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Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton

Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton

4.8 5
by John Borling

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How did a prisoner of war survive six years and eight months of soul-crushing imprisonment and torture in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War? By writing poetry. And how did he do it without pencil or paper?

Then-captain John Borling “wrote” and memorized poems to keep his mind sharp and his spirits up. He shared his creations with fellow


How did a prisoner of war survive six years and eight months of soul-crushing imprisonment and torture in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War? By writing poetry. And how did he do it without pencil or paper?

Then-captain John Borling “wrote” and memorized poems to keep his mind sharp and his spirits up. He shared his creations with fellow captives by their only means of communication—the forbidden POW tap code. Rapping on the cell walls with his knuckles, Borling tapped poems—certainly of pain and despair, but also of humor, encouragement and hope—to keep everyone’s strength and spirits alive.

With a foreword by fellow POW, Senator John McCain, Taps on the Walls contains all the poems General Borling created during his confinement. Readers will discover remarkable stories of endurance, life lessons, and means to achieve personal triumph.

The pen is truly mightier than the sword. No matter that the pen was only a mind and scarred knuckles and the sword, painful and interminable captivity.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Brian Turner
…the poems are deeply rooted in the storyteller's tradition, with flashes of the ribald, the sonic interplay of military jargon, portraits of mundane aspects of military life, and the occasional lyric lifted into the beauty of flight…these are poems straight from the cell, tapped onto the walls of the pages…[Taps on the Walls] attests to the enduring value of poetry. Borling's collection offers resilience, verse as a means of preserving the imagination, verse as a bulwark against that which would destroy our individual humanity.

Product Details

Master Wings Publishing LLC
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Taps on the Walls

Poems from the Hanoi Hilton
By John Borling

Master Wings Publishing LLC

Copyright © 2013 Master Wings Publishing LLC
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-615-65905-3

Chapter One

    The Derelict

    The west was a patchwork of color flung over a racing sky,
    The wind was a lover's whisper that needed no reply,
    The strip was of weed-torn concrete, scarring the desert floor,
    And a derelict came flying,
    Flying, flying,
    A derelict came flying,
    Long final to zero four.

    Over the sentry saguaro and ancient access road,
    Its gear and flaps full down and locked,
    Ball turret position stowed.
    Across the wasted overrun and into a practiced flare,
    Then dust was blown at the bleached end,
    A puff of smoke at the bleached end,
    And tail wheel touched tarmac there.

    A fuselage of mottled brown, the dirty greens and black,
    Along the crusted taxiway,
    Chin turret guns hung slack.
    Its wings were streaked to the trailing edge,
    Black square, white D on the tail,
    And it came, the outboards throbbing,
    The cyclones, outboard, throbbing,
    It came like a lost child, sobbing,
    Searching to no avail.

    Line's edge and the question: Rest or roam?
    It paused and seemed to stare,
    An apron expanse of loneliness,
    The ramp lay withered and bare.
    Grey clapboard beyond and rusting tin
    Vacantly weather away.
    The tower door on a broken hinge,
    Marks time with an aimless sway.
    A throttle burst brings no answer,
    Nor trooping the line's empty glare,
    A review of past disappointments and departures of despair.

    No use to wish or to linger,
    No good to wonder why.
    The Fort will return to the runway,
    Unable to live or die.
    Takeoff roll and a farewell drone,
    Unheard in the desert air,
    Outbound in search of home again,
    Trying to go home again,
    And all who follow it home again,
    Will never find it there.

    First-Light Flight

    Pale golden talons stir the eastern sky;
    Another fledgling day departs the hills.
    It takes the air as thermaled falcons fly,
    Cascading light as carefree first-flight thrills.
    And who attends this noble soaring birth,
    From mountain crag to gentle rolling plain,
    May marvel from their vantage point on earth,
    Yet miss so much, not of the sky's domain.
    But I'm not of the earth. At altitude,
    I greet the infant day with engine song,
    My contrails etched on endless morning blued,
    And rare abandon urging me along.
    It's here, unfettered brother men enthrall
    To first-light flight, the one judged best of all.

    The Boneyard

    Alone, I walked a desert path
    Beneath a sky of red.
    Along a fence that split the world,
    Perchance, a heart instead.

    I viewed the metal might of man
    In motionless parade,
    And through the mesh reviewing stand,
    Saw legends that were made.

    They'd faced the flak and fearsome skies
    Of Schweinfurt and Rabaul,
    Then air-dropped candy to Berlin,
    And stalked the Yalu hall.

    See manifested from within,
    Their tarnished hulks a string
    Of beer and bombs, the coal and kids,
    So freedom's bell could ring.

