From 2 March 1965 until 2 November 1968, “Operation Rolling Thunder” was the title of a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign conducted by the U.S. 2nd Air Division (later Seventh Air Force), U.S. Navy, and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). It was an effort to persuade North Vietnam to cease its support for communist insurgency in South Vietnam.
Perhaps that is the origin for the name “Rolling Thunder”, the United States advocacy group, that seeks to bring full accountability for prisoners of war (POW) and missing in action (MIA) service members of all U.S. wars. Rolling Thunder has more than 90 chapters throughout the United States. Collectively, their main event is taking place this weekend in the Nation’s Capital. “Rolling Thunder-Ride To The Wall” is the largest motorcycle rally in the country.
For the past 28 years they’ve come. It is an annual pilgrimage for many. They come year after year with the same resolve and the same sense of purpose. They are unwavering in their commitment. Though they had the wisdom in the very beginning to know they could not do it single-handedly, they hoped that collectively they could make a difference.
Four Vietnam veterans are credited with starting Rolling Thunder. They are: Ray Manzo, a former United States Marine Corps corporal, U.S. Army Sergeant Major John Holland (Ret.), Marine First Sergeant Walt Sides (Ret.) and Sergeant Ted Sampley (Ret.). The catalyst for their involvement was their belief, based on conversations with many veterans, that American servicemen had been abandoned in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was dedicated in 1982. Almost overnight it became the “weeping wall” for the Nation. Initially, 58,191 names were figuratively chiseled into the black granite wall. The design was not left to happenstance. It was purposefully crafted to carry several messages.
The Memorial Wall is made up of two 246 feet 9 inch panels. They meet at a point where there is a variation in their direction. One wall points toward the Washington Monument. The other wall points toward the Lincoln Memorial. The height of where the two panels are joined is 10.1 feet. The two walls that visually merge into one taper down to a height of 8 inches in either direction. The name Ronald W. Forrester is etched on one of the panels where they intersect.
Symbolically, where the two sections intersect is intended to reflect a “wound that is closed and healing”. When a visitor looks at the wall, along with the engraved names, he also sees his reflection. The visual image is intended to bring the past and present together.
The Wall has served the purpose of visually highlighting that freedom is never free. There is always a price of admission. The visual imagery of the number of names etched in the wall is overpowering. The causality count seems beyond comprehension. Yet, like a magnet drawing families in the midst of grief together in one accord, The Wall serves as a focal point where one can pay their respects and reflect on the sacrifices that were made.
The wall also serves as a magnet for veterans who served in Vietnam alongside those whose names are etched on the wall. They, too, come to pay their respects and to remember. They remember things too painful to forget. They also remember that the Nation settled for something other than a full accounting for those who had been left behind.
Ray Manzo, one of the four men who established Rolling Thunder, visited The Wall in 1987. Talking with other veterans, he learned that American servicemen had been abandoned in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War. How could that be? He was trained as a U.S. Marine to “leave no man behind.” Consequently, he became consumed with the idea to do something to bring recognition and awareness to this issue.
Manzo subsequently attended a POW/MIA vigil sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club. Perhaps that’s when he connected the dots in his head and came up with the idea of hosting a motorcycle rally in the nation’s capital. That would be one way to visually demonstrate to the country and to the world that U.S. prisoners of war and missing in action (POW/MIA) still mattered to their fellow servicemen and the country for which they sacrificed their freedom.
Obviously, Manzo’s idea worked. On Memorial Day 1988, 2,500 men and women were participants in the demonstration. Twenty-eight years later, the number of participants has grown significantly. Now approximately 900,000 participants and spectators are involved with this annual demonstration in Washington, DC.
I have been privileged to meet and know some of those participating. My niece and her daughter (aka- my granddaughter) are two of many I’ve been privileged to meet. They think the cause is important. So do I.
All My Best!