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Every Bunk Tells a Story

Lydia Wilson

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Troops Aboard the Walker
(Courtesy 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment)
View the Slideshow
Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam
(NavyTV1)


Sometimes the most unlikely places feel like home. There's nothing warm and cheery about the troopships that took young soldiers to war in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Ships like the General Nelson M. Walker were hot, sweaty and packed with up to 5000 men at once. Soldiers were pent up for three weeks on this six hundred foot vessel during the voyage across the Pacific Ocean. But some soldiers saw these troopships as a last secure refuge before the uncertainties of war. At night, some men used the bunk bed above them as a canvas to express the swirl of emotions racing inside.

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Rick Johnson is one of many young soldiers who were transported by the General Nelson M. Walker. Rick's personal space on the Walker was only a bunk bed, but even that was stacked four high. Lying down, his face was just inches from the bed above him. During long, slow, boring days, Rick and soldiers like him took out a pen and started doodling. Rick remembers scrawling out "Rick and Pat - Manorville, Long Island" and the date: January 6, 1967.

Seeing the canvas now 40 years later, he says it was loneliness that prompted him to write those words. "Everyone wants to leave their little piece of history - maybe that's one way of doing it."

This history would have been lost if not for Art Beltrone. Art spotted these drawings ten years ago when on board the Walker for a research project. The markings fascinated him - they ranged from skilled drawings to bathroom wall-like graffiti. There were sketches of curvy women and angry rants against the draft.

But the Walker was scheduled to be destroyed for scrap metal. So, Art went right back on it with his wife Lee and an electrician's knife. They spent hours in the aging, musty troopship, ripping through the heavy cords that attached the canvas to the frame that a troop would lie on. They came off with bagfuls of the graffitied canvases, and some of the original bed frames.

Those original materials now form a traveling exhibit. Bill Painter recently drove an hour to see the canvases in a Virginia museum. The core of the exhibit is a recreation of a bunk rack from the ship. Bill Painter remembers crowding on one just like it.

"It felt, kind of awe-inspiring," he remembers of seeing the canvases for the first time in forty years. "I'm looking at these racks that were in the ship where I slept on. You spent most of your time just three or four of you sitting there talking to people across a small aisle. After a while, all of you in that one are talked out. You're surrounded by people. You do feel safe. You are like in a cocoon. But you know once you leave that ship there is nothing but you."

This kind of anxiety was common on the Walker. Wayne Cook recently saw a friend's nickname on the canvas: "Pigpen." "It kind of made the hair on the back of my neck stand up," he says. "It was Larry 'Pigpen' Jones. I was with him up 'til the time he got killed." Wayne says that when you eat, sleep and shower with a guy you get to know him like a brother. He feels closer to some of the army guys than he ever will be to family members.

A lot of guys like Pigpen never did come home from Vietnam. For survivors like Wayne Cook it's very difficult to talk about losing their friends in battle. But as Wayne and other members of Pigpen's Vietnam unit sat around bantering at a recent veterans' reunion, it became clear that the graffitied canvases open up different memories. There were almost none of the 'horror stories from Nam' that many of us probably associate with Vietnam vets.

What's so unique about the bunk bed canvases is that they remind veterans of a safer time - time lying around, bored on the Walker. It was time spent with other young men in those last moments before serving their country at war.

As veteran Jerry Barker explains, "Maybe that's what prompted a lot of us to write on those canvases. Just leaving a little something behind in case we didn't made. I know in the back of our minds we were all wondering 'Were we gonna make it? Were we gonna come home again?'"

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The Vietnam Graffiti Project is looking for anyone who traveled to or from Vietnam (or earlier conflicts) aboard the troopship Walker. Please email vietnamgraffiti@yahoo.com or call Art and Lee Beltrone at 434-296-1288.

Comments

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  • By Kenneth Hampel

    From Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, 02/10/2014

    I was on board the Walker in Sept 1966 as part of the 2/22 infantry out of Ft. Lewis Washington. We hit a typhoon at sea well into the trip. Strapped in the bunks the ship was running out of the water with dry props the sea was so rough. K.P. was brutal the galley was 120 degrees. Food was horrible and the trip was never ending. Then the worst part came in getting off on to land. Usually you would kiss the ground but not in this case.

    By MIKE FASULO

    From SHARPSBURG, MD, 01/27/2009

    WAS ON THE WALKER IN AUG. 1967 FOR A 3 WEEK CRUISE. WAS QUITE A TRIP, EXCEPT FOR THE END.

    By Rey Vela

    From Skokie, IL, 12/01/2008

    My father is an old retired sailor. In the Coast guard he worked on Ice Breakers. After Coast Guard service he became a Merchant Marine. He knew of the Walker, but he worked on another troop ship, The Sultan. He did four trips to Vietnam. He's now a retired sailor in Costa Rica. I sent my parents the link to your program, and my father really enjoyed listening to it. He said it brought back many memories. Thank you!

    By Lee Brewster

    From Concord Twp., OH, 11/30/2008

    Hi, I went to Korea in Sept 62 on the Walker. I pulled guard duty 4 hrs on and 4 hrs off for 21 days. A storm came close,the ship would roll over and the side rail would go under water. Some guys got so seasick they tried to jump overboard, from sickbay. Cleanup in the bathrooms was a fun job. It was bloody hot. You couldn't sit on the metal deck most of the time. The flying fish were great to watch. They were beautiful. The smell in the hold (where we slept) was unreal. We slept foot to head. Two bunks were welded, same hgt, on both sides of center metal pole. You had to sleep with someones feet inches away from your nose. We had to shower (if we got one) in salt water. There was not enought salt free water for showers.
    Take care,
    Lee Brewster

    By Marsha Penna

    From Miami, FL, 11/30/2008

    I really enjoyed this story since my husband is a Viet Nam Vet. The presentation was very informative and touching. Thanks

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