    Young ones, parts newly stripped away,
    Stand numb in disbelief,
    And wonder how they came to be
    Upon this dreaded fief.

    Veterans in resignation wait,
    Struts sunk into the sand.
    And though gloss gone and fabric ripped,
    Still strangers to the land.

    All bear the cross called lack of need,
    Old age or obsolete.
    They're scourged beneath the sky they love,
    Along a desert street.

    A pilot's judgment can't be heard,
    Above the roaring din.
    The shouts that cry out crucify,
    And keep the dollars thin.

    So they're confined, judged guilty of
    Duty dereliction.
    All slumped in rigid sacrifice,
    Hoping resurrection.

    Don't think about the giant press
    That makes proud metal cry.
    Recall the adage, timeworn too,
    "Always the other guy."

    Yes, this is an aircraft boneyard,
    A desert dying bed.
    Here hope was strong, but hope is gone,
    Among the sleeping dead.

    Some would say aircraft cannot feel,
    Hence cannot know their lot.
    Such is the theme for all things old,
    Not needed: Let 'em rot.

    Unknowing superior man,
    I scorned along with thee,
    Till one night, wakened from deep sleep,
    I heard them calling me.

    Go back to sleep, I told myself,
    And not another thought.
    Still, lying there, I could not find
    The rest and peace I sought.

    Feeling foolish, I walked the fence
    That cold dark desert night,
    Till asked a shadow at my side,
    "Hey buddy, got a light?"

    The shiver started at my heart,
    And ran from neck to toe.
    That tingling fear of things unknown,
    Nowhere for me to go.

    He smiled and cocked his ancient cap,
    With fifty-mission crush,
    Then talked to me in gentle terms
    Amidst the desert hush.

    "Don't be afraid. I'll be your guide,
    And it will all make sense.
    Just follow me," and saying that,
    He passed on through the fence.

    His easy smile and beck'ning hand
    Motioned me what to do.
    Taking a long cold-water step,
    I followed him on through.

    We walked the whispering avenues,
    Talking of way back when,
    And listened to the women speak
    Of their great need for men.

    Well, that night their prayers were answered;
    I saw it come to pass.
    Dry grass became concrete once more,
    All stained with oil and gas.

    Ground crews clustered around their birds,
    Readying them for flight,
    And down the line came those of lore,
    To get some time that night.

    Stopped by an old B-24,
    My friend said, "Want some fun?
    Fly the right seat with me tonight,
    Out on a Guernsey run."

    We rushed our preflight, made our checks;
    She was no hangar queen,
    But joined late at Bunker Beacon,
    So flew as Green Sixteen.

    The approving air around us
    Was filled with those reborn.
    I knew the joy of men with wings,
    Sounding the hunter's horn.

    A bulky, dog-eared short snorter,
    I signed with leaky pen,
    A brotherhood unknown to most,
    Yet prized by flying men.

    In tight formation, through the night,
    Field-grader moon above,
    And happiness, that special pride,
    Call it a kind of love.

    But on landing came the sadness,
    These times were all too rare,
    We taxied to the parking ramp,
    And chocks that spelled despair.

    We walked the quiet avenues,
    And watched them fade away.
    Heads bowed and leather jacket backs,
    With nothing more to say.

    Concrete became dry grass once more,
    The night wind moaned its loss.
    I thought of brave men gone before,
    A hat, a ring, a toss.

    We reached the fence; I passed on through,
    And saw a dead star swoon.
    One slow salute and he walked back
    Into his chain-link tomb.

    * * *

    My alarm clock buzzed the morning;
    I smiled myself awake.
    I should have taken an extract,
    Just for my form 5's sake.

    Funny how real a fantasy
    Based on dreams can become.
    But I cut myself while shaving,
    I had an ink-stained thumb.

The more technical among you can rightly take me to task about this ode. For several reasons, I decided to call it an ode. When I was in North Vietnam, no one knew what an ode was so it didn't make any difference, and I needed one anyway just to round out the collection. In any event, the T-33, that fine aircraft, should have this ode in its past, as well as the other skeletons.

    Ode to a T-Bird

    O T-Bird, noble aircraft, timeworn true,
    Fair ramply fixture gracing every base,
    Now lost within, as you have traveled through
    The vast immensity of time and space.
    And who shall feeling call thy sainted name,
    Now that thy service lifespan finally done?
    And where remembered resting place and fame?
    A common grave beneath the desert sun.
    Yet if of ere a nosewheel has been cocked,
    A bucket blown or bulky seat pack sore,
    As sure as thy J-8 has precessed locked,
    Extended be thy presence evermore.
    So long I hold, there be parts-pickup hops,
    Somewhere, a T-Bird's parked in front of OPS.

