Washington State History Museum exhibit displays graffitied relics of Vietnam War sailors

Forty-two years after Private First Class Micky Santa inscribed his name and address onto the bottom of the canvas bed inches above his head aboard the USNS General Nelson M. Walker, Santa will once again see his message. Opening Sept. 17 at the Washington State History Museum is “Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam.” The exhibit offers visitors the opportunity to view an original sleeping station salvaged from the Walker, graffitied with the thoughts of young Americans traveling to the Vietnam War.

The names of soldiers and marines, and their hometowns; wives and girlfriends; poetry; drawings; patriotic sentiments; political statements and more cover these canvas beds preserved by the Vietnam Graffiti Project and Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, organizers of the exhibit. Among these men was Santa, a marine on his way to Vietnam in 1967. He was seasick for 20 days, and didn’t know if he’d even live to get off the ship in Vietnam, let alone survive the war. He made it both in and out of Vietnam alive, and eagerly awaits seeing his old sleeping quarters.

“It’s surreal to think I wrote my name on the Walker because I didn’t know if I’d make it home alive,” said Santa. “I honestly don’t vividly remember it because I was so sick from the 30-40 foot seas. Now, I’m eager to see it, remember my time on the Walker, and show and tell my family and friends about my time on the Walker.”

Hundreds of men on their way to Vietnam left messages for all to see. Some wanted to leave a piece of themselves in case they didn’t return, some were simply bored. Writing on any part of the ship was against regulations, but one soldier later explained, “What were they going to do to me — send me to Vietnam?”

When the Vietnam Graffiti Project recovered the graffiti, they found books, magazines, newspapers, playing cards (many aces), Rosary beads, candy wrappers and more. In addition to the graffitied beds, issues of “The Walker Report,” the ship’s newspaper, and these other artifacts will be on display, furthering understanding of what these men were experiencing.

Upon scrapping the beds as crews dismantled the Walker in 2006, recycling 8,400 tons of steel, Vietnam Graffiti Project volunteers searched for the soldiers who left their names graffitied on the ship, including Santa, who now resides in Bellevue. Santa will bring his family to the exhibit to share memories of his time aboard the Walker, and in Vietnam.

This traveling exhibit began at the United States Navy Memorial, Washington D.C.