To appreciate how far Rolling Thunder has come, you must go back to where and how and why the Rally got started.
It was a silent collective cry of American Prisoners of War (POWs) left behind that prompted Ray Manzo, Corporal USMC, to try in some small way to make things right. As the summer of 1987 approached, Manzo observed some veterans by the Reflecting Pool near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. and asked them for help. His idea: Host a motorcycle run in the nation's capital to show the country and the world that abandoned American soldiers in Vietnam still mattered to their fellow servicemen and the country for which they sacrificed their freedom.
From that day on, things began to happen. Fellow veterans embraced his idea and began to help. There was retired Army Sergeant Major John Holland, head of the American Foundation for Accountability of POW/MIAs, 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.
Walt Sides recalled how his first meeting with Manzo left a lasting impression. "I remember it was a pretty, sunny, warm day not long after Memorial Day in 1987. I can still see him walking up the steps towards us (Holland, Sampley, and Schmitt). He looked just like a Marine climbing those steps," Sides claims, "kinda' dumb looking, with a look that said: 'Boys, I need some help.' " It's an old truth that a Marine can always spot a fellow Marine, no matter how out of uniform or far away.
Manzo explained his idea and asked, "Could we do a run of motorcycles for the cause?" According to Sides, "John Holland and I looked at each other and said: Let's do it!" And it was then the name "Rolling Thunder" was adopted for the Rally. Schmitt was staring in the direction of the Memorial Bridge while listening intensely to Manzo's idea and simply blurted out, "It will be the sound of rolling thunder coming across that bridge." The name stuck.
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The fledgling group split up the work, contacting the park service, getting permits and printing up flyers. It would take nine months for Ray Manzo's dream to become the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally. And what better date for such an event than on Memorial Day, when America honors the sacrifices of its soldiers throughout its long history of liberty and justice for all? As the plan came together, even its organizers were surprised by the widespread response the run inspired.
The idea turned out to be the right thing at the right time at the right place. "John had a lot of knowledge," Sides adds, referring to Holland's expertise in getting things done in D.C. The POW/MIA vigils, like the one Holland and the other vets operated needed something to grab national attention for the cause. Holland, who knew the National Park Service regulations as they pertained to political demonstrations, volunteered to secure all the permits needed for such an endeavor.
After numerous exploratory meetings with Washington city officials, Holland and Sides organized Rolling Thunder's board of directors and began making plans for the first run. Holland was able to navigate through a sea of regulatory paperwork and continued to obtain the permits for many years. Sides and Sampley were busy making necessary contacts and meeting with the Mayor's Task Force in D.C.
With the legalities out of the way, all they needed was bikers. Sides recalls, "Ray said if we could set it up, he'd bring the bikers." And bring them he did. They came from as far away as Oregon and California. They came from dusty hollows and big bustling cities. Some came alone, others in cycle convoys. Many joined up as they met on the long road to Washington D.C., and rode the rest of the way together with one common goal.
While Ray was busy recruiting bikers and veterans for the run, in the Fall of 1987 he met Artie Muller, who served in the 4th U.S. Infantry Division in Vietnam. He explained his vision to Muller who listened intently to the Marine's impassioned words. Muller saw in Manzo's dream something veterans could get a hold of and run with. Muller would later become a true asset to Rolling Thunder.
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Rolling Thunder had somehow struck a chord in the hearts of veterans everywhere and from all walks of life. That first year it was hard to count the numbers roaring into D.C. from America's heartlands. "We thought 2500 bikes on the first run was a whole bunch," Sides explains. "Each run has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger." And as Rolling Thunder expanded, so did it's support base. Where at first veterans had to stick their necks way out to demonstrate for their own, now many of the riders were civilian. Thousands of Americans came out to give very public thanks for the sacrifices of veterans like these, as well as those not yet accounted for.
News coverage of the 1988 Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally was short and sweet. If mentioned at all, it was condensed neatly into about 4 1/2 seconds of air time. Still, somebody saw it. At home, thousands of vets watched their brothers stand up to be counted, and resolved the next chance they got, they would do the same. The Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club embraced the run with gusto. "Run to the Wall" was meant as a commemoration for those who served in Vietnam, living or dead, missing or present and accounted for.
With the onset of Rolling Thunder III, Ray Manzo temporarily stepped aside as Rolling Thunder Run Commander, but remained involved with Rolling Thunder III, IV, and V. Artie Muller was appointed to stand in as Run Commander for Manzo. The event just kept growing and by 1991 the Run to the Wall Rolling Thunder IV was 45,000 strong with an estimated 20,000 bikes taking part. Proudly flying the Stars and Stripes beside stark black POW/MIA flags, riders cut a striking picture as black leather on blue jeans met shining chrome in a deafening thunder of unison.
By then, the Pentagon north parking lot had become a reunion spot for vets young and old alike. Often it was the only time old war buddies saw each other, and every year more familiar faces appeared. Each mile of pavement held special meaning for the thundering procession of vets. Up and over the Memorial bridge they rumbled, to descend down the street past the Capital, where political policy dictated the fate of American soldiers since before these riders were born. Waves of bikes rolled along Constitution Avenue, symbolic of the rights and freedoms they committed to die for. The route wasn't complete without a pass by the Commander in Chief's place on Pennsylvania Avenue where White House executive orders mean ultimate life or death for American servicemen in conflicts a world away. In solemn tribute the cavalcade finally reached the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where speakers gave voice to absent patriots: Lost in battle. Lost in shifting policy. Lost in paperwork. But not lost in the hearts of these proud Americans who fought beside them.
Rolling Thunder VI in 1993 took on international support, as bikers from other countries, including Australia, Canada, and South Korea rode with the U.S. And in 1995, the Rolling Thunder run had reached such proportions that Muller formed Rolling Thunder National under the umbrella of Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally. State chapters burst up across America in rapid fire the following year. All positions were deliberately set up as non-paid, voluntary status. By definition, each charter agrees to help vets in need from all wars or conflicts, and adhere to the strict ethics of volunteer-based practice.
Other developments included winning government approval for the POW/MIA postage stamp in 1995. The more members joined in the cause, the more work there was to be done. They learned that political hardball knows no fair play. According to Muller, Rolling Thunder members, led by Ted Shpak (Rolling Thunder legislative representative) and John Holland, sweated word for word on a bill known as the Missing Service Personnel Act of 1993. The bill was to guarantee that the government could not arbitrarily kill on paper missing servicemen without credible proof of death.
In 1997, Ray Manzo was removed from Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally's board of directors and Artie Muller was appointed Permanent Rolling Thunder Run Commander. Because he had distinguished himself so well as Temporary Run Commander, Muller was voted onto Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally's board of directors. As a Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally board member and President of Rolling Thunder National, Muller continued to serve as Rolling Thunder Run Commander until 1999 when board members Sides and Sampley asked Muller to also serve as Chairman of the Board for Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally.
As the new millennium approached, the 2000 run marked several milestones. The astounding 250,000 motorcycles in attendance equaled a full hundredfold increase over the first years tally. That fact alone amazed both detractors, who thought by now the crusty vets would surely have lost interest and concern for their missing men in arms, and supporters, who hoped against hope that by the century's end, America would have honestly accounted for its missing servicemen. The 4 1/2 seconds of media coverage had grown to 4 1/2 minutes.
Rolling Thunder XVIII (2005) brought an estimated half-million participants into the nation's capital. It might have started out as a limited engagement to focus attention on those unaccounted for after Vietnam, but it's become much, much more. Rolling Thunder picked up the banner of accountability its government dropped and carries it with pride and honor into the 21st century.