Ray Manzo was born in Germantown, Pa., and with the military draft in place and few good jobs available, he decided to join the military. He was accepted by the U.S. Air Force but would have had to wait six months to be inducted. When the Marine Corps told him he could leave the following Friday, he joined the Corps on July 7, 1967, at the height of the Vietnam conflict. Ray served two years in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star, after declining the Silver Star, and left the military as a Corporal in 1969.
Despite the horrors of Vietnam, Ray maintained a positive outlook, thinking that the experience had helped him to grow up. He liked the camaraderie and physicality of being a combat Marine, so when he returned he immersed himself in physical types of jobs for almost the next 20 years.
He didn't like to dwell on his Vietnam experiences and thought it was all behind him until he went to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington in 1987. There were many POW/MIA activists at The Wall and it was there that Ray first learned that men were knowingly left behind in Southeast Asia. He became consumed with the idea that he had to "make right a terrible wrong" and was participating in a veterans motorcycle club POW/MIA vigil when his idea crystallized: he would organize a massive motorcycle demonstration in Washington, DC, to get the POW/MIA issue national attention.
Ray and fellow veterans Sgt. Major John Holland, and 1st Sgt. Walt Sides worked together and became the "founding fathers" of the Rolling Thunder First Amendment Demonstration Run and “Ride for Freedom”, an annual motorcycle run and gathering that has taken place since 1988. And although they were not involved in the legalities of the formation, Ray credits Bob Schmitt who had a POW family member and Larry Darkow for being instrumental in the early days.
Ray did not anticipate that there would be more than one rally. His idea was for one demonstration; to live by his creed “We leave no man behind”. But he agreed to lead the effort for the next few years, relinquishing his role in 1992. He then returned to New Jersey to quietly live his life working for the Agfa Corporation, making lithograph printing plates.
Since the first Rolling Thunder, the run has grown into the world’s largest single-day motorcycle event, with riders from around the nation, and even around the world, making their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. As Rolling Thunder looks toward its 25th anniversary in May 2012, Ray Manzo will once again return to the run to celebrate and honor the dream he first had 25 years ago.