By Jerry Nichols
Memorial Day, Monday 27 May 2019
This idea started back in 1987 at the Reflecting Pool near the Vietnam Memorial Wall, on a sunny day shortly after Memorial Day. USMC Corporal Ray Manzo walked up to Army Sergeant Major John Holland, head of the American Foundation for Accountability of POW/MIA’s, Ted Sampley with Homecoming II Project at the last firebase vigil, Retired Marine 1st Sergeant Walt Sides, President of the Non-Profit Warriors Inc. and Bob Schmitt who had a POW family member. Manzo said, “Boys I need some help.” Manzo explained his idea and asked, “Could we do a motorcycle run for the cause?” Holland and Sides looked at each other and said, “Let’s do it.” Schmitt, listening to Manzo as he was looking off at Memorial Bridge just blurted out, “It will be the sound of Rolling Thunder coming across that bridge.” The name stuck.
Later that year Manzo met Artie Muller who had served in the 4th. US Infantry division in Vietnam. Muller saw the passion in Manzo’s dream, something veterans could get ahold of and run with. Ray Manzo led the first run in 1988 which garnered 2,500 bikes and about four and a half seconds of national news time; but that was enough. Veterans all over the country heard the call and came by the thousands.
By Rolling Thunder III, Artie Muller was appointed to step in as temporary Run Commander when Manzo stepped aside. It just kept growing and the Pentagon parking lot became the traditional meeting place. In 1993 Rolling Thunder took on international support as bikers came from other countries including Australia, Canada and South Korea. In 1997 Artie Muller was appointed Rolling Thunder’s permanent Run Commander. Later, due to the fact he had distinguished himself so well, Muller became Rolling Thunder’s Chairman of the Board. In year 2000 bike participation went above 250,000 and national news air time went from the four and a half seconds in 1988, to now four and a half minutes.
In 2005 participation reached over half a million motorcycles. Once a small voice to bring awareness of the government not finishing their job after Vietnam, now Rolling Thunder had picked up the banner of accountability where government has failed. Rolling Thunder has completed its final rally on 27 May 2019; what’s next? Artie Muller has said it’s not a matter of funding. The mission will stand, as there will still be rallies all over the country, just no longer in Washington D.C., as the politics of staginging the Rally in this city have become unmanageable with ridiculous cost overruns and permit negotiation turmoil.
This year’s Rolling Thunder Rally was my first; arriving in Washington D.C. that morning I rode with Run for The Wall– group of riders who started in Ontario, CA, but that’s a whole other story.
Very hot for this rally, it was 98 degrees with 95% humidity. We were lucky as our group had semi-priority for placement in the run and we were parked somewhat up front, arriving at 8:30 am. There would be long hot wait until we roared into the Capital with our concession. There the Pentagon parking lots were filling up fast. Shade was scarce as people made shade with tents, easy-ups and umbrellas. I’ve never been to a rally were people walked around with coolers to just give us cold water, that’s was a nice treat; also the Disabled Veterans Affairs people were there giving out snacks and drinks as well. There was a fire truck spraying water into the air for folks to cool off, this I had to try. It was freezing compared to the air, very refreshing, another first for me.
I walked around looking for my friends who had to come later because they were not affiliated with a group ride; their parking was not so good but since they came early they got into the lot, and I met them on the grassy hill by the overpass. The smell of the food vendors below was getting to me and I ventured down the hill for some DC Slices pizza and more water. There were more food options, and T-shirt vendors too. Walking around I saw some beautiful motorcycles, and there were flags and banners of patriotism as well as protest, but not against Rolling Thunder as no fool would dare.
I recognized actor Robert Hammond Patrick, Jr. among the crowd. Some would know him as T-1000, the invincible shapeshifting cop from the Terminator 2 film. We in the motorcycle world know him as recently the new co-owner (with Oliver Shokouh) of the former Old Road Harley-Davidson, now renamed Harley-Davidson of Santa Clarita, CA. Together they have made many upgrades to the dealership, to include a new concept look for the front desk reception area, a large clothing and gear section and a “Terminator 2” arcade. I overheard him say he rode from California with his friends. As many people approached him he was humble, posed for photos and talked and interacted with strangers. I asked if I could take his photo, and he said, “Sure.” One of the good ones of show business in my opinion.
There was a young girl from Kids with a Cause, Miss Sawyer Hendrickson, giving out painted stones to Veterans. I am so happy she gave me a Heroes Rock, a great memento of my trip. Working through the crowd I came across an awesome tribute “You Are Not Forgotten” truck. The lots filled fast and riders were parked along the freeway, incoming roads and off-ramps. It was said approximately 1.7 million bikes showed up for this event. The police escort bikes rolled out for staging and the ride would soon begin.
Just before go time something was up, as the crowd was cheering; out of the south came a B-52 Stratofortress with its 185’ wingspan. Its first flight was April 15th back in 1952, and the same type of aircraft was used for Operation Linebacker II which was near the end of the Vietnam conflict. The aircraft pass was both historically meaningful and symbolic. What an honor those pilots must have felt looking down on us as they roared overhead.
That was the cue to get to your bikes, Ok Betty where are you? After a short search I found her and got her ready to ride; now the wait. Bikes started rolling out at noon. Our line started at 1:45 PM, my friend’s line at 4:00 PM, and they were at the halfway point, which shows how many bikes were there, unbelievable. The run is only a short trip down Constitution and Independence Avenues, but the streets were packed with supporters and well-wishers; even tourists were getting into the spirit.
There was a lone Marine with a “Missing Man” table at an intersection near the park. He saluted every bike as they rolled by. Some stopped, as did I; I stood up and snapped him a sharp salute and was then on my way. At this point the rally turns into “vendor land at Thunder Alley,” which I had already seen and donated to the cause the day before.
I hope Rolling Thunder returns. I was happy to be a part of making history today in the city where I was born. You are Not Forgotten.