Vietnam sea-voyage journeys documented in exhibit

The News Tribune

TACOMA — Micky Santa recalls a hellish ocean voyage to the Vietnam War in 1966.

But it wasn’t fear that kept the 18-year-old Marine in his bunk bed for the better part of the nearly three-week journey.

As stormy 30- to 40-foot-high seas pitched the troop carrier from one side to another, Santa and fellow Marines endured an excruciating bout of seasickness. He vomited so much, he recalled, he lost 28 pounds during the trip.

Before he even reached the shores of Vietnam, the Bellevue man recently recalled, “I wanted to die, I was so sick.”

Santa was among the thousands of U.S soldiers and Marines who traveled aboard immense troop carriers to fight in the Vietnam War.

The Washington State History Museum recalls their seaborne journeys and service to country in the new traveling exhibit “Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam.”

The exhibit, which opened Sept. 17, features canvas bunk beds, covered with graffiti that Santa and other soldiers made aboard the USNS Gen. Nelson M. Walker. The Walker transported troops to Vietnam from West Coast ports, including Tacoma, in 1966 and 1967.

It’s the museum’s first exhibit focusing entirely on the Vietnam War since the facility opened in its downtown Tacoma location in 1996, said Redmond Barnett, the museum’s head of exhibits. Nationwide, there have been few historical exhibits on the war, probably because it happened too recently, he speculated.

“We found that these canvas bunks were so unusual, so unexpected and gave a window into the thinking of 19-year-olds in 1966 and 1967,” Barnett said. “When we saw these authentic original objects, we thought, ‘Wow. That’s a story that ought to be told.’”

The men on the Walker slept on canvases laced on pipelike frames that were stacked four beds high. One hundred men slept in the same room, called a compartment, and there were numerous compartments below a ship’s deck.

Though it was against the rules to write on ship furnishings, men often wrote or drew on the bottom of the canvas bunk just a few inches above their head as they lay in bed. As one soldier is quoted as saying in the exhibit, “What were they going to do to me — send me to Vietnam?”

The exhibit includes one of the Walker’s assembled eight-bed sleeping stations, and numerous individual canvases with the men’s graffiti: poetry, political statements, the names of soldiers, their sweethearts and their hometowns, drawings of the peace sign, women, dogs and more.

Visitors can see the canvas bearing Santa’s name and address in black penned letters.

Some of the items the men left behind are on display, too: a Bible, a rosary, a Planters Peanuts jar lid, an empty crumpled Kool cigarette pack, a set of Navy playing cards. The Oct. 20, 1967, edition of the ship’s newsletter, The Walker Report, blares the headline: Stop the Draft Week Continues Riot in Oakland.”

Photos by soldier Bill Noyes, who completed basic training at Fort Lewis, depict scenes of everyday life of American soldiers and Vietnamese villagers. An enlarged copy of the Sept. 22, 1966, front page of The News Tribune shows the Walker in Commencement Bay, loaded with Fort Lewis soldiers departing to Vietnam.

Art Beltrone, a military artifact historian, and his wife, Lee, led efforts to collect the canvases and memorabilia from the Walker.

The Virginia man visited the vessel in 1997, while helping a set designer research sets for the movie “The Thin Red Line” about the U.S. battle for Guadalcanal in World War II.

“He invited me to see the ship and help him with equipment and gear,” Art Beltrone said in an interview with The News Tribune. “That’s when we discovered graffiti on the underside of the (bunk bed) canvases. I discussed the find with my wife. We decided to do something about saving the canvases.”

The couple formed the nonprofit Vietnam Graffiti Project in 2005, and collected the bunk bed canvases and other memorabilia from the Walker as the ship was being scrapped. They’ve traveled the country to locate and interview the men who wrote the graffiti. Santa, 61, recalls writing on the bunk during the first couple days of his voyage, when he was still feeling well. When seas became rough, however, troops were confined underdeck for 17 of their 19 days on the ocean, he said. The hot compartments had no air conditioning and grew rank amid the vomiting. The journey ended, when, still weak from the seasickness, he climbed down a cargo net into amphibious landing craft.

“We were supposed to hit ground fire,” he said. “We hit the beach and we had nothing, thank God.”

But he saw plenty of combat during the 13-month tour. Battle, he said, was “eye-opening. I didn’t mind it. I was trained for it. I was pretty good at it.”

Santa volunteered for the Marines. “You’re a patriotic American, that’s what you do. I was just taking up space in a little town, in Issaquah,” he said. “Now I think the war was a totally wasted effort, but it was something we, as a nation, were committed to, then. I was committed to it, as well.”

Today, Santa, a real estate developer and father of three, remains proud of his service. He plans to see the exhibit with his family.

“It’d be nice if the public can get acknowledgment of what we, as young Marines, went through and sacrificed. Kids today don’t have a clue as to what we as young adults in the Vietnam era had to go through.”

Information from: The News Tribune,

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