“The first time I went, my daughter brought me. And my son-in-law was there, and his friend. That day we had clouds, low clouds like fog. And when I saw those statues — I’d seen it in real life. My knees started to go.”
Frank Harper, a Korean War veteran who served in the Air Force, was talking about the statues at the Korean War Memorial, in Washington, D.C.
“They both grabbed me. They said ‘Sorry dad. Good job. Your job is done.’ That was the first time I got thanked,” Harper said.
Harper, his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, were among the tens of thousands of motorcyclists who lined their bikes in the vast parking lots surrounding the Pentagon May 26 as part of the Memorial Day weekend Rolling Thunder XXVII motorcycle rally. The event is meant to bring attention to prisoners of war and servicemembers who have gone missing in action.
In January 1951, Harper dropped out of high school to join the Air Force and participate in the Korean War. In the Air Force, he flew aboard the C-47 Skytrain, also called a “Gooney Bird,” where he was responsible for reconnaissance photography.
For many, the ride around the National Mall will close with a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (also known as the Wall). And while Harper said he rides for veterans from all wars — he did serve in Korea. And it’s his memory of that conflict that has pushed him to participate each year in the rally.
“I lost buddies,” Harper said.
Since returning from Korea, Harper said he’s seen attitudes about veterans change significantly.
“Now they seem to be treating veterans that are coming back, a lot better than they did me,” he said. “When we came back they treated us like they did the Vietnam veterans. Baby killers. Butchers. All that.”
Today, he said, people sometimes pay for his dinner in a restaurant. And once, he said, when delivering a package at Boston University, he had the opportunity to ride in an elevator with three Korean students who expressed interest in the Korean War veteran hat he was wearing.
“They said ‘when were you there?’ And I said ‘1951-1953.’ And they said ‘thank you for giving us freedom,’” he said.
Keith Sellers is a Vietnam veteran who served as a tail gunner in the U.S. Navy with the Navy Sea Wolves.
“We worked real close with the SEALs, to insert the SEALs in country,” he said. “And we supported riverboats.”
Sellers has made the ride to Washington, D.C., yearly since 2001, from his home in Wilmington, N.C. He rides with the motorcycle club “Nam Knights,” and said his wife has come with him once to the nation’s capital — but ultimately, “it’s a brother thing,” he said.
“The main reason I am here is to support those who gave it all, and those wounded warriors,” he said. “The very main reason is that wall means a whole lot to me. It’s a sacred place.”
“I had several friends who died in Vietnam,” he said. “I had a lady who asked me one time — the first time I went to the wall I was really having a hard time. Did I know anybody on the wall? I said all of them. That’s just the way I feel. They are all brothers.”
Many of the Rolling Thunder participants ended up at the Vietnam Wall, but Sellers said he’s only been able to approach the memorial once — the impact is too hard on him.
“I’ll go to the wall, but stand around the perimeter of it. It’s just really hard,” he said. “It’s just hard for me to do.”
Marine Corps veterans Alex and Omar Teran are both riding this year in the rally. Omar, Alex’s father, now works as a civilian with Headquarters, Department of the Marine Corps, in the Pentagon. He said his wife, not at the ride with the father and son team, retired from the Navy. Alex, just 23 years old, joined up with the Army Reserve after his time in the Marine Corps.
“We have been around the military all our lives,” Omar said. “The military has been pretty much everything I have known as an adult. This is a great way to maintain that connection.”