    Sonnet for Winged Man

    The amber-throated days of summer run
    A single race, surprising short to fall.
    Old passions mellow with the cooling sun,
    And rising smoke from burning leaves a wall.
    Though tender held, the shawl of autumn slips
    And bares the trees to mufflered winter cold.
    No more on placid ponds the painted ships,
    To leeward helm bound home with weathered gold.
    Yet if the fleeting season short for some,
    For winged man more cruel the second hand,
    With final landing logged will winter come
    To icy grip, now shackled to the land.
    But till last storm, he'll wait the banshee cry,
    Run quick to look, his heart still in the sky.


    A friend is a wingman.
    A friend can be lead.
    A friend is there when there's a need.

    Who Is It?

    Who is it sits in summer sun,
    With air conditioner that won't run?
    Who is it chill now winter come?
    The heating unit on the bum.

    Who is it sits with propped-up boot,
    In salt-encrusted flying suit?
    Who is it smokes fag after fag,
    And reads the latest flying mag?

    Who is this man who talks so crude?
    The chosen one, grease pencil screwed.
    Who is this chap who seldom speaks,
    Yet monitors so many freqs?

    Who is he not caught unawares
    With loaded Very pistol flares?
    The coffee drunk lukewarm and black,
    By him who logs 'em off and back.

    By now you've guessed our mystery friend,
    If you've pulled time at runway's end.
    That yellow box on wheels still waits
    For you, perhaps, or squadron mates.

    So watch some grease, some barely hack
    A landing that would break your back,
    But what the hell, they all got gear.
    Thanks be to thee, dear mobileer.

    This One Is for the Birds
    (Cross Country)

    (Use a Southern accent and syncopate
    in latter portion of line.)

    Well, way down south on the Texas flat,
    Where prickle pear and jackrabbit at,
    Lived two woodpeckers in a sawed-off stump,
    A-lookin' all the day for sumpin' to thump.

    Now, I know'd one, name of Maggie Mo;
    T'other buddy be B'rer Jamie Jo.
    Maggie were IP with a bunch of rrrs,
    But Jamie, he were young, kinda unawarrrs.

    It happened one day as I recollect,
    Setting on a cholla with nothing to peck,
    Maggie turned to Jamie: "Say, brother-o,
    I got me an idee think you oughta know.

    "From yonder back, north to San Anton,
    Local flyin' wood's dry as a bone.
    Cottonwood, willer, other thorny thing
    Just don't fill the bill, that empty holler ring.

    "But I heard tell of a promised land,
    Where trees grow tall and the peckin's grand.
    Californy redwood, supposed to be best;
    I be of a mind to mosey on out west."

    Well, Jamie chawed, pondered it a spell;
    It twern't too long he opined, "Do tell.
    Maggie, what you say surely do appeal;
    Guess I'll tag along, give them redwoods a feel."

    The two ambled down, RAYDOE base ops;
    Howdy to a few plannin' their hops.
    They checked with weather, then into the charts,
    Filed an eyeball route and departed them parts.

    Maggie was a-leadin', first leg high,
    Jamie on the wing, hanging right spry.
    Fast as a possum clawin' up a tree,
    The two headed west, flight level twenty-three.

    Couple hours out they let on down;
    Quick stop at Kirtland for turnaround.
    Moon pie and cola, 'nother tank of gas,
    Soon headed west again, really hauling ... fas'.

    Oak Creek Canyon, real purty passed by;
    Jamie thrashing weeds, Maggie stacked high.
    The two skedaddled in their feathered flight,
    Pleased as Mr. Bullfrog on a moonlit night.

    Round about Vegas, Maggie took lead.
    Off to the west, some weather he seed.
    "Hello there, Center, need a clearance now.
    Dog, but that dark stuff sure bring sweat to the brow."

    The two smoked on, undercast below;
    Maggie said, "Boy, just a piece to go."
    And sho nuff ahead, them big trees of red,
    Where a fool could peck his brains out, till he dead.

    They entered into holding by and by,
    Weather mite touchy to Maggie's eye.
    "We better take a TACAN, radar too.
    Caution be the watchword, 'fore we have a chew."

    Jamie started frettin', young and bold.
    Called for clearance, "Continue to hold."
    Jamie so bothered, so anxious to peck,
    He rolled to his back and Split S'd to the deck.

    Luck of a rebel helped him down.
    Landed on a tree, commenced to pound,
    He'd jest reared back for that first giant peck,
    When come bolt of lightning, struck him in the neck.

