The Walker was re-discovered in 1997, almost by chance.

Jack Fisk, the production designer for the film The Thin Red Line, had contacted the Maritime Administration to locate a troop transport so he could film its architectural details prior to construction of a film set. Keswick, Virginia neighbor Art Beltrone, a military artifact historian, was advising on the historically correct weapons, uniforms and equipment used by the Army troops during their 1942 fighting on Guadalcanal.

Jack learned there was a troopship in Virginia’s James River Reserve Fleet that contained intact berthing compartments and galleys, an almost functional bridge and power plant. The ship was the General Nelson M. Walker, a vessel capable of carrying as many as 5,000 troops. Permission was granted for a visit by both Jack and his neighbor.   

On a chilly February morning, Fisk and Beltrone were guided through the Walker and the production designer began filming the ship’s interior. In the first troop compartment entered the visitors felt as if they had entered a time capsule. There, on the seemingly endless bunks stacked four-high, were original pillows, sheets, blankets and bright orange life vests.

It was at that moment both visitor’s encountered what would become a fascinating piece of American military history, one that would ultimately become a lasting tribute to Americans who served in Vietnam. On the underside of many canvas bunk inserts were graffiti drawings and messages, written mostly with black felt tip pens by troops going to Southeast Asia in 1966 and 1967. Similar messages were found throughout the ship’s other troop compartments on several deck levels.

Audio Track: Writing Graffiti

The discovery of the graffiti and other artifacts led to a project to recover the material for preservation in museums throughout the country. Beltrone and his wife Lee formed the non-profit Vietnam Graffiti Project and with other volunteers worked with the Maritime Administration and museums to remove examples of the historic material and relocate the artifacts to American repositories and museums. Among the recipients—the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, museums operated by the United States Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and state and local museums throughout the country.

Research of the names on the canvases led to finding the veterans who originally created the graffiti, and audio interviews were conducted to preserve their voyage stories.


Exhibit Schedules

    Part of the Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam is currently at the New York Historical Society in Manhatten through April 22, 2018. Information about the full Vietnam exhibit is available here

    Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam will be open at the USS Kidd Memorial in Baton Rouge, LA, from October 27, 2017 through February 28, 2018.