The Love Boat from Hell

Graffiti from another war

BY RICHARD FIRSTMAN

December 26, 2004
     Don Ryan, a stout man of 60 who's lived in Lake Ronkonkoma for all but two years of his life, is a regular at the militaria show put on twice a year in Franklin Square by the New York chapter of the 82nd Airborne Association. He's only a "casual collector," Ryan says, but finds that putting his hands on Civil War cavalry swords and looking over World War II uniform patches is as pleasant a way as any to pass a Sunday afternoon. Ryan was at the show in October when he came upon a curious display, something he'd never seen before. It was a collection of dingy canvas sections, each ringed by metal grommets and covered with what could only be described as graffiti. "Ricky & Pat, Manorville Long Island New York Jan 6 1967," read one of the simpler inscriptions. On another, somebody had written "Viet Nam 67-68" in large, Asian-style lettering, while others were adorned with sketches, cartoons and elaborate drawings, all in black marker. The man with the display, Art Beltrone, told Ryan that the canvases served as bunks on a troop carrier that had last been used to haul thousands of soldiers to Vietnam during the big troop buildup of the mid-1960s. On each 18-day trip across the Pacific, Beltrone explained, the canvases acquired more and more graffiti from young men who lay in their bunks and, contemplating their fate or simply trying to pass the time, wrote or drew on the bottoms of the ones above.

Looking over the canvases, Ryan remarked to Beltrone, "I took a ship over to Vietnam myself, back in '67."

"Which one?" Beltrone asked.

"The General Walker," Ryan said.

"Really?" Beltrone asked excitedly. "These are from the Walker!" He explained that he'd only recently removed these and dozens more bunk canvases from the old ship.

"You mean that thing is still floating somewhere?" Ryan asked. "It was a bucket of bolts even back then."

Just barely floating, Beltrone said. In fact, the Walker, first commissioned in the waning days of World War II, was now in its last months of existence. After sitting in a shipyard of ghosts for years, the Walker would soon be hauled by tug from Virginia to Texas, where the rusty old troop carrier - two football fields long and designed to take up to 5,000 men at a time to war - would be cut up and shipped as scrap metal to the Far East. But not before dozens of graffiti-covered bunk canvases and other artifacts could be saved for posterity, donated to the Smithsonian Institution and the official museums of the Army, Navy and Marines.

So how did Art Beltrone, a former Long Island public relations man now living in Keswick, Va., come to possess these unusually personal relics of America's last divisive war before the current one? The story goes all the way back to 1963, when Beltrone, an Elmont native then working as a reporter for Newsday, joined the Marine Reserve unit headquartered in Garden City. Beltrone was assigned to put out the battalion newspaper while training as an infantryman should his unit be called to active service. It never was.

After his discharge in 1969, Beltrone left the newspaper business for public relations. Over the years, meanwhile, he and his wife, Lee, a photographer, developed a passion for historical military research - particularly material that brought to life the wartime experiences of ordinary soldiers. Beltrone says that one reason he was so fascinated by anything that illuminated what soldiers went through was an ambivalence he felt about his own service as a reservist - glad to have been spared but somehow unfulfilled.

One day in the early 1990s, Beltrone attended an antique arms show in Melville and ran into one of his old reserve buddies, Ed Keller of Oceanside. They rekindled their friendship, and quickly realized they shared the same unresolved conflict. "We've always talked about how we didn't have to go to Vietnam," Beltrone said. "It's not really guilt but a feeling that maybe we didn't quite do our part."

In 1997, a neighbor of Beltrone's in Virginia, a movie production designer named Jack Fisk, asked Beltrone to help him locate the right uniforms and equipment for a World War II film he was working on, "The Thin Red Line." Fisk needed to recreate a ship carrying troops to Guadalcanal in 1942. Beltrone's research led them to the James River Reserve Fleet near Norfolk, an anchorage for hundreds of inactive ships. They found just the right ship.

The General Nelson M. Walker had transported troops to the Pacific in the last months of the war. It also had served in Korea a few years later and made half a dozen trips to Vietnam in 1967 and 1968 before being permanently mothballed. When Beltrone and Fisk boarded, they were astonished and delighted to find the ship still nearly fully equipped with kitchen equipment, prayer books, even personal effects.

