Canvasses from Vietnam warship bring back flood of memories for vets

NEW YORK -- Half a century ago, young men, some still in their teens, boarded transport ships like the U.S.N.S. Walker, and set sail for Vietnam.

Jerry Barker remembers the trip like it was yesterday. He describes the trip as "long and boring." He just stayed up on the top deck and played cards -- gin rummy. 

"I haven't played cards since," he said. 

During the 20 days on board the Walker, they forged lifelong friendships, thought about the war ahead, and the life left behind. 

Snippets of history, almost lost forever, until Art and Lee Beltrone literally saved them from the scrap heap. They were historians for a film shoot and visited the Walker before it was dismantled.

 "As soon as I saw the underside of the bunks had all this wonderful graffiti, it literally blew me away," Art said. "We went to Brownsville, Texas and negotiated with the scrap yard owner. He allowed us to pull them."
 
The canvasses are now part of the Vietnam War display at the New-York Historical Society, where some of the surviving veterans recently gathered. Like Tom Fey.

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Graffiti from the U.S.N.S. Walker.

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"I was a Kansas Cowboy and I actually wrote on my canvass, "Kansas Cowboy" and put a heart and "Tom and Gay" married 27 Aug. '66, got to Vietnam Aug, '67," Tom said. 

He found out he was getting drafted at the rehearsal dinner. Not a very good wedding present. 

The Feys hadn't been married a year before he shipped out. As they arrived in Da Nang harbor, the night sky lit up with incoming rockets.

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One of the canvasses from the U.S.N.S. Walker.

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"And that's when I went down and wrote on my canvass," Tom said. "To make sure that, I guess, to have my mark there."

If he didn't come back, that is.

These men shared a time in hell together. Yet it was the simplest thing, doodles on old bunks, that brought back long hidden emotions. Tom Fey hadn't seen the one he dedicated to his young wife for over 50 years.

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Veterans from the U.S.N.S. Walker reunited at an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society.

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When he saw it, he said "holy moly!" Jerry pointed it out, saying, "There's the one you wrote on, brother, in Vietnam!"

"Fifty-one years together, by golly," Tom said. "She's still my sweetheart. Thanks Jerry ... what can I say? Thanks." 

They fought for their country. They fought for each other. But mainly they fought to come back home.  

"The Vietnam War: 1945-1975" exhibit will be featured in the New-York Historical Society through April 22.