Perfect temperatures, a bright sun and blue sky commanded Sunday’s forecast, but it was the sound of thunder that stood out for the D.C. area, as more than a half-million motorcycles rumbled through the city for the 26th annual Rolling Thunder.
Thousands of locals and visitors lined the roughly 10-mile loop along the Potomac River and across Memorial Bridge, around the Lincoln Memorial and east to the Mall.
“Nobody else loves America the way you love America,” Rolling Thunder founder Artie Muller told hundreds of riders just hours before they assembled in the Pentagon parking lot in Arlington. “Our veterans, our clubs, veterans organization and the public are unbelievable.”
The event got its name from the rumbling sound made by the thousands of motorcycles cruising into the District. The bike ride Sunday was the exclamation point for the weekendlong event, which included speeches and ceremonies to recognize prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
As the sun rose on what turned out to be a beautiful day, the parking lot at the Pentagon buzzed with the low rumble of bikes whose riders caught up with old friends, introduced themselves to new acquaintances and jockeyed for parade positions.
Standing alongside his Harley-Davidson, Pete Clark, 65, said this was his first year riding with Rolling Thunder and his first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
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As a Vietnam veteran himself, the McKinney, Texas, resident said he spent several hours at the memorial wall Saturday.
“It was emotional,” said Mr. Clark, who served as a staff sergeant in the Army.
Despite the heartache, Mr. Clark said he was glad he traveled the hundreds of miles to be a part of Rolling Thunder.
“I just texted my wife to tell her I’m going to do this every year now,” he said.
Taking a break from polishing his bike, Boone, N.C., resident Bill Gorman, 56, said this Rolling Thunder was his fifth ride.
“Originally, I came out for my uncles and father, who were Marines,” he said. “Then my daughter joined the National Guard, my son is in Iraq, so I’ve got quite a few reasons to come.”
Mr. Gorman and Mr. Clark were just two riders in an ocean of gleaming chrome and vibrantly painted metal surrounding the Pentagon. The scene at the outset reflected the wide range of participants in the ride, which began a little after noon and concluded around 4 p.m.
American flags, black-and-white POW banners, and a variety of colored signs dotted the mass of people, while the bikes themselves ran the gamut of colors. Some bikes were a midnight black, while others boasted bright orange flames, sparkling swirls, white-walled tires and quirky stuffed animals tied to the frame.
Larry Heaton, 76, made the roughly 2,700 mile trip from Klamath Falls, Ore., with his old college roommate and fellow Army buddy.
“It’s our first time” he said. “It was on our bucket list. We just wanted to see it. It’s something to do, and every summer we take a long ride.”
The group’s effort did not go unnoticed from the political side of things either.
“Thousands of motorcycles in town for Rolling Thunder,” the Republican National Committee said in a tweet as the ride began. “Thanks to all the work you do on behalf of our POW/MIAs, and our vets.”
License plates from across the country identified the locals and visitors. Enjoying the shade beneath an umbrella, his legs up and resting in a lounge chair, Daytona Beach, Fla. resident Dan Geyer, 65, said it was his first time riding in Rolling Thunder, but his second time visiting the District.
He said he had forgone prostate surgery so he could attend the ride.
Asked why he made the 800-mile trip, Mr. Geyer grew quiet.
“I’ve got friends on the Wall,” he said, referencing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. “I came to pay my respects.”
While many Americans celebrate the weekend with barbecues and trips to the beach, Gary Romig, 48, said it was important to remember what Memorial Day was all about, and it was why he chose to ride along with his mother, Joyce.
“Too many of our soldiers are still missing in all different war zones,” said Mr. Romig, a retired Army sergeant first class. “If you served your country, you deserve to be here. You don’t deserve to be in some cage. You deserve our honor, our respect. This is so we don’t forget that.”
• Jennifer Harper contributed to this report.