The 5,000-mile-plus voyages to Southeast Asia could last anywhere from 18 to 21 days, usually with a stop at Okinawa just days from Vietnam. Seasickness greeted many of the soldiers and Marines during the voyages. Many became sick soon after boarding and a diet of crackers became the sustenance for many during the entire trip.

Audio Track: Storm At Sea

The air temperature became progressively hotter as the Walker passed the International Dateline and neared Vietnam. The often crowded, foul-smelling troop compartments became more uncomfortable as temperatures rose. Some men opted to sleep outside on the main deck; some even hid themselves in the lifeboats. Such accommodations were against regulations.

Audio Track: Pungent Aroma

Time passed slowly. Men played cards, read or "shot the bull". Sometimes classes on tactics were held. Physical training was attempted, but often the ship’s rolling and dipping in heavy seas prevented that physical activity.

Audio Track: High Stakes Card Game

Other soldiers stood at the railing around the ship and stared at the ocean, lost in thoughts of family, civilian life and what was to come. They were mostly silent when “riding the rail,” engrossed in personal thoughts.

There were lines everywhere. For those who weren’t seasick, it could be a wait of hours before reaching the troop galley, where the meals were served by fellow soldiers on “mess” detail. When one finally received his food, it seemed it was almost time to get on line again for the next meal.

Audio Track: Galley Work Detail

Musical instruments could be checked out from the ship’s special services' officer, and jam sessions took place on the main deck or recreation rooms. Some troops even brought personal musical instruments with them.

Audio Track: Sound of Music

A ship’s brig was positioned in the Walker’s bow, on the third deck just behind the chain locker. It contained metal bunks, latrine and mirrors of polished aluminum instead of glass. It was a particularly uncomfortable location to be quartered if the ship encountered a storm and was subjected to violent dips into huge ocean waves.

Chaplains assigned to the Walker or military units were available to counsel troops whenever necessary. As the ship got closer to Vietnam, they became busier. They would also visit men who may have committed an offense that resulted in confinement in the brig. Religious services for all denominations were also conducted regularly.

Audio Track: Chaplains' Work

When the ship reached Okinawa for refueling and resupply, the troops were usually allowed a short “liberty,” enabling them a final visit to a military-sanctioned recreation facility, where they could purchase a hamburger and a cup of beer within a military-controlled area. Many men opted to instead visit Naha, the Okinawa city where numerous bars featured blaring music and mini-skirted women encouraging the GI’s to visit. Comrades made sure the soldiers made it back to the ship. Many could not remember how or when they did return.

As the Walker neared the Vietnamese coast, men in the troop compartments listened to portable radios and sometimes heard chilling commentary from North Vietnamese propagandist “Hanoi Hannah.” They sometimes could even see and hear unsettling explosions along the increasingly visible coastline.

Audio Track: Scary Welcome

Just days later the Walker was in Da Nang Harbor, disembarking troops there before moving to other Vietnamese ports to discharge the remaining men.

In country now, soldiers would spend 12 months on Vietnam soil; Marines, 13 months. However, each day on the ship during the voyage counted as a day of in-country service. The discomfort encountered during the voyage was at least softened by this allowance.

Exhibit Schedules

    Part of the Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam is currently at the New York Historical Society in Manhatten through April 22, 2018. Information about the full Vietnam exhibit is available here

    Marking Time: Voyage to Vietnam will be open at the USS Kidd Memorial in Baton Rouge, LA, from October 27, 2017 through February 28, 2018.