"The outside was rusting away, but the inside was intact, as if we were walking through an abandoned household," Beltrone said. "When we went into the troop compartment, the first thing that smacked me in the face were these canvas bunks with all this graffiti."

The bunks were in the upright position, revealing all manner of black-inked writings and drawings on their bottoms. Many soldiers simply recorded their names and "ETS" - Estimated Time of Separation - evoking the observation by Chekhov that a poet friend of Beltrone's later came across. Some wrote the name of their girlfriend or wife. But others turned the canvases above them into ... canvases. They drew the Road Runner and other cartoon characters of the time, sketched nude women and filled the space with the kind of doodles they might have made during a boring math class just months earlier.

But many canvases reflected the anti-war emotions of young men being sent to a land on the other side of the Earth, knowing there was a real possibility they might be returning in a flag-draped box. "You're the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war and without you all this killing can't go on," one soldier wrote in block letters, inscribing the bunk above with lyrics from the 1965 anti-war song "Universal Soldier" by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Someone else, meanwhile, offered support for the domino theory: "Vietnam is no place for an American. But it's a fight we must fight to keep our country and other countries free of communism. This is why you and I both must fight." It wasn't clear to whom the young Marine was addressing this message, but it seemed possible the one he wanted to convince was himself.

"You see something left by somebody - a scrawl, a drawing - and you realize there were people here," Beltrone said. "Maybe they were just passing the time, but it was as if they wanted to make sure people knew they were there."

Beltrone got approval from the government to allow him to remove and preserve the canvases and eventually donate them to museums. He spent the next five years collecting and cataloging about 120 canvases and other items. He recruited volunteers and made a dozen expeditions into the dark and meandering bowels of the ship, feeling like the leader of a search-and-rescue platoon himself. Beltrone always would leave a trail of neon-pink surveyor's tape so the group could find its way out.

One of the volunteers Beltrone enlisted was his old reservist friend Ed Keller. "We weren't kids anymore, and we had to go up and down, up and down these incredibly steep stairways, but it was something I felt we had to do," said Keller, 58, who works as a kitchen and bath designer. "I was amazed how pristine so much of it was. We went into some compartments, and it looked mint.... Brand-new life preservers stacked up, oars never used. It was like the ship was frozen in time."

But it was the graffiti, of course, that so deeply evoked a time, place and circumstance. "I could imagine these young men, just at the beginning of their lives, going over to fight a war," Keller said. "A lot of them didn't come back. Art and I were fortunate enough not to have to go, but we both felt maybe we should have been there. So we felt a strong need to do this."

Out of the treasures has come Art and Lee Beltrone's second book, "Vietnam Graffiti: Messages From a Forgotten Troop," published this month by Howell Press of Virginia. (In 1994, the Beltrones published a book of writings and artwork culled from the logbooks of downed American airmen held in German POW camps during World War II.) In doing further research for the book, Beltrone set out to link some of the graffiti with the men who left it. Through laborious research, he's found a few, but he's still looking.

Few of those he has found remember writing the graffiti. But they all remember their 18 days on the General Walker. Jerry Barker was a 20-year-old from Indianapolis when the Walker took him to Vietnam in 1967. Thirty-one years later, He was the chief of the Indianapolis police, and Beltrone brought him onto the ship. "He came aboard and he just looked out from the railing and stared for the longest time," Beltrone said. "Finally, he said, 'This ship took me to the most significant thing that ever happened in my lifetime. She's the one that took me there.'"

Thousands of men could relate to such a sentiment. Beltrone estimates that the Walker transported about 30,000 soldiers to Vietnam, and among them was Don Ryan of Ronkonkoma, whom Beltrone met while displaying the canvases at the militaria show earlier this year in Franklin Square. Ryan was part of a contingent of draftees from Suffolk County who sailed to Vietnam aboard the Walker in the early fall of 1966.

