Men We Love: Major General John Borling

Major General John Borling, USAF Ret., of Rockford, admits to more failure than most highly accomplished men.

And that makes him all the more inspiring and endearing.

His response to those failures, embodied in his motto “to quit is to die,” has led Borling to an extraordinary life. His accomplishments include surviving 6 1/2 years of extreme deprivation as a P.O.W. in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” becoming one of the most decorated fighter pilots in our nation’s history, creating and leading a northern Europe NATO post, and most recently, publishing an acclaimed book of poetry.

Talk about the power of a positive attitude! Borling’s drive, determination, and leadership are impressive, but he combines those traits with a poet’s heart, and that makes him truly special in our eyes. Despite being shot down, badly wounded, stripped naked, and imprisoned, Borling spent his confinement trying to lift the spirits of the other prisoners by doing the forbidden — communicating with them. Each night, he tapped his poetry, in secret code, on the walls.

Many of those poems are included in “Taps On The Walls: Poems from the Hanoi Hilton” (Master Wings Publishing, 2013). The book was published earlier this year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Hanoi Hilton prisoners’ release. Borling hopes that “the messages of personal, community, state, and nation renewal will continue to resonate.”

Borling’s description of a life overcoming personal failures also inspires belief in renewal. He failed to get into the Naval, Army, or Air Force academies when he graduated from high school; but he persevered, attending college at Navy Pier until the Air Force Academy finally admitted him. Borling came perilously close to “washing out” of flight school — he just couldn’t solo. But he overcame those fears too, and graduated at the top of his class.

“I wanted to be a Thunderbird and an astronaut; time in prison put both out of reach,” he explains. “But this did not deter my ability to get back and compete with peers.” Borling went on to earn more medals than any of those peers and lead commands around the world.

Service and flying are great loves. But Borling’s wife of 33 years, Myrna, is his greatest love of all. She is also his muse — Borling started writing poetry for Myrna. As you can infer from reading “Taps On The Wall,” Myrna has inspired his determination not to quit — poetry or life — ever since.