Never forgotten: war veteran bikers rally in US for missing comrades

Washington (AFP) - Wearing bandanas, cowboy hats or gleaming helmets, tens of thousands of war veteran bikers roared through Washington on Sunday to honor US soldiers missing in action in foreign wars.

For 30 years their slogan has been the same: "We will never forget."

"It's exhilarating, everybody is so happy to see us," said Keith Gonzales, after finishing his ride that passed supporters who lined the streets and waved flags or other signs of support.

Gonzales, 64, is a Vietnam veteran.

His helmet, jeans, T-shirt, leather vest adorned with colored patches, his energy and an easy laugh, all belie the traumas of that long war which ended in 1975.

"When we came back from Vietnam we didn't get this kind of reaction at all. So it's nice now," he told AFP.

For Doug Torres, 54, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sunday's ride was an overwhelming experience.

"Riding along, I could feel a lump in my throat 'cause Iraq and Afghanistan weren't very popular either," he said.

"To see the American public out there in the street really felt great."

Waving banners in the red, white and blue of America's flag, Shayla Mathei, 43, and Chaz Stamps, 42, clapped and warmly encouraged the riders, many of whom were aboard heavy American-made Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

In a dress, shorts and sneakers -- with no leather in sight -- this pair in their forties had travelled from California for the weekend, and looked nothing like the bikers passing before them.

"We're here to show our patriotism," said Mathei, a speech therapist.

"It's makes me feel proud and it's good to honor people that have served our country."

Stamps is himself a former US Navy sailor.

Honoring the missing as well as soldiers who died under the US flag is the aim of the gathering dubbed "Rolling Thunder," which was also the name of a major operation which the US carried out to bomb North Vietnam during the war.

- 'I needed to come' -

The parade began in 1988 with fewer than 3,000 participants under the motto "We will never forget" to press for an accounting of the Vietnam missing.

It has grown every year since into a rumbling, roaring extravaganza that organizers say attracts more than a million people, including spectators.

The route took riders into the center of official Washington, past the monuments on the National Mall and the austere black marble memorial engraved with the names of the nearly 60,000 US soldiers killed during the Vietnam War.

According to organizers, more than 85,000 US troops remain unaccounted for in wars as far back as World War I.

Most are from World War II, but 1,598 of the missing are from the war in Southeast Asia, a conflict still fresh in the memories of older veterans.

"Still there are families waiting back home here in the United States that have not found out where their dads, their fathers, their brothers -- they don't know where they are," said Jack Richardson, a retired Los Angeles police officer who served two tours in Vietnam in the 1960s.

"They don't know if they're still in Vietnam, they don't know if they're still alive, they don't know if they're dead, they don't know if they're captured," said Richardson, who at 73 crossed the country from California for the 13th time to participate in the annual Memorial Day weekend spectacular.

Mel Goudge, 76, who served in Vietnam from 1965-66, made a similarly long journey, from Washington state, but for him it was the first time.

"The ride was hard on me," he said of the 10-day trip. "But I'm glad I did it."

"It was a pilgrimage. I grew up with a friend who lived across the street and he was shot down in 1968, November 25th, and I needed to come to the wall and touch his name on the wall. It was kind of something I had to do," he said.

Most of the riders avoid talk about politics, but Donald Trump won many over by visiting Rolling Thunder during his 2016 presidential campaign.

The US president tweeted his appreciation ahead of Sunday's parade.

"Fantastic to have 400,000 GREAT MEN & WOMEN of Rolling Thunder in D.C. showing their patriotism. They love our Country, they love our Flag, they stand for our National Anthem!"