"I went to Suffolk Community College for a year but ran out of money and had to go at night, which meant I was no longer eligible for a deferral," Ryan recalled. "I got my draft notice Thanksgiving of 1965 and was gone on Pearl Harbor Day. It was bang-bang - they needed bodies. You reported to the draft board in Smithtown, they checked your name off, you got on a bus with everyone else, they took you to Fort Hamilton, then Fort Dix, then sent you on a turboprop across the country, 12 hours, to Fort Lewis, Wash. We trained there for nine months. Then, we got shipped out to Vietnam."

The General Walker sailed from Tacoma on Thursday, Sept. 22, 1966, with nearly 5,000 men crowded on its decks.

"That thing was belching smoke," Ryan remembered. "Art doesn't want to hear this, but that ship was a dog."

Ryan was joined recently for a reminiscence of that voyage by a couple of his fellow draftees from Suffolk: Dan Ryan of Smithtown (no relation, other than having dog-tag numbers a digit apart) and Tom Fischer of Northport. "That bus full from the Smithtown draft board stayed together as one unit for two years," Don Ryan said. "We were the 3rd Brigade, 4th Division, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry - I'll never forget that."

Though none recalls making graffiti on bunk canvases - it must have become a popular pastime on later trips, they figure - they vividly remember the 18-day voyage across the Pacific, which took them first to Okinawa, Japan, before landing at Da Nang. "It was the worst time of my life," said Dan Ryan, who was a year out of high school. "You were nauseous the whole time, and I had KP, which is horrible duty. The stink was horrible. It's not like a cruise ship, let me tell you. I would rather have people shooting at me than live on that ship."

Don Ryan said the seas got calmer near Hawaii and the sail became almost pleasant. "You could see flying fish, dolphins and whales," he said, and he remembers passing the time reading magazines, playing casino and quietly contemplating what lay ahead. Sometimes, a movie was shown on a sheet hoisted on the main deck. "You'd try to watch it as these big flakes of soot came raining down on you."

Vietnam was another story, of course. The men were part of a search-and-destroy battalion, assigned to find and kill Viet Cong. Dan Ryan, a communications operator, barely made it home alive. One operation soon after their arrival wiped out his entire unit except him. He had been shot in the knee - a "million-dollar wound," as an injury that got a man home early was called. Don Ryan remembers helping lift Dan onto the Medevac helicopter.

Tom Fischer's wounds, meanwhile, were emotional. Shipped to Vietnam aboard the General Walker, he had considered being drafted a kind of rite of passage. "Every generation in my family found a war," he said. "My draft notice and my father's in World War II were both signed by the same person, Mildred Yarusso, the head of the draft board in Smithtown."

But the reality of it changed him. "We were involved in a major battle," he remembers. "There were about 30 Americans killed but 600 enemy. They took tanks and dug out a big trench and threw the 600 bodies into the trench. I walked up to the edge of it and just stood there for half an hour. Because somebody had to remember these people." Fischer began to weep softly at the memory. Then, Don Ryan said, "I remember that night. It was a clear sky, and I'm just looking at that trench with the full moon shining on it, thinking, 'Man, this isn't cool.'"

The men returned home two years later, not aboard a troop ship but on a chartered commercial airliner. "It was a Braniff, all purple," Don Ryan remembers. "It was the ugliest plane in the world. But it was beautiful. All we did was drink milk and eat ice cream, because we hadn't had either in two years. And it was dead quiet. We were just so happy to be out of there. It's over."

Like many Vietnam veterans, Fischer had a terribly difficult adjustment to life back home, returning to work in his family's appliance store in East Northport. "When I got back, I protested the war in my own way - from a barstool," Fischer said. "You couldn't justify the lifestyle after what you've just seen. Which is the real world? This world or the world where everyone kills each other?"

These are the kind of experiences Art Beltrone is thankful he didn't have to endure, and why he felt so compelled to preserve the bunk canvases he found on the Walker - to remember those who had. With the Walker scheduled to be hauled to the scrapyard this week, Beltrone is still searching for men who sailed on it and who might recognize some of their own artwork. He'd love to find out what they were thinking when they lay in their bunks, "tete-a-tete with the sea," and used their Marks-A-Lot pens to keep from living and dying in obscurity. He wonders how many of them made it home.

He'd love to hear from Ricky and Pat of Manorville.

*** Art and Lee Beltrone's Web site is http://www.vietnamgraffiti.com