In 1987, Corporal Ray Manzo USMC 1967-69, visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and stopped at a booth to talk with fellow veterans. He learned for the first time that American servicemen had been abandoned in Southeast Asia and the end of the Vietnam War. This idea was counter to his Marine Corps training to “Leave No Man Behind” and he became consumed with the idea that he must do something to bring attention to this issue and “make right a terrible wrong.”
Ray attended a POW/MIA vigil sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club when the idea came to him: He would host a motorcycle rally in the nation’s capital to show the country and the world that our Prisoner’s Of War and Missing In Action still mattered to their fellow servicemen and the country for which they sacrificed their freedom.
From that day on things began to happen quickly. He drafted a letter for a call to action (click here to see the original) and began mailing it to Biker publications. He then enlisted fellow veterans from the D.C. area to help him “cut through the red-tape” of requirements set forth by the District of Columbia. Sgt. Major John Holland was very experienced in D.C. legislation and included 1st Sgt. Walt Sides. And SSgt. Ted Sampley, an ever-present activist in D.C. jumped on board as well. These four veterans became the founding fathers of Rolling Thunder.
But it was Ted Sampley’s colleague, Bob Schmitt, who coined the phrase. He was staring at the Memorial Bridge and envisioning Manzo’s dream and simply blurted out, ”It will be like the sound of rolling thunder coming across the bridge” — a sound not unlike the 1965 bombing campaign against North Vietnam named Operation Rolling Thunder.
The four decided there could be no better date than Memorial Day to sponsor this run. Holland, Sides, and Sampley got busy securing permits and meeting with the Mayor’s task force and another D.C. activist, Ted Shpak, perfected the Constitution and By-Laws required for incorporation. Manzo worked on bringing in the bikes. His friend Larry Darkow would be instrumental in “rounding up” the bikers who would come from as far as the West Coast. They came from dusty hollows and bustling cities. Some came alone, others in convoys. Many joined up as they met on the long road to Washington, D.C. And in May of 1988, Ray Manzo’s dream turned into a reality when thousand of bikes poured onto the streets of D.C. for Rolling Thunder I.
Although Ray’s dream was for a one-time demonstration to bring national attention to the POW/MIA issue, Rolling Thunder had struck a chord in the hearts of veterans everywhere and from all walks of life. Veterans who could not attend Rolling Thunder I vowed to return the next year. And so it continued to grow.
Now celebrating their 25th Anniversary, Rolling Thunder has grown into the world’s largest single-day motorcycle event, with riders from around the nation, and even around the world. They achieved their initial mission of greater POW/MIA awareness and continue to support veterans from all wars. POW/MIA numbers from wars following the Vietnam War have greatly diminished and the treatment of returning veterans has greatly improved. This year our government is issuing a proclamation to officially “welcome home” the Vietnam Veterans to compensate them, in some way, for the poor treatment they received when they first returned.
NOTE: Ray Manzo agreed to lead the efforts of Rolling Thunder four more years than he initially envisioned and relinquished his role in 1992. He will return this year to celebrate and honor the dream he had 25 years ago.