    Poor ole Jamie, layin' in the brush,
    Tail feathers singed and a deathly hush.
    Maggie was on final; he touched down good,
    To a fine full stop next a likely hunk of wood.

    Maggie looked for Jamie, peered to be,
    Big Daddy Sherman had marched to the sea.
    There were feathers all strewed, blood on the ground;
    Jamie lay a-pantin' like a redbone hound.

    Maggie stood a-lookin', shook his head.
    "It's wonder, I declare, you ain't dead.
    Now, I seed me some sights and heard me some tales,
    There is one thing I know that's true for all males."

    "Boy, 'fore you fly gen, think on these words.
    It's true for man, and it's true for birds:
    No matter what you call it, love or sin,
    Don't be such a hurry, put your pecker in."


Excerpted from Taps on the Walls by John Borling Copyright © 2013 by Master Wings Publishing LLC. Excerpted by permission of Master Wings Publishing LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Borling, Major General, USAF, Ret., is a native Chicagoan and Air Force Academy graduate. A fighter pilot, his many decorations include the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. During his 37 years in the Air Force, Borling served in high-level command and staff positions throughout the world. After military retirement, he continued to serve at the chairman/CEO and board director level of many for-profit and not-for-profit entities. He also founded and directs SOS America, an organization that advocates universal military service for America’s youth.

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Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
RonStanderfer More than 1 year ago
Pain and suffering has been the subject of poetry since the beginning of mankind. In particular, those unjustly imprisoned and subjected to inhumane treatment often turned to poetry to ease their mental anguish and refocus their thinking from despair to hope of survival. The author was one of several hundred POWs held in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton; an environment so cruel and hostile that it defies imagination for all but those who once resided there. During the six and a half years of his incarceration; torture, beatings, sleep deprivation, near starvation, and total lack of sanitation were a daily part of his life. It was during those days that he turned to poetry. Notice that I didn’t say that he began to write poetry or even read poems. Reading and writing were strictly forbidden and POWs caught with any materials for that purpose, no matter how crude, were severely punished. What he did do, however, was to create and commit to memory every poem published in “Taps on the Walls.” Furthermore, once composed and memorized, he shared those poems with fellow prisoners by tapping on the walls using a secret code. The key to this code, the use of which was also forbidden, is illustrated in the book. After several fumbling attempts to communicate using this code, I was overwhelmed by the obvious; namely, that the amount of time, patience, and persistence required to create, transmit, and decode the poems in “Taps on the Walls” must to have been enormous. So what specifically was the author trying to accomplish when “writing” his poems and how does he view his work some 40 years later? The answers to these questions were provided in a recent interview when he said, “The verse and prose in this volume are not principally about pain or pity but more about the essence of the human condition. That essence was and is the ability to create. Creating provided a pathway to survival and salvation. The process of creating made enemy time an ally, and an uncertain race could be run.” As for the individual poems in the book, they flow easily and steadily from one subject to the next; each fashioned in plain, everyday language without hyperbole or fancy words. The subject matter is divided more or less equally between love of his wife and family; love of flying; and his POW life —all tied together by his core values and his determination to survive. For those who have not been blessed with the experience of flying the author has included a glossary if terms most frequently used in flying in general and military flying in particular. This makes the book fascinating reading for everyone, regardless of his or her background. The book provides a treasure trove of quotable quotes and each reader will discover his or her favorite. As a Vietnam veteran my favorite is, “So once elected, War the Objective; Wrap it up neat and fast. It won’t be pretty, but that’s a pity, But better first than last. Moral, immoral, A senseless quarrel; Winners are right in history.” he words in the book fly directly from the soul of the writer and into the heart and soul of the reader, without deflection or deterrence; w provide a powerful and much needed refresher course on American core values in terms of what they have helped us accomplish in the past, and what they can help us accomplish in the future. “Taps on the Walls” should be required reading for every American who cares about his or her country and its people.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I know what this book cost in very human terms. I am the wife.
Country-reader More than 1 year ago
The story behind the book is worth the read itself. I had no idea. No more review from me. Do yourself a favor and read it.
JSMReferee More than 1 year ago
I bought this because of a sensitivity I have, as a veteran, for the Viet Nam war and especially for the POW's. I don't like poetry or poetry-like writing but I read every offering and they are very good with some being excellent. I am former Air Force (1962-66), having flown on the B47E Bomber. I enjoyed a lot of the lingo unique to flying. I strongly recommend that you part with the few dollars the book costs. You might find yourself on the other side of the wall and re-living some of the sacrifices made by these heroes.
efm More than 1 year ago
more for a war time pilot to appreciate the poetry,but the story behind the poetry is unfortunate.