As he looked out at the empty transport ship floating on the James River in Virginia back in 2004, Art Beltrone knew there was a story there somewhere.
Then, when he finally got the opportunity to step on the General Nelson M. Walker, one of 18 P-2 class troop transports built at the end of World War II, he had his story.
“The berthing units looked exactly like they would have when it carried troops to Southeast Asia during Vietnam,” said Beltrone, who spent six years with the U.S. Marine Reserves from 1963-69. “When the last troops left the Nelson, everything was kept in place; the sheets, the mattresses, the pillows all remained on each bunk. It was like a time capsule.”
Beltrone’s discovery, however, was only just beginning.
“Then I looked at the underside of the canvas racks, and I was just blown away,” he said. “There was graffiti all over the place, messages and little personal notes that the soldiers had written on their way to war. I realized that this was more than just doodling on a canvas. It was another way to tell the story of the men who went and fought in Vietnam.”
‘Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam’
WHERE: New York State Museum, Madison Avenue, Albany
WHEN: Friday through Feb. 25. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 474-5877, www.nysm.nysed.gov
The canvases and their artwork are now part of a traveling exhibit called “Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam” and will be on display Friday through Feb. 25 at the New York State Museum’s Crossroads Gallery. Included in the exhibit, in New York for the first time, is an actual berthing unit consisting of two four-man stacks. There were 5,000 men aboard the Walker when it reached capacity, and the trip to the other side of the world took 20 to 23 days.
“What people will take away from this exhibit is how confining it was for the men on that ship,” said Beltrone. “Sometimes it took 23 days to make the trip, and there wasn’t a lot to do. But this graffiti tells us what these soldiers were thinking about as they traveled over 5,000 miles to war. Everyone of them was proud of where they were from. Along with their name, they always signed their hometown.”
Beltrone first came across the Nelson when he was working as a consultant on “The Thin Red Line,” Terrence Malick’s 1998 film about the Guadalcanal campaign during World War II. A few years later after contacting the Maritime Administration to get an OK, Beltrone and his wife began taking artifacts off the ship, and in 2005, when the ship was moved to Brownsville, Texas and being prepared to be scrapped, they continued salvaging as much as they could.
“We started our own nonprofit organization called the ‘Vietnam Graffiti Project,’ we joined up with the Virginia Foundation for Humanities, and then we started sending some of the items to museums around the country,” said Beltrone. “Then we realized we had enough material for our own traveling exhibit. We took about 350 canvases, and that was the hard part. We had to leave a lot on the ship.”
With the help of his wife, Lee, a photographer, Beltrone started tracking down some of the GIs whose names were on those canvases. Sometimes, he would play jokes on the unsuspecting veterans, and sometimes the guys he was looking for never made it back to this country.
“I’m calling them cold out of the blue, and sometimes I would say I was from the government and I’m calling about them defacing government property back in 1967,” said Beltrone.
“There’d be dead silence on the other end of the line, but then they figured out I was kidding. I’d ask them if they had any photographs or any other remembrances from their time on the ship. Everybody had a Kodak Instamatic back then, so we’ve received some photos from them and added them to the exhibit.
“Of course, there were names we couldn’t track down,” said Beltrone, who eventually found some of his soldiers’ names at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
Some didn’t make it
“Some of the names I found on the wall. Everybody was interested in our exhibit and liked talking about it, but when you tried to track down somebody who never made it back, that was sad.”
Some of the soldiers made film footage from their trip, which is also a part of the exhibit.
Nancy Kelly of the New York State Museum said this is “Marking Time’s” first time on display in New York.
“People will really be able to visualize how the soldiers would be in their bunks and would write on the canvas above them,” she said. “They also sent us eight New York canvases, and while there’s nobody from the Albany area, they were New Yorkers. The exhibit gives you a great idea of how confining it was for the soldiers, and we’re very happy to be the first venue in New York to host the exhibit.”
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Categories: Life and Arts