More than 300 motorcyclists gathered outside the National Museum of the Marine Corps early Sunday morning ahead of what organizers said would be the last Rolling Thunder to descend upon the nation’s capital in a loud show of support for U.S. veterans and to call attention to those who never came home.

The number was almost twice the 150 to 175 riders who usually stage outside Triangle museum ahead of the big ride, which has happened annually on Memorial Day weekend for the past 31 years.

Rolling Thunder 2019 Marine Corps Museum bikes

About 300 motorcycles and their riders staged at the National Marine Corps Museum outside Quantico at about 6 a.m. Sunday, May 25, ahead of what could be the last Rolling Thunder ride into Washington, D.C.

Bill Watson, a retired Marine who helped direct the action, said it was the largest turnout since local riding groups began gathering in the museum parking lot several years ago for a pre-event ceremony and police escort up Interstate 95 to the Pentagon.

Watson and others attributed the turnout to the announcement, made last December, that 2019 would be Rolling Thunder’s last year. Reasons cited for ending the annual ride include the rising cost and logistical challenges of organizing it.

Many said they don’t believe it.

“We’ll see,” said Dennis Hellberg, when asked how he felt about Rolling Thunder’s demise. Hellberg is president of the Band of Brothers, a riding club comprised mostly of retired and former U.S. Marines who organized the day’s events.

“There’s too many people who understand the value and the heart-felt motivation necessary to do this,” he continued. “The reality of this is, it’s a national effort and it has a lot of support.”

Hellberg, himself a former U.S. Marine, said organizers and individual members of motorcycle clubs plan months in advance for each Rolling Thunder ride. Some at the museum Sunday morning had travelled from as far away as North Carolina, Florida and Illinois to join them on the ride to the Pentagon, the main staging area for the event.

Most years, about 200,000 motorcycles travel into Washington to circle the National Mall and Capitol building before arriving at the Vietnam Memorial in a roaring spectacle that more than lives up to its name.

Rolling Thunder 2019 getting ready to leave

About 300 motorcyclists prepare to leave from the National Museum of the Marine Corps at about 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 26. They were escorted on their trip to the Pentagon by federal police officers with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

As many as 1 million riders were expected to take part in Sunday’s event, according to early predictions.

“It’s our honor to ride in the memory of those who have fallen,” said Jack Hill, of Strength and Honor, a motorcycle club oriented around law-enforcement officers, fire fighters and first-responders. “This is done in the memory of people that have sometimes been forgotten. This is our moral duty.”

Bill Snyder, who serves in the Navy and rides with Strength and Honor, called the ride “inspiring.”

“So many people come out to support this cause,” Snyder said. “Sometimes you watch the news and think people don’t care, but they do.”

“I’m not concerned it’s going to be the last one,” said Bryant Halstead, of Fredericksburg, a former Marine who now works for the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office.

Rolling Thunder 2019 group photo

Members of several area cycling groups -- including Band of Brothers, Strength and Honor, the Grim Reapers and the Borinqueneers -- took a group photo outside the National Museum of the Marine Corps before embarking for the Pentagon for the final Rolling Thunder ride into Washington, D.C.

“It’s been advertised as such, but I hope with the outpouring of folks, they might figure out some way to keep it going.”

Andrea Watson said she and her husband, Bill, were not riding this year but had been Rolling Thunder regulars for years.

“Vietnam was my war. Those were my friends who went over there and we need to know where they all are,” she said. “And we need to remember how badly they were treated when they all came back.”

Watson said “it’s kind of sad” the national Rolling Thunder ride is ending. But she said she agrees that organizing multiple rides around the country, as is planned, could do more to further the event’s overall goal, which is to raise awareness of veterans’ issues and to work toward a full accounting of every servicemember still listed as missing in action.

Before the group set out on their trek up I-95 north about 7:30 a.m. Sunday, Hellberg gathered the riders for a short ceremony.

A group of Young Marines presented the colors. They all said the pledge, sang the national anthem and bowed their heads in prayer.

Then, Hellberg offered a short pep talk of sorts to those concerned the ride would be their last.

“We’re hoping this isn’t the last year. We’re hoping the presence is big enough, and we hope that the future of Rolling Thunder, whatever it is, won’t be lost,” he said.

Finally, the riders sang the Band of Brothers’ theme song: Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon.”

Rolling Thunder 2019 Band of Brothers singing

Members of the "Band of Brothers" motorcycle club gathered for a short ceremony Sunday, May 26, outside the National Museum of the Marine Corps for what has been billed as the last Rolling Thunder ride on Washington, D.C. The group said the pledge, sang the national anthem, bowed their heads in prayer and then sang their club song, "Goodnight Saigon," before leaving for the Pentagon, the main staging area for Rolling Thunder.

That’s when the Band of Brothers linked shoulder-to-shoulder with Strength and Honor, the Grim Reapers, the Lone Wolves, the Borinqueneers and the Unleashed Beasts, swaying in unison as they sang of “six weeks on Parris Island” and how they’d “all go down together.”

Rolling Thunder 2019 peace sign and flag

Someone holds an American flag and the peace sign aloft as motorcyclists stream from the National Museum of the Marine Corps at about 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 26, for what has been called the last Rolling Thunder ride on Washington, D.C.

“All right,” Hellberg called at the song’s end. “Let’s ride.”

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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(2) comments

zcxnissan

Rolling Thunder will never end.

Faye

WOW! What a, 'sight', to see. Thanks to all who participated, for this event, today, in the past, and, in the future. And, Yes, Vietnam, was, my war time. All our brothers and sisters, wherever that, may be, regardless, of what war, or conflict, they were in, must be brought home. Thanks to all our veterans, and all, who serve, to protect, all people, every where.

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