As the first truly televised war, Vietnam is imbedded on America's consciousness in a blur of moving pictures and a cacophony of sound. Ken Burns' and Lynn Novick's recent documentary on public television gave voice to dozens of veterans of both sides.
All this makes an exhibit on display at the USS Kidd Veterans Museum more poignant for an element missing from most depictions of the conflict.
"Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam" is an exhibit of graffiti created by servicemen who traveled to Southeast Asia aboard the U.S. Naval Ship Gen. Nelson M. Walker in 1966 and '67. Before being supplanted by air transports, the Walker and other troop ships took three weeks or more to reach Vietnam from the West Coast. With little to do, many soldiers and Marines -- in cots stacked four deep -- expressed themselves by writing and drawing on the bottom of the cot above them.
"These guys had a lot of time on their hands to think about it," said David Beard, the Kidd Museum's director. "Some of it is personal. ... Some of it is political. Some of it is patently racist, but that's just the nature of warfare and how you view your enemies."
After it was retired as a troop ship, the Walker was kept in Virginia's James River in case it would be needed to house people displaced in a natural disaster. In 1997, a movie production company studying the architectural details of a troop ship discovered the graffiti. Before the ship was eventually scrapped, Art and Lee Beltrone of Keswick, Virginia, saved the cot fabric and created traveling exhibits.
When Beard became the Kidd director a year ago, he thought "Marking Time" a perfect fit.
As it turned out, the timing was perfect, too.
The Vietnam Graffiti Project is ending the touring exhibits and is breaking up the collection, donating canvases to museums with geographical ties. Many of the canvases have names and hometowns written on them.
But it's the artwork that makes the exhibit interesting.
Some of it is whimsical, including a drawing of a man leaving a room through a window while speaking into a telephone, "Room service? This is 1708 ... cancel that chicken salad on white." One canvas by Glen Opheim is filled with well-drawn but unusual images. Another shows a series of cartoonish characters that evolve from Charlie Brown, of "Peanuts" fame, to a more menacing Asian figure holding a hand grenade.
Then, there is "Viet-Nam Susie," drawn in 1967 by someone named Bobby.
"It speaks really to the thinking of some of these young GIs going over there and their keen understanding, in some ways, of what's going on to where they're headed," Beard said. "There's this beautiful, curvy, bikini-clad body with Ho Chi Minh's face. There is the allure and the beauty and exotic nature of Vietnam where they're headed, but they also know the other side of that is they're going to fight the NVA and Viet Cong.
"As turbulent as the '60s were and the politics of it, the fact that most of the people who went to Vietnam were draftees, you can only imagine what the guy's thoughts were when he drew this cartoon."
Though not part of the current exhibit, the Kidd has received a canvas with "Russell Gautreaux, Baton Rouge, La." Beard believes this was written in the mid-1950s and that Gautreaux may have written it traveling to or from Korea. Beard said he hopes Gautreaux and other veterans who were sent to Vietnam aboard ships will come to the museum to tell about their experiences.
The exhibit will remain at the Kidd Museum through Feb. 28.
"This is, hopefully, going to be a regular sort of thing," Beard said. "They will all have some sort of military or national security type of theme to them or will be related to the Kidd history or naval history. We're hoping to have at least one major new exhibit on exhibit every year, if not more."
Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam
WHERE: USS Kidd Veterans Museum, 305 S. River Road
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends. Through Feb. 28
ADMISSION: $10; veterans and seniors, $8; children, $6
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund has been seeking photos of Baton Rouge servicemen killed during the war. Two years ago, there were 31 names without photos. Now, there are just two: Emile Cole and Johnny L. Evans. Both were killed in action in Vietnam in 1968.
VVMF asks anyone with a photo of the men to go online to vvmf.org/faces-never-forgotten for information on submitting them. ___
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