war were set free.
Among the men to start a long journey back home that day was John Borling.
An Air Force fighter pilot, Borling was shot down on his 97th mission over Vietnam on the night of June 1, 1966. He spent the next six years and eight months in a notorious North Vietnamese prison.
Sarcastically called the "Hanoi Hilton" by American POWs, it was a place of torture, deprivation and often solitary confinement.
Borling spent much of his time there just trying to survive. He also composed poetry — in his head, without benefit of pencil or paper.
He is now out with a book of poems he wrote and memorized during those years, Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton. It's a tribute, as he puts it, to the "power of the unwritten word."
Borling, now retired from the Air Force, joined NPR's Morning Edition host Renee Montagne to talk about the book.
On the harsh conditions at the Hanoi Hilton
"The first years there was a great brutality, a great infliction of pain and punishment. And then, as time went on, although this is hardly a universal thought, the conditions tended to ameliorate somewhat. But for all that, where you can make a case on one hand that the North Vietnamese were lenient just to let us live, you could also make a case that they were too cruel to let us die.
"We were in a room, maybe 6-by-7 for a period of three-and-a-half years in this one case, with no windows, no ventilation. You've got nothing, you don't get outside, maybe see the sun 20 seconds a day if you're lucky; you've got an overflowing bucket for a toilet, you've got a mat that you sleep on, and you're subject to very harsh treatment."
On enduring the interminable days
"We're battling the endless day where you just have to mount up, and you have to fight the endless, empty days. ... There's a poem later in the book called 'Sonnet 4 45 43.' ... If you tap four, forty-five, forty-three, that's 'Sonnet for Us':
The world without, within our weathered walls,
Remote, like useless windows, small and barred.
Here, months and years run quickly down dim halls,
But days, the daze, the empty days come hard."
On the mechanics and importance of "Tap Code"
"Divide the alphabet into five rows and five columns. A through E in the first row, if you will, F through J in the second, and so on. And then you tap first the row that it's in. Like, A would be one, one. B would be one, one-two. C would be one, one-two-three. D: one, one-two-three-four. And we would sign off at night, 'G.B.U.' or 'God bless you,' so G is two, two, B is one, one-two ... To go to U, you'd go down four ... and over five.
"It was ... our lifeline. It was how we kept a chain of command, which was verboten, how we passed information that would keep us all going, mentally. Here's a bunch of fighter pilots, but a fragment of poetry — some remembered lines, however abbreviated — would be useful."
On returning, via poetry, to the Hanoi Hilton
"Some of them [take me back] more than I would like. But, you know, time's a wonderful healing mechanism. ... Perhaps the impact and the poignancy is a bit more real. But that's OK. Again, I think the genuineness and the authenticity of the expression, and hopefully the artistic expression, should speak to the minds and hearts of folks out there. At least, I would hope so."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's look back now four decades. The U.S. was fresh off signing an agreement to end the long war in Vietnam when, on this day in 1973, 143 American prisoners of war were set free.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: President Nixon watched the return of the prisoners of war this morning on television, and praised them as strong men who showed great character. He added that all they went through was not in vain.
MONTAGNE: Among the men to start a journey home that day was John Borling. He was a fighter pilot, shot down one moonlit night in June of 1966. John Borling spent much of the next six-and-a-half years in a notorious North Vietnamese prison. It was referred to sarcastically as the Hanoi Hilton by American prisoners, a place of torture, deprivation and often solitary confinement.
JOHN BORLING: The first years there was a great brutality and a great infliction of pain and punishment.
MONTAGNE: John Borling said, eventually, conditions in the prison improved somewhat.
BORLING: But for all that, where you can make a case on one hand that the North Vietnamese were lenient just to let us live, you can also make a case that they were too cruel to let us die.
MONTAGNE: Borling spent his days just trying to survive. He also composed and memorized poems without pencil or paper that he shared with fellow inmates - like the future senator, John McCain - by tapping them out in code. John Borling has now published a book of those poems called "Taps on the Walls." It's a tribute, as he puts it, to the power of the unwritten word, which sustained him during those years he was in prison by the North Vietnamese.
