Art Beltrone (left) shows off the tabletop version of the "Marking Time" exhibit to then-National Commander Jim Koutz during a 2013 post event. (Photo courtesy Art Beltrone)

Vietnam soldiers draw their stories

A photographer and journalist/military artifact historian couple have turned an inspiration into a multimedia exhibit.

In 1997, while advising on the movie “The Thin Red Line,” military historian Art Beltrone toured a well-maintained troopship in Virginia’s James River Reserve Fleet. Launched in 1944, the USS Admiral H. T. Mayo transported soldiers in both theaters toward the end of World War II. In 1946, the ship was renamed USAT General Nelson M. Walker. During the Korean War, Walker ferried troops to Inchon and former POWs home. And in the late 1960s, the ship saw its third war as it began carrying soldiers to Vietnam. That voyage typically took 18 to 21 days to cover more than 5,000 miles; the upside for the soldiers was that it counted toward their in-country service.

To both pass the time and relieve stress, the soldiers inscribed personal graffiti all over their bunk canvases. The graffiti listed names and hometowns, or conveyed messages of hope, fear, love and pride in text or graphic form. After discovering the canvases during his tour, an inspired Art got together with his wife, Lee, to form the nonprofit Vietnam Graffiti Project (VGP). Over the next few years, the Beltrones worked with institutions to remove the canvases to better repositories, and they helped make the final searches and removals during Walker’s final 2005 scrapping in Texas.

Using the inscribed information, the couple started tracking down the soldiers who had done the inscribing for audio interviews. “Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam” first went on exhibit in 2007, incorporating the interviews, photographs and artifacts – including the actual canvases retrieved from Walker.

During an event in April 2013 at Post 74 in Shadwell, Va., to welcome then-American Legion National Commander Jim Koutz, a tabletop exhibit was on display for attendees – a smaller version of the Beltrones’ exhibit

The exhibit has been traveling the country for some time. Art spoke with The American Legion Magazine about the project’s past and future, and why he finds it vital for the public to see this military graffiti.

TAL: Did you serve in Vietnam?
AB: From 1963 to 1969, I was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, a “Ready Reserve” unit headquartered at Garden City, Long Island. While the order was passed several times during this period to have our sea bags packed and our affairs in order, our unit was not activated.

TAL: What led you to become a military artifact historian?
AB: World War II veterans who were members of my family provided the inspiration for me to want to learn about military history and military artifacts. An uncle on my mother’s side lived in Brownsville, Pa., and had been an infantry NCO. During a summer visit with his family, he asked if I would like some of his cloth insignia. I readily accepted and came home with a small collection of rank chevrons, division patches and regimental distinctive insignia. I didn’t know what the patches specifically represented, so I wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution that included my simple drawings of the designs. In about a week I actually received a response from a curator giving me the division identifications.

There were also several World War II veterans on my father’s side who lived in Brooklyn. Just about every week we would travel from Long Island to Brooklyn for the traditional Italian Sunday meal. Suspended on one wall of the dining room was a German sword with a German medal attached to the scabbard by its ribbon. I was about 7 or 8 at that time, and I would always ask if one of the grown-ups could take both artifacts off the wall for me to inspect. I still have both artifacts. Two early television World War II programs – “Victory at Sea” and “Crusade in Europe” – also sparked my interest.

TAL: What first sparked the idea to turn what you found on USAT General Nelson M. Walker into an exhibit?
AB: The service of Vietnam veterans was never acknowledged or honored when they returned home from the war. The drawings and messages that were put on the canvases by soldiers and Marines each tell a personal story of the era. Some were patriotic, others humorous. Sentiments of hometown and unit pride, apprehension, and the uncomfortable conditions in the troop compartments. It became evident that these stories should be shared with veterans and the public to gain a better understanding of Vietnam-era young Americans going to war. My wife, Lee, played a vital role in the direction the project would take. She became co-curator of the exhibit and added her art background to its design completion, and also her woman’s perspective of what was important to the wives and families of the veterans we are honoring. Lee also had a personal interest in developing the exhibit – her brother William Lutz, a 1963 West Point graduate, served several tours in Vietnam.

