Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam presents the stories, through graffiti left on a troopship’s bunk canvases, of young American soldiers and Marines going to Vietnam during the 1960s. Their stories reflect the attitudes and events during a turbulent decade of our nation’s history—the 1960’s.
The exhibit was developed by Art and Lee Beltrone of Keswick, Virginia, founders of the Vietnam Graffiti Project (VGP). When the graffiti aboard the troopship General Nelson M. Walker was discovered in 1997, the VGP was created to preserve examples of the historic canvasses by removing them from the ship and placing them in museus throughout the country. The Walker was destined to be scrapped and everyone feared the historic canvasses would be forever lost.
In 2005 the ship was indeed scrapped, and project volunteers traveled to Brownsville, Texas to save more of the artifacts. This time, since the ship was under private and non-government control, the material was selected and collected by VGP volunteers. The non-profit project wanted to develop an exhibit that would travel the country and present the stories of the soldiers and Marines who went to Southeast Asia by troopship. It was a way to honor their military service.
Marking Time features an eight-person berthing unit removed from the Walker, complete with original sheets, pillows and life preservers. Graffiti-inscribed canvases are exhibited as wall hangings. Over 300 canvases were collected enabling the project to use local canvases wherever the exhibit visits. Most names written on canvases were accompanied by the name of the man’s hometown. Efforts are made to locate the graffiti-writers and their voyage stories are incorporated into exhibit text panels.
Every bunk canvas has at least one story to tell, especially since some of the artwork and slogans capture the era’s politics, military pride, humor and anti-war sentiments.
Artifacts were also collected from the Walker during the scraping operation. Bunks, as they were removed by workers from the ship, yielded personal items left behind by the troops. Everything from candy bar wrappers, empty cigarette packages, magazines, books from the ship’s library and liquor bottles were removed and are part of the exhibit’s Things They Left Behind section. Other artifacts, including personal photos taken by Walker troop passengers aboard the ship, are also used to tell the story of the young Americans going to war by sea.
Copies of the ship’s official newspaper, The Walker Report, written, printed and distributed by selected troop passengers (if you worked on your high school newspaper you most likely were assigned to the task), were also found. These present the international, national and sports news the troops could read each day the paper was published, which was usually daily.
An introductory film provides visitors with authentic Vietnam voyage scenes captured aboard the Walker during trips to the combat zone. The film was taken by former United States Navy officer Harvey Johnston who shared his film with the Vietnam Graffiti Project. Harvey was assigned to the Walker and supplemented letters home with film shot with his Super 8 film camera.
Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam opened in November, 2007 at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. Before long a second exhibit unit was created for western venues, and the Washington State History Museum became the premiere West Coast sponsor. The exhibit continues to be featured at museums and historical societies throughout the country.
Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam is currently at Palm Springs Air Museum, Palm Springs California. It will be there November 1, 2015 through May 31, 2016,
Part of the Marking Tiime: Voyage to Vienam exhibit will be travelling to New York City whre it will be part of the New York Historical Society"s major Vietnam exhibit openning in 2017.