Friday, December 18, 2020

Graffiti on a Vietnam Troopship

Army soldiers prepare to board USNS Barrett (T AP 196) under the watchful eye of a boatswain's mate before the voyage to Vietnam. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
By Alicia Pullen & Elijah Palmer
Educator & Deputy Director of Education

Two artifacts often overlooked in the museum's exhibit, "The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea: The U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975," are the canvas racks from the troop transport USNS General Nelson M. Walker (T AP 125). Canvas was used in the berthing compartments aboard ships dating back to the Age of Sail. During the first half of the 20th century, canvas was attached and spread inside the metal bed frames. This served as cheap, lightweight bedding that could be easily removed or changed. Like military personnel through the ages, soldiers on transport ships to Vietnam passed some of their time expressing themselves through words and art on materials at hand. In this case, they used the canvas racks upon which they spent so much time. 

Canvas racks taken from USNS General Nelson M. Walker on display in HRNM's Vietnam exhibit (Alicia Pullen)

USNS General Nelson M. Walker preparing to debark troops at Vung Tau, South Vietnam in April 1967. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
General Nelson M. Walker was one of many vessels that participated in the "steel bridge" from the United States to the war effort in Vietnam. 98% of all supplies came to Southeast Asia via sea, and while some troops arrived in Vietnam by airplane, many units still arrived in country like their predecessors in earlier wars, by troopship. Built as USS Admiral T. Mayo during World War II, this ship was brought out of the reserve fleet in August 1965 to help with the buildup of American forces in Vietnam. After a refit in the 1950s, the vessel could carry over 3,700 troops. It made numerous trips between the United States and Asia from 1966 through the end of 1967, carrying Army and Marine units. 

This graffiti is most likely commemorating Bruce and Pat's wedding anniversary (Elijah Palmer)

Possible Star of David (Elijah Palmer)

The soldiers transported aboard General Nelson M. Walker had to cope with boredom, cramped spaces, and seasickness during their 5,000-mile voyage. The trip usually lasted close to three weeks, with only a short stop at Okinawa near the end of the passage to Vietnam. The ship also took marines and soldiers back to the United States on return voyages, during which the men faced many of the same challenges of shipboard life. Many of these servicemembers likely never imagined that they would be aboard a ship in the first place. Now they had to share limited spaces--which got hot and smelly--they had to wait their turn for meals and to use the head, and they had to entertain themselves for days on end. Thus, it is not unusual that some individuals turned to drawing graffiti on the canvas which was abundant in their berthing areas.  
Based on the date, this soldier likely debarked at Vung Tau in the picture earlier in the post. An interesting note here is the inclusion of the ETS (Expiration Term of Service) date. (Elijah Palmer)

This soldier also likely marked his ETS date as the ship was no longer in service in September 1968. (Elijah Palmer)

The canvas from General Nelson M. Walker was retrieved by Art and Lee Beltrone from the ship while it lay in the reserve "ghost fleet" on the James River. The ship had not been touched since it came back from Vietnam in December 1967. The Beltrones created the "Graffiti Project" to preserve the history of the ship and its passengers during the Vietnam War. They also graciously loaned the canvas on display at HRNM. Artifacts like these canvas racks provide a tangible reminder of the servicemembers who traveled to fight in Vietnam.

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