The History of Rolling Thunder's "Run to the Wall"
To appreciate how far Rolling Thunder has come, you must go
back to where and how and why the Rally got started.
U.S. Veteran Dispatch
Incorporated in 1995, Rolling Thunder®, Inc. is a class 501(c)(4) non-profit organization with over 88 chartered chapters throughout the United States and members abroad. While many members of Rolling Thunder are veterans, and many ride motorcycles, neither qualification is a prerequisite. Rolling Thunder members are old and young, men and women, veterans and non-veterans. All are united in the cause to bring full accountability for POWs and MIAs of all wars, reminding the government, the media and the public by our watchwords: “We Will Not Forget.” The name Rolling Thunder is derived from the constant bombing of North Vietnam in 1965 and was given the name, "Operation Rolling Thunder." No officers or members of Rolling Thunder®, Inc. receive compensation; we all donate our time.
THE ROLLING THUNDER STORY
It was a silent collective cry of American Prisoners of War (POWs) left behind that prompted Ray Manzo, Corporal U.S.M.C., 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.
In the fall of 1987, in a little diner, in Somerville, New Jersey, two Vietnam veterans met to discuss their personal concerns about the prisoners of war (POW) and missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War. Having honorably served their country, and having taken an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies..." and to "bear true faith and allegiance to same," they were deeply troubled by the abhorrent neglect of attention given to those who did not make it out with their lives or their freedom. These two veterans discussed the more than 10,000 reported sightings of live Americans living in dismal captivity. Intelligence reports of these sightings were generally ignored by the government and mainstream press. These two veterans were Artie Muller and Ray Manzo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE FIRST ROLLING THUNDER DEMONSTRATION
Artie and Ray were ordinary men who understood that they had a right to have their voices heard and proceeded to lay down the plans for a gathering in Washington, D.C. during the 1988 Memorial Day weekend. They reached out to their families, fellow veterans and veteran's advocates to unify and form a march and demonstration in the nations Capital. Their arrival would be announced by the roar of their motorcycles, a sound not unlike the 1965 bombing campaign against North Vietnam dubbed Operation Rolling Thunder. Hence, they would call themselves "Rolling Thunder" a title that would endure time and be trademarked in 1990. Word spread quickly and by Memorial Day weekend in 1988, approximately 2,500 motorcycles from all over the country converged on Washington, D.C. to demand from our leaders a full accounting of all POW/MIA's. As they made their stand that day in front of the Capitol, Artie and Ray reflected thankfully for the people who came in support of the POW's and MIA's, and for the unity that was felt. This was Rolling Thunder's first demonstration. Only until ALL POW/MIA's ARE ACCOUNTED FOR, it will not be their last. On that day, the foundation was laid for the annual "Ride for Freedom" to the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall (also referred to as the "Ride to the Wall"). The number of participants / spectators in the Memorial Day weekend Ride for Freedom has grown from 2,500 to an estimated 850,000.
Rolling Thunder Today
Rolling Thunder's increased notoriety has not been without its consequences and critics. Since motorcycles have become synonymous with the Rolling Thunder name, it has created a misconception of the organization's true objectives and purpose, and has sometimes overshadowed their many accomplishments and contributions to veterans and our communities. For those who know and support Rolling Thunder, they are keenly aware that the organization's advocacy of the POW/MIA issue does not begin and end each year with Memorial Day weekend. Rolling Thunder members are active year-round promoting legislation to increase veteran benefits and resolve the POW/MIA issue from all wars, and their generosity of time, food, and clothing to veterans and their local communities is continuous throughout the year (see, Fact Sheet).
Non-Profit Status & Membership
Rolling Thunder was incorporated as a class 501 C-4 non-profit organization in 1995, and is headquartered in New Jersey. Today, the organization has over 7,000 members throughout the United States, with a few in Canada, Australia and Europe. There are over 50 chartered Rolling Thunder chapters in the continental United States, and the numbers continually grow. The Rolling Thunder membership is comprised of veterans from all wars and times of peace. Their veteran members have earned such distinctions as the Medal of Honor, Medal of Valor, Bronze Star, Silver Star, Purple Heart, and others. Their membership also consists of non-veteran advocates of all ages, generations and backgrounds. Rolling Thunder also teaches the values of patriotism and community service to its youth. The National Chapter of Rolling Thunder has almost 80 junior members (ages 18 and under) who actively participate in visits to the local VA hospital, food and clothing collection for homeless veterans, and fundraising.
