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How Poetry Sustained a Vietnam POW

Originally published by MHQ magazine. Published Online: March 26, 2013 
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John Borling in the cockpit of his plane. (Courtesy John Borling)
John Borling in the cockpit of his plane. (Courtesy John Borling)

Major General John Borling, an F-4 pilot with the U.S. Air Force 433rd Fighter Squadron during the Vietnam War, calls the poems he composed while he was a POW for six and half years at the infamous Hanoi Hilton "intensely private." But finally, on the 40th anniversary of his release, he was able to release them too.

"Creating and memorizing lots of poetry was a way to fight back," says Borling, as was communicating with fellow prisoners. They used a military tap code to "type" messages, the sender rapping the code for each letter of a word with a knuckle on the wall, the receiver using an inverted tin cup to amplify the taps. (See a demonstration.) Borling used the code to share his poems as well.

'Jail me, hurt me, hate me, but I had my mind and spirit as weapons. No books, no writing materials, nothing—just the mind. Find a way. Each man had to find a way'

The collection of poems was published by Master Wings Publishing, a new imprint of Chicago's Pritzker Military Library, whose mission is to acquire and maintain an accessible collection of materials and develop appropriate programs focusing on the Citizen Soldier in the preservation of democracy. While the poems are about many aspects of life and, as Borling says,"not principally about pain or pity," we've chosen one that gives a sense of the prisoner's daily internal battles and how his imagination helped him survive them.


The Tourney


The scepter raised and silent challenge made,
Again I mental summon lance and shield,
And somehow last till 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 tourney's end, resigned.

For time's an old and boring enemy.
Too cruel to kill forgotten men like me.

From Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton by John Borling. Copyright 2013 by John Borling.

You can hear Borling reciting his poems in his wonderful, resonant baritone and view videos and photogalleries at


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