Vets, supporters find solace, camaraderie in Rolling Thunder’s roar

Motorcycle rally marks 25th year of taking D.C. by storm

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For Walt Koren, it would be easier to know that his old friend is dead. Instead, he’s lived with uncertainty for 41 years. Whether William Patrick Millner, an Army Air Cavalry pilot in Vietnam and high school classmate of Mr. Koren‘s, survived a crash landing in Laos in 1971, and whether he remains in captivity somewhere in Southeast Asia, are questions that haunt him to this day.

“I thought he’d been killed. Later, I learned he was missing in action, and it was easier to accept that he’d been killed,” said Mr. Koren, a 63-year-old construction manager now living in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“I still sit there constantly and think about him every Sunday at church. I think about him still being a prisoner of war, and hear rumors he’s being held in Laos. I hope that’s not the case. How would you feel about 41 years being held captive? Wouldn’t you rather be dead?” he said.

Mr. Koren found some solace four years ago when he joined Rolling Thunder Inc., a 90-chapter organization launched in 1995 as an offshoot of the now-famous Rolling Thunder Washington, D.C., motorcycle rally held each Memorial Day weekend.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the rally began with a simple mission that remains unfulfilled: account for Mr. Millner and the thousands of other veterans still missing.

Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Cornell "Smokey" Langford of Clinton stares out into the pre-dawn sky as he and other members of Rolling Thunder's Maryland chapter meet in the early-morning hours at the Harley-Davidson motorcycle shop in Fort Washington before heading to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington on May 13. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)

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Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Cornell “Smokey” Langford of Clinton stares out ... more >

Quarter-century of Thunder

The brainchild of Ray Manzo, John Holland and other Vietnam vets, the rally drew fewer than 1,000 bikes its first year. Organizers expect more than 500,000 motorcycles this year, with events kicking off Friday and lasting through Monday’s Memorial Day observances. It begins with Friday night’s candlelight vigil, includes the signature motorcycle ride on Sunday and concludes on Memorial Day with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns, the national Memorial Day Parade and other events.

Mr. Manzo is credited with giving the rally its moniker, having told his fellow organizers that it would sound like thunder when the bikes rolled into the nation’s capital. A reclusive figure who spent two years in Vietnam, Mr. Manzo stepped away from the Rolling Thunder rally in 1992.

“It wasn’t something for me to do forever,” the Marine veteran told Vietnam magazine in a rare interview earlier this month.

Coming out of retirement this year, Mr. Manzo will return to witness an event that’s grown beyond its founders’ wildest dreams. But beyond the sheer size and cachet that the Rolling Thunder rally now carries, there remains at the heart of the gathering a tight-knit community of veterans, family and friends of former POWs and those still missing.

“It’s always a very rewarding weekend, not only because of what we do, but because of all the people that we meet,” said 76-year-old Billy Parker, former state director of New Jersey’s Rolling Thunder Inc. chapters and a Korean War veteran.

Mr. Parker, whose Army unit still has several members listed as missing, said he threw himself into Rolling Thunder after his wife passed away several years ago.

“The camaraderie between all of the members is fantastic,” he said. “You know just about every person by name. That’s how familiar you become with all of them.”

Since its inaugural run in 1987, the Rolling Thunder rally has driven the effort to focus attention on the nation’s missing heroes and prisoners of war. Its founders have successfully pushed legislation to keep missing soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen from being declared dead without concrete evidence.

The Rolling Thunder Inc. chapters, in more than 30 states across the nation, regularly hold fundraisers to aid veterans’ groups, visit war survivors in nursing homes and hospitals, help maintain memorial sites and do a variety of other charitable work.

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