Military historian Art Beltrone found the graffiti by chance. He and a filmmaker had received permission to board the rusty old troop ship anchored in Virginia’s James River. They climbed steps up from a tugboat, crossed the gangplank to open the door and found – a time capsule.
Orange life vests sat atop each bunk, still at the ready. There were notices pinned to the bulletin board, dated 1967.
It was as though the men had just left, said Lee Beltrone, Art’s wife. Papers left on desks, dirty dishes in the galley.
The graffiti was scrawled on the undersides of the canvas, quadruple-decker bunks: names and hometowns of young men headed to war in Vietnam, peace symbols, song lyrics, drawings of girlfriends and calendars counting down the days until they could go back home.
Since that chance discovery, the Beltrones have worked to find and save those long-lost voices – and give new voice to Vietnam veterans.
For some troops who returned to the shouts of protesters rather than victory parades, answering Art Beltrone’s questions was the first time they have talked about what was going through their minds as they sailed off to war.
Soldiers such as Jim Hardy remembered lying in the cramped rack of the General Nelson M. Walker as the nights got hotter and hotter, reading the graffiti other soldiers had written overhead. He was 20 years old, young enough to think he could laugh off the fear of what lay ahead.
Learning that the scribbles had been saved was like finding an old friend, Hardy said recently. A warm feeling, to find that people care about what happened.
Over the years, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities provided some of the money and equipment needed to record interviews with the veterans.
The stories preserve the memories of those who fought in the war, to make it real for all those who didn’t.
On those three-week journeys to Vietnam, space was so tight that men had to climb out of their bunks just to roll over into a different position. The underside of each bunk lay just inches from the face of the man below, a ready canvas for his thoughts.
There were drawings. There was shorthand: USMC. LSD. LBJ all the way.
Some graffiti was coarse. Some was eloquent. One man adapted the lyrics to a folk song to directly address his shipmates: You’re the one who must decide who’s to live and who’s to die/You’re the one who gives your body as a weapon of the war – and without you all this killing can’t go on.
Zeb Armstrong, a newlywed from Clover, South Carolina, wrote: Billie Armstrong, my dear wife. And he wrote: Will I return???
This graffiti was an unusual form of expression, Beltrone thinks – not meant for the public, the way most graffiti might be, but not private like a diary. It was written for the eyes of other troops headed to the same war.
Beltrone served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve from 1963 to 1969; his wife’s brother served three tours in Vietnam. Several times, Beltrone’s unit was ordered to pack their bags because they, too, were going to Southeast Asia. Each time, they stood down.
They went. I didn’t have to go, Beltrone said. If there was some way we could recognize their service, I felt that was something we should do.
The Beltrones asked for permission to save the canvases, taking possession of some 350 of them before the Walker, which had been berthed near Fort Eustis, just north of Newport News, Virginia, was destroyed in 2005. The couple donated some of the bunks to military museums, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
They began searching for the men who had written on them and founded a nonprofit group called the Vietnam Graffiti Project to preserve and make available what they learned.
Zeb Armstrong was easy to find. He had gone home to Clover, started a pest-control business, raised a family. When they came to his house and showed him the graffiti, he couldn’t stop smiling. He said he was scared on the voyage, not knowing whether he would come home.
He told his granddaughter Yuniqua Burris, who is 22, that he was scared to kill.
When he was diagnosed with cancer last year, Burris asked whether he was scared to die. No, he told her. He had lived the life that he wanted. No regrets. He made it home.
Jim Hardy remembers some of the graffiti still, 47 years later.
I don’t know if I’ll live or die/I don’t know the reason why.
Kill ’em all, and let God sort ’em out.
Some protest stuff. And some jokes, to lighten the mood.
They had so much time to think on board the Walker, he said: 20 days, closer to war every moment.
Hardy, then an Army private first class, didn’t get scared until a typhoon hit. For more than 24 hours, the Walker shuddered and pitched through 140-mph wind and 90-foot waves. Thousands of men vomited, cursed and prayed – as they never could have imagined they would – that they would make it to Vietnam.
Late one night, someone ran down the stairs to Hardy’s rack, yelling, We’re here!
They rushed up to the rail to see land, 11 degrees above the equator, intensely hot even in the dead of night. Through the dark humid air, Hardy could see mountains lit by sudden flashes of heat lightning, the boom of thunder echoing over the water.
Then he realized: That’s not lightning. That’s not thunder.
That’s when reality kicked in, he said. Lord help me. Help us all.