A Derry soldier’s Vietnam story

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The story of Derry man who went to war in Vietnam aboard an American troopship unfolded slightly recently when Vietnam Graffiti Project (VGP) historians went to Ireland to learn about the man who left his name and hometown on a bunk canvas in 1966 or 1967. Like some Vietnam stories, this one may never be fully known.

The historians, Art and Lee Beltrone of Keswick, Virginia, and Ed Keller (with wife, Donna) of Long Island, New York, initiated a search for the man who wrote his surname “Bradley” and “Derry City Ireland” in blue ink while going to Southeast Asia aboard the troop transport General Nelson M. Walker.

The discovery and recovery of the canvas with over 300 others happened when the ship was scrapped in 2005. The project began in 1997 to locate the men who left their mark on the canvases and honour all veterans who served during the conflict by preserving shipboard stories of young men going to war.

Before travelling to Ireland, the historians contacted the Derry Journal and a story was published headlined—“Military historians ask Journal readers to help in search for Derry Vietnam veteran.” After several days reporter David Wilson was contacted by two Derry residents who volunteered information about the man. These leads were provided to the VGP and work began to locate the soldier from Derry.

“One person said he was related to veteran Noel Bradley confirmed his relative had gone to Vietnam aboard the ship and was living in America,” Art Beltrone said after returning to Virginia. “Information from another reader who went to America earlier in the 1960s indicated he knew Bradley in America. Both young men, along with other Irish citizens, travelled to America for employment and some settled in the New York metropolitan area. They found each other and gathered at dances and other weekend events for entertainment.

America was then involved in a turbulent, chaotic era that featured the presence of groups like “Hippies” and anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights and Women’s Rights demonstrations that kept the establishment and police on edge. It was both a confusing and exciting time and Bradley was drawn into its midst with a notice from the Selective Service office.

Before leaving Ireland, all needed an American sponsor and males between aged 18 and 25 were required to sign a statement he was willing to serve in the American military, according to an acquaintance of the Derry soldier who also went to America. Bradley, the Irish citizen, was drafted into American military service, and after his Irish comrades bid him farewell at a party that was described as “somewhat somber,” soon was off for training at an American military base. He would serve two years, with half of that time in possible combat.

Although the specific details of Noel Bradley’s voyage are not known, interviews with almost 200 Walker voyage passengers, transported on the ship’s numerous voyages, provide insight into the experience of many.

The soldiers left from San Francisco and San Diego in California, as well as Tacoma, Washington, to begin the more than 5,000-mile voyage to Vietnam that could last from 18 to 21 days. For American soldiers, slipping under the Golden Gate Bridge evoked homesickness.

The ship, over 600-feet-long, could carry up to 5,000 men in troop compartments on levels below the main deck. It was crowded, hot and filled with the pungent aroma of stale air and human sweat. Fresh water for showering lasted only a short time and was soon substituted with salt water that left an uncomfortable film on the men’s skin.

There were seemingly endless lines for food in the mess areas, and Bradley’s voyage may have encountered rough seas that rocked the ship and cause men to become seasick. During calmer moments, troop passengers entertained themselves with card games, movies shown at night on the main deck, reading and listening to music performed by comrades with instruments available on the ship. Many troops liked to stand at the rail, watching the ship’s wake, flying fish or the horizon. And there was also the chance to leave graffiti on the canvas lashed to each bunk that served as the man’s bed. The practice was against regulations, but as many of the graffiti writers explained, “What were they going to do, send me to Vietnam?”

This is where the Bradley story may end. The relative of Noel Bradley said the former soldier who served America at a time of war prefers not to speak about his experience of going to war. No explanation was given, nor was one necessary. Some veterans prefer to forget that part of their past.

“We do want Noel Bradley to know the Vietnam Graffiti Project salutes his service,” Lee Beltrone said. “Because he took a moment to write his name and hometown on a canvas, his service and sacrifice to America will never be forgotten.”