Of all the graffiti that humanity has created across the centuries, perhaps most touching are the inscriptions left behind by soldiers. Since long before the Achaeans set sail for Troy, military life has been marked by loneliness, inaction, anxiety, sudden intense drama and the very real prospect of early, violent death. Because of a heightened sense of impermanence, perhaps, the scrawls, squiggles and drawings that record the passage of troops to and from battle—or, as the play Mister Roberts so aptly put it, "from boredom to tedium and back again with sidetrips to ennui"—take on a poignant significance far beyond a handprint in the wet concrete of a new sidewalk, initials in a heart carved into an old tree, or high-school graduation messages spray-painted on a highway overpass.
Military graffiti can range from fatalistic to scatological to ironically funny, from countless plaintive variations on "Why me?" to the bluster and bravura of young men heading into the unknown. During World War I, British soldiers, after reading the motto on the belt buckles of German soldiers—Gott Mit Uns (God is with us)—wrote on the walls of their trenches, "We got mittens too." And one of the most famous characters of World War II was a crudely drawn, long-nosed fellow peering over a fence whose announcement, "Kilroy Was Here," appeared almost everywhere American soldiers went.
In 2003, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History acquired examples of G.I. graffiti with a particular resonance. They are works on canvas—drawings, words and doodles inscribed on the undersides of a troopship's cramped hammock-style berths by soldiers and marines on their way from Oakland, California, to Vietnam. The discovery of these tantalizing fragments, documenting the experiences of men who were soldiers once and young, came about as an unintended consequence of another quest altogether. In February 1997, Jack Fisk, production designer for The Thin Red Line—a film adaptation of novelist James Jones' evocation of World War II combat in the Pacific—wanted to create a movie set that would accurately simulate a troopship. Fisk consulted Art Beltrone, a Keswick, Virginia-based collector of military memorabilia who has served as an adviser to films and museums for 30 years. He and Fisk decided that the best place to get a feel for a World War II troopship was aboard the real thing: they traveled to a maritime-reserve installation on Virginia's James River, where a ghostly fleet of mothballed troop carriers lay rusting at anchor awaiting demolition. At 4 on a cold winter morning, wearing miners' helmets equipped with lights, they entered the General Nelson M. Walker, a 609-foot-long P-2 troopship taken out of service in 1968. The Walker had been part of a lumbering fleet that ferried 500,000 soldiers and marines to Vietnam.
While Fisk videotaped the troop quarters, Beltrone discovered that the canvas undersides of the bunks, stacked three high and canted at a 45-degree angle in their daytime storage position, contained drawings and words written by the soldiers in the berths below. "There was a little of everything," Beltrone recalls. "Obscenities, drawings, even poetry." He was fascinated by the manic mix—"Bong the Cong," "George Washington Slept Here," "Capitalist Yankee Dogs go Home!" Beltrone had been in the Marine Corps Reserves during the 1960s but had not been called up during the Vietnam War. "I knew I'd stumbled on a unique sort of personal history," he says. "These young men were going to war, while I had spent those years on Long Island."
Beltrone decided it was important to salvage some of the canvasses, their messages conveying bravado and suppressed fear of the immediate future. (He points out that the tedious 18-day trip across the Pacific pleased most troops, because the time in transit counted as "in-country" duty.) On several visits to the ship with his wife, Lee, a photographer, Beltrone recorded the inscriptions on the canvasses. (The full story is recounted in their book Vietnam Graffiti: Messages From a Forgotten Troopship, to be published in December by Howell Press.)
Beltrone convinced the Maritime Administration to donate 127 of the canvasses to seven museums around the country, including the NMAH. He was particularly intrigued by one of the four canvasses in the Smithsonian's possession: it contains several lines of Morse code and, below that, a mysterious poem. Using a code book, he deciphered the dots and dashes, thereby unearthing the author's name, Robert Simpson, and street address in Plainwell, Michigan. The canvas was dated 1967. The lines, written in free verse, read:
must decide who's
to live and who's to die.
You're the one who gives his
body as a weapon of the
war—and without you all
this killing can't go on.
Beltrone was able to trace Simpson. He was, as the Morse code suggested, a radio operator. Serving with the First Armored Cavalry Regiment, he had been drafted in 1966 at age 21. Simpson survived the war only to be killed in 1992 in the crash of an ultralight civilian aircraft he was piloting. The Walker will likely soon be demolished, but the Beltrones continue to rescue its relics before the inscriptions end up, in a very real sense, on the scrapheap of history.