Fifty-two years ago a troop ship in Oakland, California sailed for Vietnam, carrying over 3,000 men. They slept in very tight quarters on canvas hammocks – one just a few inches above the man who slept below. That canvas was a tempting target for graffiti. Lots of it.
A Virginia couple has saved much of it as a tribute to those who fought in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam Graffiti Project will visit Blacksburg this month and Charlottesville in June.
In 1966 and 1967 thousands of American men boarded ships for a three-week cruise to Vietnam. Military historian Art Beltrone says they played a lot of cards and made creative use of crates from the kitchen.
“They would collect packaging, build kites and fly them off the starboard, and then they would do some betting – how long it would stay up before the kite would break apart,” he explains.
And they shared their thoughts – their politics and humor, their loves and fears on the canvas bunks above them. At the time, military men had black markers to write their serial numbers inside their clothes.
“So they had the pen, and it was a natural place for them to start leaving other messages, but it was against regulations. We found bulletin board notices that said troops are not supposed to deface government property,” he says.
Beltrone first saw the graffiti left by U.S. soldiers when he was working with filmmaker Jack Fisk. They needed to photograph an old troop ship for the World War II era film The Thin Red Line, and they found one that had last served during the Vietnam era, ready for the scrap yard – sitting in the James River. Later Beltrone returned with his wife Lee.
“Even though the ship was totally vacant, you felt the presence of people there because of what they had left behind," Art recalls.
"It was like walking into a time capsule," Lee adds. "There were papers left in the office, dirty dishes left in the galley, books, things that they had left on the ship. It was just as though they had just left.”
Art Beltrone had been a marine. His wife’s brother served several tours of duty in Vietnam, and the two felt it was important to recognize those who fought, to save the men’s stories and acknowledge their service.
They got permission to take about 400 pieces of canvas on which men wrote and drew.
“This was done by an African-American soldier," Art Beltrone says as he unrolls a canvas. "His name was Zeb Armstrong. He was from Clover, South Carolina, and he wrote at the top: ‘Billie Armstrong, my dear wife.’ He put his name, ETS, estimated time of separation. That was the time he was getting out of the army. No sooner had they gotten on the ship to go to war, he marked when he was getting out. And then he wrote at the bottom: ‘Will I return?’”
The Beltrones found Mr. Armstrong and brought the canvas to remind him of his three weeks at sea.
“He was so proud of the fact that we were visiting with his canvas. His grandchildren were there, his children,” Lee remembers.
The Internet allowed them to find about a hundred of the original graffiti artists and to record their stories, but in one case they had only the man’s first name – so they sent word to the American Legion, which published a short story in its magazine.
“They ran a photo of the canvas and a little blurb about the fact that we were looking for him," Art says. "We got a call from him, and he said, ‘It’s me! It’s me!’” Art says.
In their interviews, the men talked about their travels to Vietnam. Some had never seen the ocean before, and a few were treated to typhoons that brought 140 mile an hour winds and 90-foot waves to bear on the U.S.S. Walker.
“One of the continuing stories throughout our interviews has been seasickness – how many, many men were confined to their bunks for the entire voyage even,” Lee says.
The Beltrones have taken their collection of interviews, graffiti and memorabilia to 35 states since the project began. It’s at the New York Historical Society now, but a tabletop version of the show will visit Blacksburg on April 23rd. The show and tell takes place Monday, April 23rd in Goodwin Hall, room 190 from 4:45 to 6:45.
The Beltrones will speak there and at another show at Charlottesville’s North Side Library on June 13th. That event runs from 6:30-7:30.