Tonawanda News

December 21, 2011


By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

— — When Vietnam veteran Harmon Adams got a call from the Vietnam Graffiti project about four years ago, he thought they were just bill collectors.

The group, though, was looking for the Pvt. Harmon Adams Jr. in the Marine Corps who was homeward bound to Buffalo from Vietnam in the summer of 1967. They found him, now a retired man of 65 living in Kenmore with five kids and 11 grandchildren.

The Vietnam Graffiti project, led by Art and Lee Beltone, was — and still is — in the process of tracking down hundreds of veterans who left their marks on canvas bunks in the ship that took them to and from Vietnam during the war.

These canvases, along with other artifacts like empty candy and cigarette packages, playing cards, and books, were discovered in 1997 aboard the General Nelson M. Walker, a transport ship. The vessel, first launched in 1945 during World War II, had been decommissioned and anchored with about 130 ships in Virginia in the James River Reserve fleet — commonly known as the Ghost Fleet.

Art boarded the abandoned ship to take photographs — he wanted to use the interior of the ship as inspiration to create a set for the film “The Thin Red Line.” What he didn’t expect was to find the ship exactly in the same condition it was left after its last journey across the ocean at the end of 1967.

“It was like walking into a time capsule because everything was still there, the sheets the pillows, the life jackets ... just as it had been left by the last group of soldier or marines,” Art said.

“The exterior of the Ghost ships were all rusted and weather worn, but when you opened the door it looked almost pristine,” Lee, Art’s wife added.

Art, a military artifact historian and former journalist, along with Lee, a professional photographer, offered to help pull out the canvases when they learned the ship was to be taken to Texas to be scrapped. They knew the canvases needed to be preserved.

“They spoke so much of not just history but of humanity,” Art said. “You knew what was in the mind of the person who left that message at that time.”

The roughly 3,000 canvases were offered up the museums around the country — Art said the reaction was unexpected.

“Once they knew what they were, everybody wanted them,” he said.

Some wound up in museums throughout the country, but many are part of two travelling exhibits — one started in the east and is heading west and the other started in the west and is heading east.

Beyond the physical exertion required to remove and photograph all those canvases, the Beltrones also began the Vietnam Graffiti project assisted by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, taking on the extensive task of tracking down as many of the veteran scribblers as possible and recording their stories.

So far they’ve contacted about 100 of the men based on names and hometowns left behind and one of them was Harmon. The canvas Harmon doodled on all those years ago will be featured in the eastern portion of the exhibit which is currently in Albany at the New York State Museum.

In red capital letters, Harmon wrote: “Pvt. U.S.M.C. Harmon Adams Jr. Buffalo, N.Y. Homeward bound! 7-19-67.” That was all it took for the Beltrones to track him down to his Kenmore home four years ago.

“(Harmon) had a very unusual circumstance.,” Art said. “Most of the men left graffiti when they were going to Vietnam, but in his case he was returning with a group of marines ... a sizeable number. Almost everybody flew home but for whatever reason they carried this group of men back on a ship.”

Harmon recalls the exact day he wrote on the canvas.

“I remembered it because it was my birthday,” he said. “That’s the day I left ’Nam ... on my birthday.”

“We weren’t supposed to be writing on those things,” he added with a laugh. “But sometimes you break the rules.”

There often wasn’t much the men could do other than play cards, exercise and read, Art said. A big talent show over the course of each trip was a big hit — Harmon sang.

Harmon said the three weeks it took to get from Vietnam to the United States felt like a lifetime.

“Oh man, is this ship ever going to get back?,” he remembers thinking. “It was a rough ride ... it wasn’t a picnic.”

While in Vietnam, Harmon was a cook for the 1st Marine Air Wing for 18 months. He says his job was considered “good duty,” because he didn’t see much combat.

“It wasn’t as rough on me as it was on some of the other guys. It was just the thought that people were still dying all around you,” he said. “You never know if you’re coming back or not and I feel more sorry for these guys that are in Iraq and Afghanistan now. They go for 3 to 6 months and come back and go right back again.”

The former Marine hasn’t yet seen the canvas since he left the bunk in 1967, but says he’s eager to head to Albany to check it out before the end of the year with his grandchildren.

“It was great to know that that little piece of me was found,” Harmon said.