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'I was able to compete'

Posted 11/17/03

Ask retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling how he was treated during the nearly seven years he spent in a North Vietnamese POW camp. His answers are stark and given reluctantly.

"They'd tie you up. Put your arms behind you, almost dislocating them. And tie you up with very tight and burning ropes and put knees and feet in your back. String you up and bend you backwards with your feet tied up and then often they'd hang you up on a hook and play pinata with you," Borling recently recalled.

"Or put you down on your knees on a concrete floor with your hands on your head. If you let your arms down or moved to one side, they'd beat you," he said.

Now, three decades removed from torture endured in service of his country, Rockford's Borling is attempting to do what hasn't been successfully done in Illinois politics for more than a half-century: use a war hero background as a springboard to major statewide office.

First-time candidate Borling is one of seven candidates expected to run in the March Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Inverness. Borling is making his run 55 years after the state's voters sent Democrat Paul H. Douglas to the Senate after a stint as a decorated Marine who enlisted for World War II at age 50.

So far, Borling is trying to position himself as a moderate in a field of conservatives, although his stance in favor of allowing people to carry concealed guns with a permit doesn't fit the typical moderate mold.

It remains to be seen whether the 63-year-old Borling's nascent political career will catch fire like that of his fellow former POW, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But there's little doubt Borling's got a compelling story.

Life as a POW

Borling was flying an F4 at 500 mph north of Hanoi on June 1, 1966, proud to have secured a waiver to double his tour of duty and fly another 100 missions, when his plane was downed by ground fire.

He managed to crash land on a hill and, his back seriously injured, crawl into a hollowed-out log in a thicket.

"I always thought I was kind of a Rambo guy. I was not just a fighter pilot, I was a paratrooper. I was a survival instructor. The only difference was, Rambo could walk, and I couldn't walk," he said.

Borling found a stick, limped out of the log, having hatched an ill-fated plan he says he's since reviewed in his mind 10,000 times.

"Here comes a truck, and I'm going to stop it. I'm going to hijack it and have it take me to the coast. And the plan was to steal or hijack a boat and take it south. So there I was, all tired and worn-pone, and I stopped this truck, and I had managed to hijack a truck full of troops," he recalls.

"I tried to say surrender in about five languages. By this time, I've got AKs (rifles) up my nose. Maybe John Wayne could have pulled it off. John Borling couldn't. I was rudely thrown down. My clothes were cut off. I'm very soon laying there nude in the road."

Like most captured fighter pilots, Borling was taken to Hao Lo, a prison that translates to "the oven."

"They started to work on you in a variety of fashions. You were alone. You were isolated. Tortured," he says.

Borling remembers being moved out of the main torture area, unaffectionately called the Heartbreak Hotel by POWs, after about a month and a half. From there, he spent time at an old French film studio-turned-prison called "The Zoo."

There he lived with two other men in a 7-by-7-foot cell with no ventilation and one shared bucket that was not frequently emptied. Fed weed soup and rice twice a day, Borling was truly hungry for 6? years, he says.

The first Christmas was the hardest. He left his wife and 3-month-old daughter at home the year before, and they didn't find out he was alive until a few years after he was captured. Borling recalls a prison guard throwing him and his cellmates a piece of chicken and getting maybe two bites in before it was taken away.

Morale boosts were infrequent, but important for survival. Borling recalls being left alone in a room after a beating and using a pick to get free enough to rifle through a desk that had letters to prisoners.

"About this time, the door opens, and they're on me, and they're really angry. As they pull the letters out of my hands, you know what I see? A stamp. And it's the man on the moon. I grabbed the letter and they're beating the (heck) out of me and I just had to see the date: America, man on the moon, 1970. A couple weeks later, I get back into circulation and start our tap code. The message was, 'we own the moon.'?p>The POWs were elated, unaware until then that Neil Armstrong and company had conquered the moon a year earlier.

"The thing that was substantial, was that no matter how hard it got, you still tried not to lose your spirit, your dignity, your self-esteem," he said. "You tried to improve yourself because all we wanted to do in the end when we got out was fly again."

Escape attempts were common, but with downtown Hanoi nearby, impossible to pull off. Still, Borling said, he and his cellmate, Maj. Darrel Pyle of California, had to try.

"The night we were gonna go, a rainy night, just jump down into the city and figure it out from there, he couldn't slip his shackles and made so much noise, they came in and caught us and found out what we were trying to do and that was difficult. He said, 'Don't go without me' and I said, 'I won't,'?Borling said.

After the United States tried a daring, though unsuccessful, prison raid at Son Tay in 1970, the North Vietnamese took a new tack, holding 30 or 40 prisoners in large rooms. It was there Borling said he spent a couple weeks with McCain.

"We slept pretty much shoulder to shoulder for a while," Borling said.

A McCain spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment.

Release, recovery

Borling was among the 591 POWs released on Feb. 12, 1973, as part of the peace accord negotiated by national security adviser Henry Kissinger.

Back at an Air Force base, Borling spent two months in transition, adjusting to a normal life after all those years in captivity. He was an inch and a half shorter, mostly due to his untreated back injury sustained in the plane crash.

"I think we were kind of OK and kind of screwed up," Borling says now.

He underwent a series of psychological tests and still goes back every year for physical and mental tests as part of a study on the long-term effects on POWs. Borling says he still has some pain in his joints and extremities from the torture and has to exercise every day to keep away the discomfort.

He stayed in the Air Force after his release, getting back in the air and earning the fighter pilot nickname "Viking."

"It's probably the most important thing in my life that I found out I was able to compete, not only in flying, but in command and control, and hadn't lost the edge, despite all those years," he said.

Borling went on to serve in the White House under President Ford as a military adviser, spent time in the Pentagon in a variety of leadership roles and then was the director of operations for the Strategic Air Command during the Gulf War.

Since his military retirement in 1996, Borling has become president of SOS America, which wants to mandate a year of military service for men 18 to 26. The controversial idea likely will be debated during the Senate race, since Borling intends to start pushing the plan on a national level in late January.

Borling went back to Vietnam last year as part of a White House delegation. He says he's long since forgiven his captors and has no hate. The trip, however, made it impossible to forget.

On a morning jog back to what soldiers called the Heartbreak Hotel, Borling found himself standing in an actual hotel that's been built on the same spot since the war ended.

"I went up to the fourth floor in this hotel and walked out onto a deck and could look over into the old prison. I press up against this chain-link fence that's looking down, and I'm standing on top of Heartbreak Hotel and I'm looking at a children's playground that's part of a new hotel. I just had this sense of historical enormity come over me, that somehow it seemed so proper, that this was now a playground for children," he said. "It seemed so appropriate. As if all the pain could somehow be taken away."

POW:

"You still tried not to lose your spirit, your dignity, your self-esteem"

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