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May 31, 2014

On the way to Vietnam, soldiers’ graffiti gave voice to their hopes and fears

By Susan Svrluga

The Washington Post


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, 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.

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