TAL: Did you find anything unique on the ship, or from its World War II or Korea service?
AB: When we went to Brownsville, Texas, where the ship was being scrapped at All-Star Metals, we took time to go through areas we hadn’t inspected. In one we found several canvas bunk inserts with graffiti left by men returning from Korea in 1953. This was surprising because we understood that when the ship was outfitted for Vietnam service, all berthing units were removed. This did not happen.

After returning home with the selected artifacts from Texas, we found two ink letters written during the Korean War by a soldier to his mother. He never mailed them and instead stuffed them into one of the vertical berthing-unit support poles of his bunk unit. 

TAL: How many soldiers who sailed on Walker have you been able to contact?
AB: Since the project began in 1997, we have been able to find and contact more than 100 veterans who traveled to or from Southeast Asia aboard Walker. A good number of these left graffiti on the canvas bunks. Jerry Barker, one of the directors of our nonprofit project, has been of extreme assistance. Jerry is a Vietnam veteran who went to war aboard Walker in 1967. He was a member of the 2nd Squadron, 1st Cavalry, and has put us in touch with many of the men who were on his voyage.

TAL: Can you give a recent example?
AB: We were recently contacted by the then fiancée  of a young singer/songwriter Army soldier who was killed in Vietnam in 1968. The woman wanted to know more about the young man she was to marry. We were able to share with her what we knew of his military service and to put her in touch with men who know the soldier. She surprised us by offering to share a “Living Letters” tape he recorded in Vietnam and mailed to her about two months before he was killed. The Living Letters program was sponsored by the 3M Corporation and its Scotch-brand division. The firm supplied small tape recorded at no cost to troops in Southeast Asia along with small audio cassettes, each holding 15 minutes of tape. The soldier, a member of the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry, expressed his feelings for his fiancée  and sang several songs for her on the tape. As he sings two of the songs, you can hear artillery rounds being fired nearby. He was recording his letter that close to the action. This tape is extremely important to the Vietnam Graffiti Project because he truly enables us to know the man we have followed for years. We kept hearing about him by men who were on the ship – hey recalled a young soldier playing a guitar and singing songs on the main deck during a voyage in August 1967. It took us two years to learn who he was, and now we know him much better and have been able to help a woman who has thought of him over the years.
We also learned about the Living Letters program and would like to be in touch with any veteran or family member who still possesses one or more of the tapes they would be willing to share.

TAL: What have been the reactions of people seeing the exhibit?
AB: Visitors find the graffiti of extreme interest. Because we are able to find the writers of the graffiti, we record and present their personal stories. Graffiti scholars say the graffiti is the most honest expression of the writer’s feeling when inscribed. The public is also fascinated by the other major exhibit highlight: a complete eight-person free-standing berthing unit removed from the ship shows just how crowded the sleeping quarters were.

The canvases with graffiti and other artifacts, including soldiers’ items left in the bunks, put a personal face on who went to war. This gives the public a better understanding of the many individuals who fought the war.

We receive interview recording assistance from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. That organization is very involved and supportive of the VGP.

TAL: How has The American Legion – especially Post 74 – helped the VGP?
AB: The post members have shared voyage memories, and former post commander Arthur Brown, who operates a video production business, has volunteered to provide editing and reproduction for audio and visual troopship veteran interviews we have completed.
One of our directors, Jerry Barker, a member of American Legion Police Post 56 in Indianapolis and a former Indianapolis police chief,  has been of extreme assistance. During Vietnam, Jerry served with the 1st Squadron, 2nd Cavalry, and sailed aboard Walker in 1967. His experience traveling on the ship has added a personal perspective to the exhibit and has led us to many troop passengers.

TAL: What are the long-term plans for the exhibit?
AB: The exhibit first opened at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington in November 2007. Since then, it has visited 25 historical societies and museums throughout the country, from the East Coast to the West Coast. More venues are coming on board to host the exhibit into 2016. We actually have two exhibits with identical themes but different canvases and artifacts that travel the country. This enables more Americans to experience the stories of the Vietnam soldiers and Marines who went to Vietnam by ship. We will continue traveling the exhibit, and at the same time identify a permanent home for it and make those arrangements.

View the exhibit’s schedule in 2014, see pictures and video, and find out how to help tell the story at the VGP website.