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Ex-POW shares story of forbidden tap code

Maj. Gen. John Borling kept his mind sharp and his spirits up during years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam by “writing,” memorizing and tapping out poems he shared with other POWs.

By Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor

Maj. Gen. John Borling, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over 6 ½ years, will share his story — and the method he used to stay sane and sharp — at 7 p.m. May 20 at the Sheldon Theatre. The event is free and open to everyone.

The retired U.S. Air Force officer will read from his book, “Taps on the Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton,” and talk about his experiences as a POW.

The public event is the last of several targeted appearances for Borling while he is in Red Wing to participate in the Minnesota Veterans Art Experience 2014, organized by the Red Wing Arts Association.

On May 19 he will address a smaller group of local veterans at a dinner sponsored by the Hiawatha Valley Family Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. Limited to 50 veterans, the dinner will be at 6:30 p.m. in the lower level of the Smokin’ Oak restaurant.

Although the dinner is free, veterans must reserve a spot by calling the Red Wing Arts Association at 651-388-7569.

In addition, Borling will speak to Red Wing High School students the morning of May 20 and will visit with another small group prior to the Sheldon program.

In his book, Borling presents the poetry he wrote, memorized and shared with other POWs by using a forbidden tap code. It was their only means of communication.

“Rapping on the cell walls with his knuckles, he tapped poems, certainly of pain and despair, but also of humor, encouragement and hope, to keep everyone’s strength and spirits alive,” according to the book cover.

Borling wrote, “The tap code became our lifeline, our means of passing along information and words of encouragement to one another. … We tapped names so others would know and remember who was alive. We tapped messages of hope and family. … We tapped prayers, lots of prayers. We tapped as if our lives depended on tapping — because they did.”

Sen. John McCain, who also spent years in captivity in Vietnam, wrote in the book’s forward that Borling “contributed greatly to the morale and survival of the rest of us with his poems and incredible talent for storytelling.”

A native Chicagoan now living in Rockford, Illinois, Borling graduated from the Air Force Academy and became a fighter pilot. His jet was shot down over Vietnam in June 1966 and he was a prisoner of war until February 1973.

Borling chose to remain in the Air Force after returning home. During his 37-year military career he served in high-level command and staff positions around the world. Among his decorations are the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars with V for Valor and two Purple Hearts.

In retirement he founded and directs SOS America — which stands for Service Over Self, an organization that advocates universal military service for America’s youth.

The Borling visit coincides with several Minnesota Veterans Art Experience activities. An exhibit of art work by veterans and print art depicting veterans’ stories remains on display at the Depot Gallery, and a retreat for veterans at Villa Maria will be under way May 19-24.

Still to come is a one-man show, “The Accidental Hero,” at the Sheldon Theatre on May 24. A ticketed event, the production tells the true story of one man’s service in World War II.

For more information about any of the activities, contact the Red Wing Arts Association at or 651-388-7569.

If you go...

Who: Maj. Gen. John Borling, USAF, retired

What: “Understanding the Veteran’s Experience”

When: 7 p.m. May 20

Where: Sheldon Theatre

How much: Free

More info: Red Wing Arts Association, 651-388-7569