A younger generation of war veterans swept into town yesterday, shifting the tone of the city's Memorial Day celebrations from the long-ago heroism of World War II to the still-raw wounds of Vietnam.
Clad in leather, astride gleaming Harleys, they trailed American flags and the black flags that honor U.S. prisoners of war and military members missing in action. With horns blaring and fists raised, they rode into Washington more than 400,000 strong, according to organizers of the 17th annual Rolling Thunder "Ride for Freedom," to pay homage to buddies who never made it home.
On the Mall, long lines of solemn visitors made the pilgrimage to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to find and touch the carved names of those they knew and loved.
"It took a lot to get the courage up to come down here," said Curt Steur, 54, a lanky former Marine from Bucks County, Pa., who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. "To come down here and to see names on a granite wall, when you knew the people behind those names. . . ."
"It's rough," said his teary-eyed buddy, a hulking man in a camouflage jacket who had a wild reddish-white ponytail and gave his name only as Willy.
The Rolling Thunder event, a Memorial Day weekend tradition, dominated the heart of the nation's capital. Large crowds still flocked to the new National World War II Memorial, which was dedicated Saturday. Thousands more assembled last night for a concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra on the Capitol's West Lawn.
But World War II veterans and concertgoers had to pick their way around barricades erected along major thoroughfares for Rolling Thunder's noon parade. And from the time the riders began assembling at the Pentagon at 7 a.m. until their final looping tour of the Mall late yesterday, their engines reverberated through the city, adding a low rumbling tone beneath the cicadas' high, incessant hum.
The riders will be out in force again today for Washington's first Memorial Day parade in more than 60 years. But yesterday's rally was the big event, made even more meaningful for many by an impromptu address by telephone from President Bush.
Bush also met at the White House with the leaders of Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit group dominated by Vietnam-era veterans but dedicated to veterans of all wars. With a special White House escort, the group's president, Artie Muller, and seven other riders were able to steer their bikes straight up to the South Portico, where a smiling Bush greeted them with a big thumbs-up and led them to the Oval Office.
Rolling Thunder, which claims 82 chapters in the United States and abroad, has endorsed Bush over the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), and the Bush campaign turned out to capitalize on that endorsement. Two members of Bush's Cabinet joined the Rolling Thunder parade: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony J. Principi and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson, who showed up for his sixth Rolling Thunder ride decked out in black jeans, a black vest and black sunglasses.
Although Bush never saw combat and Kerry is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, many in the Rolling Thunder crowd demonstrated little affection for their brother-in-arms. As they rolled across the Memorial Bridge, around the Lincoln Memorial and down Constitution Avenue, bikers displayed signs reading "Stop Kerry" and "Vietnam Vets against Kerry."
In a written statement, Kerry's campaign said, "Nobody has worked harder on veterans and POW-MIA issues than John Kerry." The Kerry statement added that Bush is "misleading Rolling Thunder about his commitment to our veterans and military families."
Bob Nowak, 52, a retired Navy man from Aroda, Va., who did two tours in Vietnam, said veterans such as himself despise Kerry for his decision to protest the war in the early 1970s.
Nowak remembers returning from Vietnam in 1973 aboard an aircraft carrier loaded with thousands of sailors in their dress whites. "As we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge, there were people waiting for us. And they threw garbage on us," Nowak recalled. "That was about the time Kerry was throwing his [ribbons] away. It's kind of hard to forget either of them."
Politics aside, Rolling Thunder was, as always, a loud, colorful scene. Motorcycles of all sizes paraded into position at the Pentagon starting before 7 a.m. Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes blared, and a whiff of cigar smoke and engine exhaust hung in the air.
Many wore black T-shirts -- the "preferred, traditional color," said Don Schaible, 57, a retired police officer from Port Charlotte, Fla. -- as well as leather chaps, bandanas and vests covered in patches and pins. Some also wear earplugs, Gary M. Scheffmeyer, Rolling Thunder's national vice president, said amid the deafening roar of revving engines. But "most of us," he joked, "are just hard of hearing."
Bob and Jean Fernandes stood beside their candy-apple-red Honda Gold Wing trike motorcycle, taking in what they called the "overwhelming" scene. The couple -- both 72 and dressed in black leather vests and jeans -- drove up to 450 miles a day for 21/2 days from Tampa for their third Rolling Thunder ride.
"It's very emotional, very emotional," said Jean Fernandes, smiling. "When you're riding, the bystanders are blowing kisses and saying, 'We love you.' . . . They're throwing flowers and crying and we're crying."
Riding through Washington, Schaible said he feels welcomed in a way he never was when he returned from service in Vietnam.
"Every hair on your body stands up," he said. "As long as I'm alive, I'll be here."
Staff writer Ylan Q. Mui contributed to this report.