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Graffiti in ship leads to Vietnam-era tales

The USNS General Nelson M. Walker is seen during its Vietnam service in this undated file photo.

VIETNAM GRAFFITI PROJECT

By JEFF GAMMAGE | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: October 19, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (MCT) — Nearly 50 years ago, on the bunk of the troopship that carried him to the Vietnam War, Pvt. R.T. DiFerdinando scribbled an enigmatic message.

He drew a Valentine's heart that bore the name of a woman -- the meaning of that obvious enough. Nearby, he wrote his name and an odd phrase, "The Fabulous Furie's."

Was it a commentary on their relationship? A nickname? The title of a favorite book?

None of those, it turns out.

Today that inked missive is part of the new Independence Seaport Museum exhibit that tells troops' stories through the graffiti they left on canvas racks aboard the USNS General Nelson M. Walker. Among the two dozen canvases in the show, 10 appear to have been marked by military personnel from the Philadelphia area.

The Inquirer managed to locate two of the men.

"That's me," Ronald T. DiFerdinando said when a reporter read him his scrawled musing.

He doesn't remember writing it. But he can still decode the meaning.

Those weeks at sea were a lonesome, worrisome time, he said, a time when he and thousands of seasick troops didn't know if they would live or die in the war ahead.

"You're scared, for one thing, when you get toward the shore," he said.

Months earlier, the U.S. government summoned him to a pre-draft physical exam. DiFerdinando passed easily -- which meant his draft notice would soon arrive.

He enlisted in the Marines before he could be drafted, and sailed to Vietnam in January 1967.

The three-week trip afforded military men time to think and time to draw. A man lying on his back had about 18 inches between his nose and the bed above.

Some wrote their names, drew caricatures of Charlie Brown and Ho Chi Minh, or sketched pictures of weapons.

DiFerdinando wrote Sharon Plank inside the heart, and beside it:

9th Engineers
P.F.C. R.T. DiFerdinando
Downingtown, Pennsylvania
and
"The Fabulous Furie's"

In a phone interview, he explained:

Plank was his first serious girlfriend. They were dating as he left for Vietnam, though their relationship had become unsettled. She was on his mind as his ship slowly made its way toward the war.

The Fabulous Furie's wasn't the title of a book or movie, he said. It was the name of his rock band. DiFerdinando played drums.

The group performed in Downingtown, his hometown, and all over Chester County. In fire halls, the band pounded out hits by the Beatles and the Byrds, the war and the draft adding urgency to songs of peace and love.

Aboard ship, the talk was that psychic Jeane Dixon had predicted the Walker would sink in a storm on Friday the 13th. Darned if the ship didn't cross the international dateline on exactly that day -- pummeled by heavy wind, rain, and high seas.

"We had a storm so bad you couldn't stay in your rack. You kept getting dumped out of it," DiFerdinando said. "It was terrible."

Despite Dixon's prediction, the Walker docked safely in Da Nang.

The Ninth Engineer Battalion rebuilt bridges and villages, but a main job was sweeping for mines. Day after day, DiFerdinando walked dirt roads, moving a metal-detecting wand side to side, listening on headphones for the beeps that signaled danger.

The problem, he said, was the roads were littered with metal from bullet casings and shrapnel. He and other sweepers got so tired of the constant beeping in their ears that they took off their headphones and slung them around their necks.

It upset their superiors. But he and the others could spot mines through practiced eyes, detecting disturbances in the earth, DiFerdinando said.

He escaped the war unharmed, came home, and played in a band for a few months, then worked as a welder and metal fabricator.

"That was my life," said DiFerdinando, who lives in Albrightsville, Carbon County.

Sharon Plank married someone else soon after he returned from Vietnam.

Thousands of men traveled to the war on the Walker, and hundreds left graffiti.

The canvases were discovered in the late 1990s by Virginia military historian Art Beltrone, who created the Vietnam Graffiti Project with his wife, Lee.

As the collection tours the country, organizers have used details on the canvases to localize the presentation and to try to track down veterans. The Seaport Museum posted a new Web page -- "Help Find Me! -- that asks people to write if they recognize a name or handwriting on the canvases.

"If you really contemplate them, they're really like prayers," said Philadelphia Vietnam veteran Larry Wyatt, who worked on the exhibit. "Especially the one Little Ty put up."

Little Ty was from Philadelphia -- and an enduring mystery. Despite a decade of periodic searches, and the specificity of his graffiti, his fate remains unknown.

"Little Ty from 1-2 Poplar St. TenderLions, North Philly, slept here on his way to the war," he wrote, noting the date as Aug. 12, 1967. "Will be back Aug. 1968. See you at the Blue Sal!"

The TenderLions was the name of a 1960s street gang that ruled 12th and Poplar, now part of trendy Northern Liberties.

It's clear that Ty survived the war. The black granite Wall in Washington memorializes three Philadelphians who had "Ty" in their names, but their dates of service don't coincide with August 1967.

The Navy said it has no record that names the men who traveled on the ship at that time.

Roy Adam left proof of his passage.

"Oct. 29, 1967," he wrote on a canvas. "Viet Nam. Roy Adam. Schuylkill Haven, Pa."

When contacted by The Inquirer, Adam, now living in Shoemakersville, Berks County, had no memory of marking the canvas. He recalled his sea journey as "mostly boring."

The one notable event was a four-hour stop in the Philippines, where thirsty troops hit the bars. When a sudden storm set the ship rocking, their overindulgence left them desperately sick. The stench was awful, Adam said.

Adam served as a helicopter mechanic, first at Cam Ranh Bay, site of the giant U.S. military base, then at Cu Chi, now a tourist spot famous for its warren of underground Viet Cong tunnels.

After the war, he returned home, working as a railroad machinist and then at different jobs. He doesn't think much about Vietnam.

"It's mostly in the past," he said.

For some, the past is close behind. Wyatt flew to war, but understands the messages that men left on the canvases.

"If you look at them, and read them, it's all about fear. Fear of the unknown," Wyatt said. "We knew we were going, but we didn't know if we were coming back."

jgammage@phillynews.com

(c) 2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by MCT Information Services
 

One sample of graffiti found on more than 400 bunk canvases recovered from the troopship General Nelson M. Walker.
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