Hidden messages from Vietnam soldiers brought to light

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KESWICK, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Two Albemarle County residents are shedding light on the mindset of soldiers and Marines bound for Vietnam decades ago by restoring survival messages from a forgotten troop ship.

James O'Kelley, a Marine, spent three years in Vietnam and witnessed the violent bloodshed. Thousands of soldiers lost their lives or put their lives on the line, only to return home to another kind of war.

"Many of us got attacked by anti-war protestors," said O'Kelley. "At one point, it was so bad that some of the people coming off of hospital airplanes on crutches were being tripped and knocked over, and urine poured on them."

The soldiers were often called the "forgotten troops," but Art Beltrone, who served in the Marine Corps Reserve, is making sure they are remembered. Beltrone and his wife, Lee Beltrone, started the Vietnam Graffiti Project.

In 1997, Art was working with production designer Jack Fisk, who is Sissy Spacek's husband, to produce the war film "The Thin Red Line."

Fisk and Art traveled to Newport News and came across a forgotten troop ship on the James River. The General Nelson M. Walker, part of Virginia's Ghost Fleet, measured 600 feet long and could carry 5,000 troops.

"It was like entering a time capsule when we went through the door," said Lee Beltrone. "It was as if the men had just left the ship."

Inside the steel ship were hundreds of bunk canvasses filled with messages, or graffiti, drawn by soldiers and Marines bound for Vietnam almost 50 years ago. Written on the canvasses were hometowns, birthdays, and messages of survival, hope, humor, and fantasy.

The canvasses were in the bunks where the men uncomfortably slept.

"Those troop compartments are terrible," said O'Kelley. "They're not air-conditioned and the bunks are so close you can't turn over."

The ship was going to be scrapped in Texas, but Art and Lee traveled there to save the soldiers' messages.

"I realized that somehow we could rescue some of these canvases," said Art. "It would be a great way to pay tribute to the Vietnam veterans."

In a volunteer project, the couple turned the graffiti into a traveling exhibit that's been on display at 45 venues across the country. The exhibit is called "Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam." There are also three permanent displays for the public to view. The first is at the New York Historical Society, the USS Kidd in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the Auburn Public Library in Maine.

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