It’s become as much a part of Memorial Day in Washington, D.C., as backyard barbecues and Frisbees on the Mall: Thousands of motorcycles descend on the city to commemorate fallen soldiers and to call for the return of missing Vietnam-era prisoners of war.
It’s called Rolling Thunder. Sponsors of the 10th annual gathering estimate that more than 250,000 bikers from across this country, and even from Canada, rode in a parade along the Mall yesterday afternoon.
Each year they begin to arrive a few days before the event, decked out in leather riding jackets adorned with patches showing where they ride. The veterans also wear patches showing where they served.
They all ride for a simple reason - “for those who can’t” because they gave their lives in war. And they are proud that, unlike most people for whom the holiday means beaches and the Indianapolis 500, they spend days riding just to be here to honor those fallen in battle.
This year they began their procession just after noon, leaving from the Pentagon and crossing the Memorial Bridge before heading down Independence Avenue. They headed back by way of Constitution Avenue and ended up across the street from the black marble wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
For two hours a continuous stream of people and machines - three abreast, and adorned with American and “Remember the POWs” flags - slowly threaded its way through the people lining the streets.
It was hard not to be moved by the sheer number of people all riding in unison in support of veterans.
Some onlookers cheered and waved flags or patted the bikers on the back. Others stood with one arm raised in the salute which has come to symbolize missing POWs. Still others just knelt and stared the entire time, their own tribute to veterans and the bikers riding for them.
“It’s the closest damn thing they got to a real homecoming,” said one woman as she walked by waving and giving a “thumbs up” to the passing bikers.
After the riders dismounted, they all crossed the street, paused for a few moments at the Vietnam Memorial to find a name they knew or just to stare at its startling large size.
“It’s an emotional kind of thing really, to see people on the streets crying when you go by,” said Steven A. Sheaffer, who rode down with Edward A. Lovell Jr. from Cape Cod, Mass. “You ride by and grasp an out-stretched hand and let go, but sometimes the other person holds on.”
Among the parade’s riders was Stan Blakey, who came down from Ontario for the event. Mr. Blakey, a Ca-nadian citizen, was one of 40,000 Canadians who served in the U.S. military during the war.
What’s the connection between veterans and bikes? Rick Taylor, a veteran from Wyoming, Del., said most Vietnam War soldiers were boys when they were thrown into the chaos of Vietnam right out of high school and never had a chance to spend a normal youth. Biking is one way to recapture that.
Also, when many Americans ignored the veterans and didn’t want to remember the war, it was bikers who stood up and spoke out, said John Hosier and his fiancee, Mary Kane, down from New Jersey for yester-day’s parade.
Rolling Thunder began in 1987 as a means to bring attention to the plight of more than 2,000 soldiers from the Vietnam War who are unaccounted for.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” said Mr. Taylor as he stood next to his turquoise Harley Davidson at a gas station on Route 50 in Northeast surveying the hundreds of bikers coming into the city yesterday morning.
Mr. Taylor, who served in the Air Force for 24 years, including one-year and six-month tours in Vietnam, said the gathering grows larger every year, with information spreading by word of mouth and through flyers posted at biker shops and hot spots.
Even today, many of the veterans are reticent about their experiences in Vietnam, but when they get togeth-er in groups they always begin to list names found on the Wall, which commemorates the more than 50,000 killed or missing in Vietnam.