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 the 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 and a photographer. “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, where the radio show “With Good Reason” is produced, provided some of the money and equipment needed to record interviews with the veterans. A selection of the men’s stories is being broadcast on the radio show this week, punctuated by old recordings of songs strummed on cheap guitars for sweethearts back home, and tears shed for those who never returned.
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.”
Another remembered, almost exactly, William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29,” in which the poet curses his lonely fate, then comforts himself: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings/That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”
Zeb Armstrong, a newlywed from Clover, S.C., wrote: “Billie Armstrong, my dear wife.” He mentioned the cafe where they used to dance to the jukebox on summer nights.
And he wrote: “Will I return???”
The graffiti was a singular 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 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 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 if 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 if he was scared to die. No, he told her. He had lived the life that he wanted. No regrets. He made it home.
As time went on, the Beltrones began to hear stories about a kid with a guitar on the ship, a soldier who could really sing. A platoon officer told them, “That’s Augie Battaglia.”
He remembered one day in the jungle when he asked Battaglia to sing, to draw in the enemy. The officer gave them a recording he had made of Battaglia’s soft voice.
In January, the Beltrones received a message from Arlen Marie Selu, a woman who had been engaged to Battaglia.
Selu told them about how she had loved him. She remembered heady days in bookstores and record shops in San Francisco neighborhoods when he visited her on leave.
She told about rushing to Oakland when she heard Battaglia’s unit would be there before shipping off to Vietnam. She was 20 years old — crying, scared, and just desperate enough to try to talk her way onto a giant military ship in the middle of the night.
Somehow it worked. The two had a moment alone together on the Walker.
He told her he was crazy about her, told her he’d be back before she knew it.
From Vietnam, he sent her reel-to-reel tapes he had made. “How I love you,” he said. His voice caught when he told her he would be all right. Then he picked up his guitar, and sang about flying away out of prison.
In the spring of 1968, Selu came back from a trip and asked if any letters had arrived for her.
“Augie?” her friend’s elderly grandfather asked. “Isn’t that the boy who was killed in Vietnam?”
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 a private first class in the U.S. Army, would clean the area around the bunks for two hours every morning. He would play cards, snap photos, marvel at the immensity of the ocean. Some days, when they approached land, he would see an albatross, or pick up Hawaiian or Japanese music on a transistor radio.
If it weren’t for where they were going, he wrote home to his mom in Ohio, it would have been a heck of a South Pacific cruise.
When there were no clouds, the ocean and sky were so close to the same color that the horizon was just a thin hairline. “You can picture yourself upside-down,” Hardy said, “just as easy as right-side up.”
He 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.”