Operation Rolling Thunder was the bombing campaign against North Vietnam. From late 1964 to the summer of 1968 we attacked targets from the DMZ to the border with China from bases in Thailand, South Vietnam and carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. We suffered brutal losses operating under restrictive rules of engagement in a flawed policy of gradual escalation that seemed more attuned to domestic politics than serious war fighting. Rolling Thunder is the subject of my first book of combat experiences titled, “When Thunder Rolled.” It created a group of now aging warriors who gather each year as members of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilot’s Association—the River Rats
This year the reunion was in Washington D.C, just across the street from the White House and only a short walk from the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. I hadn’t been to the Wall in six years, and the last time I was there I came away mad at an America that would memorialize veteran’s of most wars with soaring white monuments, glorious in art, sculpture, scope and vista. My memorial was black and buried, almost invisible if you weren’t sure exactly where to find it. You could walk within a hundred yards, unaware of the marble wall with those 58,245 names. A dog-eared directory chained to a pedestal lists them and provides direction to the panel and line where you can find the memory of your friends and comrades. Frankly it wasn’t an honor or a glory to be there. It was depressing.
I got to Washington on Wednesday of last week. On the way in from the airport you could see the first gatherings of the big iron that is Rolling Thunder now. The Thursday paper suggested 150,000 motorcycle riders would be here for the parade on Sunday. By Friday the estimate was well over 200,000 and Saturday it had soared to nearly 300,000. The throaty roar of Harley-Davidson was everywhere. The bikers are older than most that you see in Middle America. These guys tend to be over fifty with gray hair, a lot of wrinkles, a few tattoos and leather vests that are festooned with Vietnam war unit patches, ribbons, medals and slogans. They reek of patriotism, not Pennzoil. They are vets and family members and folks who simply remember what it was to give for your country and your buddies in a war and then be reviled when you came home. They’ve adopted the name Rolling Thunder
for their pilgrimage to the Wall each Memorial Day and they wear it well.
When you walk the Mall in the capital this week-end you see something that isn’t reported very prominently in the main-stream media. There are thousands of families walking somberly, holding the hands of their little children and carefully pointing out the symbols and history of America to a new generation. They are at the Wall and the incredibly beautiful World War II memorial. They are silently looking up at the seated Lincoln, the standing Jefferson, the pancho-clad soldiers arrayed in the Korean War Memorial, the White House with the barriers that we now take for granted in a world of terrorism. There is respect. There is pride. There is a return to faith in the principles that have made America so special in the world’s history.
The Rolling Thunder parade rolled, four-abreast from the Pentagon, across the 14th Street Bridge, down Constitution Avenue to the Capital and then back to the Wall and the Lincoln Memorial. For nearly eight hours, motorcycles rolled down the streets with people waving American flags, wiping a tear occasionally and feeling good about our country again. The final number of bikers estimated in the ride has reached 400,000.
Today, the President has just finished laying the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington. Anyone who can’t feel good about American when you view that ceremony simply isn’t paying attention.
And, at lunch on Sunday afternoon, a small group of fighter pilots and wives visited the Old Ebbitt Grill just around the corner from the hotel. When the meal was over, the waitress quietly thanked us, recognizing the logo on our shirts from the River Rat and Vietnam POW reunion. The restaurant would be honored if we would allow them to pay for all of the drinks with our meals. It’s a long way from the taunts of “baby-killer” from the war resisters that met us when we came back through San Francisco in those days of the war.
Yep, you won’t see too much of it in the major newspapers. But, America is back. We’re proud to be Americans. We are the brightest hope in the world for a better life for all people. We’re big, we’re strong, and we’re loud and pushy. We’re Americans and we’re damned proud of it regardless of what you might have heard.