BORLING: They refused to give us POW status - hence, you know, there were no Red Cross packages or visits or letters home, except for a very few guys who they used as - or propagandized, to an extent, or made public their existence. In my case, two people thought I was alive: my wife, who said she could feel me, and my wing commander, who said if anybody was going to make it, John was going to make it. But he told me later he was lying. He thought I was dead, too.
MONTAGNE: I want to talk to you about how you memorized these poems and how you tapped them out. But read us one poem, so we get the sense of things.
BORLING: I will. And can I just kind of set the stage? Because this was written, again, in the early years. And you're in a room, maybe six-by-seven for a period of three-and-a-half years in this one case, with no windows, no ventilation. You've got nothing. You don't get outside, maybe see the sun 20 seconds a day, if you're lucky. You've got an overflowing bucket for a toilet. You've got a mat you sleep on, and you're subject to very harsh treatment in this timeframe. And so I tried to imagine this thing's a tourney, almost like knights jousting. And I wanted to start it at dawn.
(Reading) The scepter raised and silent challenge made. Again, I mental summon lance and shield, and somehow last until regal colors fade. It's now the victor absent from the field. Hard pallet draws me, huddled down upon a distant tower tolls a muffled chime. Another muddled day has eddied on to join the addled streams of tousled time. Embittered languor blankets captive man. So armored, sally forth at dawn, consigned to stand alone and parry best I can, until appointed tourneys and resigned, for time's an old and boring enemy, too cruel to kill forgotten men like me.
MONTAGNE: So you're battling days stretching before you, with no end in sight.
BORLING: We're battling every day. We're battling the endless day, where you just have to mount up and you have to fight the endless, empty days. You know, it's kind of a circumstance - there's a poem later in the book called "Sonnet 4 45 43." And the cap code, if you tap 45, 43, that's "Sonnet for Us." And it talks about the world without - within our weathered walls, remote, like useless windows, tall and barred. Here, months and years run quickly down dim halls, but days, the days, the empty days come hard.
MONTAGNE: Six-and-a-half years in the Hanoi Hilton, tapping. Tell us about the tapping.
BORLING: Sure. The tap code: divide the alphabet into five rows and five columns - A through E in the first row, if you will, F through J in the second, and so on. And then you tap first the row...
MONTAGNE: Like A.
BORLING: ...that it's in. Like A would be one, one. B would be one, one-two. C would be one, one-two-three. D: one, one-two-three-four. Got it? And we would sign off at night, GBU, or God bless you. So G is two - that's G. B is...
MONTAGNE: Over two, down two.
BORLING: Yeah. So then you want to go to U, you'd go down four - one, two, three, four, and over five, one, two, three, four, five. So, you take the row, and then you go over.
MONTAGNE: So, simple enough conceptually, but in terms of using it as a method of communication...
BORLING: Thirty-five to 40 words a minute or more.
BORLING: Yes. And it was, again, our lifeline. It was how we kept a chain of command. It was - which was verboten - how we passed information that would keep us all going, mentally. And a fragment of - here's a bunch of fighter pilots, but a fragment of poetry, or some remembered lines, however abbreviated, would be useful. In my case, guys were good enough to remember this one later. When we got together in larger groups, you know, we could do it verbally.
MONTAGNE: From a distance of 40 years since your release - to the day - do the poems take you back to that place? Do they almost carry you back to where you were when you wrote them?
BORLING: Some of them more than I would like. But, you know, time's a wonderful healing mechanism. And then our conversation here today on this 40th anniversary, perhaps the impact and the poignancy is a bit more real. But that's OK. Again, I think the genuineness and the authenticity of expression - and hopefully the artistic expression - should speak to the minds and hearts of folks out there. At least I would hope so.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for sharing your stories and your poems with us this morning.
BORLING: So glad to be with you.
MONTAGNE: Retired United States Air Force Major General John Borling. His book, "Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton."
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MONTAGNE: And during the Vietnam War, after being shot down, John Borling spent six-and-a-half years in a North Vietnam prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.