Rolling Thunder, an event that draws America’s motorcycle-riding military veterans to Washington, D.C. during Memorial Day weekend, has been taking place the past 17 years. It began, and continues today, as a way to keep the names of POW’s and MIA’s and their plight in front of the President and Congress.
I’m an Army veteran, having served in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971, and since I started riding again, participating in Rolling Thunder is one of my ultimate goals. “Rolling what?” my wife Terri asked the first time I talked about it. “You mean you want to ride across the country on your motorcycle, by yourself, and meet a bunch of people you don’t know in Washington? Why would you ever want to do that?”
It’s not difficult to see that my wife is far from being a “biker mama.” She doesn’t like my motorcycle. She doesn’t ride on the back of my motorcycle. She would be thrilled if I sold my motorcycle. But she also knows my love for the motorcycle, and despite her raised eyebrows and the occasional “stare,” she accepts it as part of my life.
During this past Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I, along with her dad Joe, a World War II veteran, and his wife Yvonne, were in Washington for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial. We also did a week’s worth of sightseeing while we were there.
The dedication ceremony took place Saturday, May 29. The next morning, we were coming out of the National Cemetery at Arlington when I heard a rumbling. More than a mile away on Arlington Memorial Bridge, I could see lines of people. I asked a nearby police officer what was going on.
“Rolling Thunder,” he said.
“Geez! I thought it was tomorrow,” I said. “When did it start?”
“About an hour ago,” the officer said. My heart sank.
“You mean I’ve missed it?”
“No,” the officer said, then smiled. “There are more than 500,000 motorcycles. They’ll be going for another four hours.”
We reached the bridge and watched the procession; bike after bike. There were Hondas, Harleys, BMWs, Kawasakis, bikes of all kinds, colors, and shapes, riding two-by-two past cheering and flag-waving people along the route. People were giving peace signs, clapping, giving thumbs-up signals, and extending their hands to give passing bikers hand slaps. And the sound! It was music to a biker’s ears. The roar kept going, and going, and going. In fact, that’s how Rolling Thunder got its name, because it sounds like the rumbling of B-52 bombers and their exploding bombs.
Rolling Thunder began in 1987 when John Holland, an Army and Marine Corps veteran who had fought at Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Korea, and did four tours in Vietnam, spearheaded a group designed to make lawmakers and military officials address the issue of POW’s and MIA’s. What better way to make a statement than with loud motorcycles rumbling in front of the Capitol building and White House! That first year, 3,100 veterans rode their motorcycles to Washington. That number has never stopped growing.
The event has grown to include non-veterans. Riders might be sons or daughters of veterans who were killed in action or never accounted for as a POW or MIA. Since WWI, there are 93,000 people still unaccounted for by the government.
Events cover five days with reunions, candlelight vigils at the various war memorials, parades, rides, concerts, and other events sponsored by local motorcycle dealerships. There is “Thunder Alley,” where bikers get their shirts, pins, and food from an assortment of vendors. Tickets are sold for a chance to win a motorcycle. This year it was “The Boss” with either a small block 350CI or big block 502CI Chevy engine, made by Boss Hoss Cycles in Richmond, Virginia.
But the big ride takes place from the Pentagon parking lot to the Lincoln Memorial, down Madison Street near the White House. There’s a program at the Vietnam Memorial with speakers, tributes, and music. It’s very patriotic.
“You go mingle with your biker friends, and we’ll just meet you somewhere,” my wife said.
“Let’s meet at the World War II Memorial at the Kansas pillar at 4,” I said.
“Sure that’s going to give you long enough?” she asked.
“OK, make it 5,” I said.
“Want to make it 5:30?”
I told her 5 would be fine, then she, Joe and Yvonne went their way, and I headed towards Thunder Alley. It was great! Bikes were parked everywhere, on the street, on the grass, anywhere a bike could fit.
I was wearing a Vietnam veteran hat, and obviously was not in riding clothes. Many people would come up; shake my hand and say, “Welcome home.” Even a grandmotherly woman followed that up with a kiss on my cheek.
Paul Teutul Sr., and Paul Teutul Jr., of Orange County Choppers fame were there along with some of their custom bikes, including their POW and Fireman’s bikes. They both rode those bikes at the front of the Rolling Thunder procession.
I talked to a group of vets from Massachusetts who served in Vietnam and Desert Storm. “It’s a great ride,” John said with a heavy Boston accent. “This is my fifth year, and I never get tired of it. You meet some great guys.”
Then there were two guys from Kansas, Tom from Wichita, and Jack from Salina. Both are Vietnam veterans that rode to California for the start of the ride. “It’s intense,” Tom said. It was his first Rolling Thunder experience. “You ride two-by-two and they like to keep it tight,” he said. “You ride about 400 miles a day, so there’s not much time for sightseeing.”
For Jack, this was his third time participating in Rolling Thunder. “But you can meet up with the group at any time, or just meet up here in Washington,” he said. “We stay in campgrounds most of the time, and most of them are free to the veterans on the ride. There are places that provide us with food along the way, too. It’s a great ride and it means something.”
He said there are two routes, a Central and a Southern. Everything is planned out; where to stop for gas, eat and stay. “They have a web site that tells you all about it,” he said. “Just go to www.rfth.org. That stands for Run for the Wall.”
I took lots of pictures and talked to a lot of my biker “friends.” Then it was time to meet Terri, Joe and Yvonne. “Well?” Terri asked when we met up.
“It was outstanding,” I said, telling her about the people I had talked to, and about the Orange County Choppers (she has to watch it when I have the remote control for the television).
“So did you get this out of your system?” she asked.
I smiled and said, “I can’t wait for Memorial Day to get here next year.”
Story and photos by Chuck Kurtz