Constitution and By-Laws
The Constitution and By-laws of the organization strictly govern the chapters, with committee members working on issues that include Government Affairs for the POW/MIA issue, Gulf War and Korean War Affairs, Veterans/Community Assistance, School Education, and overall public awareness of the POW/MIA issue and veterans' needs. The Constitution prohibits alcoholic beverages at any Rolling Thunder sanctioned event, and violators could be subject to retraction of membership and even the dissolution of a chapter.
Skeptics of the POW/MIA cause say that any efforts to retrieve POW's are in vain. Some government officials feel it is senseless to risk the lives of soldiers to search for "old bones," as one senior military official put it when responding to a proposal to conduct a search and rescue of Lt. Commander Michael "Scott" Speicher (USN), the first casualty of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When Scott's plane crashed in 1991, he was assumed dead and classified as KIA. He was "killed on paper." Years later, convincing evidence revealed Scott survived the crash, and in an unprecedented move in 2001, 10 years after Scott's plane went down, the U.S. Navy reclassified Scott from KIA to MIA, then more recently to POW as evidence of his survival and captivity in Baghdad grew. Again, people found it hard to believe that we would leave a son or daughter behind, but it happened. Unfortunately Scott's story is not unique, as there are many others from past wars who suffered the same heartbreaking fate as Scott, and there is convincing evidence that some POW's from Vietnam are alive today and even possibly from the Korean War. Is Scott still alive in 2003? We don't know, but just because we don't know doesn't mean we forget about him, or forget about the others whose status remains MIA or POW. It's easy to just go on with our lives and not think of those poor souls left behind, but we can't forget. If it were your husband or wife, brother, daughter, son or friend, would you forget? Could you forget? Scott's tragedy validates Rolling Thunder's position on the POW/MIA issue, and further strengthens their mission statement that vows "...to publicize the POW/MIA issue, educate the public that many American prisoners of war were left behind after all past wars, help correct the past and to protect future veterans from being left behind should they become prisoners of war or missing in action, and secondly to help American veterans from all wars." Rolling Thunder will continue to fight for the timely return of all POW's and the continued investigation into the fate of all MIA's. from all wars. Rolling Thunder passionately follows the Army Ranger Creed that vows: "I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy..." Rolling Thunder will continue to grow and gain strength as long as even one person remains unaccounted for.
For more information about Rolling Thunder, or to learn how to become a member or supporter, please contact
Rolling Thunder National headquarters at (908) 369-5439 .
VETERAN & COMMUNITY SERVICE
In 2007, Rolling Thunder®, Charities, Inc. was established as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt, non-profit organization which enables individuals and corporations to receive a tax deduction for funds donated to Rolling Thunder Charities. These funds are used for veterans, active military and their families in need of help. No officers of Rolling Thunder Charities, Inc. receive compensation; we all donate our time.
Rolling Thunder, Inc. spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in financial aid, food, clothing and other essentials to veterans, homeless veterans and veterans' families in need, women's' crisis centers and toys for children.
In 2005, Rolling Thunder, Inc. united with the National Alliance of POW/MIA Families to petition the U.S. Government to use the designation “Prisoner of War/Missing in Action” (POW/MIA) – a designation recognized by the Geneva Conventions - not “Missing/Captured”. This will ensure that prisoners’ rights and protections remain consistent under the Geneva Conventions.
Expenditures exceed over half a million dollars a year, nationwide, to educate the public and increase awareness about the POW/MIA issue and other injustices suffered by veterans. The organization regularly donates POW/MIA flags to local area schools, youth groups, non-profit organizations and special interest groups, and organizes flag raising ceremonies. Veterans speak to youth groups about the honor of serving their country and educating them about the POW/MIA issue.
Rolling Thunder, Inc. sponsors search missions into Southeast Asia for POWs/MIAs, and the remains of those killed in action
Thousands of hours are logged in by Rolling Thunder, Inc. members at local VA hospitals nationwide. Members visit and provide moral support to nursing home veterans and patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Rolling Thunder, Inc. helped facilitate the publishing of a POW/MIA U.S. postage stamp through the U.S. Postal Service that displayed dog tags with the declaration - "POW & MIA - NEVER FORGOTTEN"
Rolling Thunder, Inc. National is on the Board of Directors of the Ride to the Wall Foundation, a veterans' fund established through the sales of the musical CD, "Ride to the Wall" produced for Rolling Thunder XIV by Paul Revere & the Raiders in cooperation with Rolling Thunder, Inc.
Rolling Thunder, Inc. participated in the dedication of the World War II Memorial in 2004 and assisted with organizing the World War II parade that took place on that historic date.