NEW YORK—When Mike Palo was drafted for the U.S. Army in 1968, at first he considered running away to Canada, like many young men did at the time.
Three months later, he was fighting in Vietnam.
“I did my two years of service, then I got out,” Palo said.
Palo, now 65, tried for years to forget the horrors of war. He bought “muscle cars,” like his Dodge Challenger, and motorcycles.
“For me after being in the war, your adrenaline is pumping a lot. Believe it or not, you miss it when you are gone,” said Palo.
Palo avoided veterans’ organizations for years. He built a career developing computer systems for hospitals, including Maimonides in Brooklyn.
But eventually his love of motorcycles piqued his interest in the Nam Knights (Nam for Vietnam)—until he learned he couldn’t join without a Harley. The Honda Nighthawk he owned at the time wouldn’t cut it.
Rolling Thunder, on the other hand, didn’t require a Harley. He liked its annual run, where thousands of bikers descended on Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day weekend to draw attention to the American prisoners of war who had been left behind in Vietnam. Rolling Thunder estimates their numbers at 10,000 but official estimates are much lower.
Palo became a founding member of the Chapter 1 NY in 1997. He enjoys the camaraderie.
“We are not a motorcycle group, or a motorcycle riding group, or anything else other than veterans. We are veterans that like motorcycles,” Palo said. “We are not the one percent who rob, plunder, and rape.”
Honoring Our Heroes
This weekend, around 80 motorcyclists will take part in the chapter’s eighth annual Honoring Our Heroes Ride. Starting at Caesars Bay Parking Lot in Bensonhurst around 11 a.m., the riders will travel to Long Island National Cemetery, before returning to Brooklyn.
A wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery will be dedicated to one of the youngest American servicemen to die in Iraq, Private First Class Le Ron Wilson from Queens. Wilson died in an explosion in Baghdad in 2007, when he was just 18, and was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. His family will attend the ceremony.
“It’s a solemn thing. It’s something you have to feel in your heart. A lot of the guys come because they like to ride, and a lot of them come because they are like me,” Palo said.
NYPD Highway Patrol will escort the riders to the city limits, near Exit 14 on Southern State Parkway. New York State Police are responsible for the riders after they reach the Parkway on Long Island.
“It’s a very smooth operation,” explains ride organizer Lee Anderson, his accent revealing his Mississippi roots. “The NYPD pulls off, the New York State Police pull on, and we just continue riding.”
Anderson and Palo are both Vietnam veterans, and good friends.
“I always tell Mike I don’t want to ride beside him because nobody is going to be looking at me. He has probably the most finely painted motorcycle in the New York City area,” joked Anderson, who will ride the Harley Davidson that he bought in 2005.
Palo will be riding his 1998 Harley Davidson Road King, painted like the American flag. The bike cost him $20,000 new. He has spent an additional $15,000 on transmission and ignition system upgrades, added chrome work, and a $4,000 paint job.
Military Connection to Bikes
Bill Maloney owns a motorcycle shop in New Hampshire that specializes in motorcycle gear for veterans. Maloney was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam.
The freedom that a motorcycle offers attracts a lot of military men, civilians, and young women, according to Maloney. “Being out on a bike, being in the wind, and the scenery, with an unrestricted view. It’s just exhilarating,” Maloney said.
After World War II, surplus motorcycles were reasonably cheap, and became a popular, low-cost form of transportation, Maloney said. During the war, bikes were used in communications and as a scouting device, by both the allies and the enemy.
Palo has visited schools in Brooklyn for the last eight years to tell the students about his experiences in war and prisoners of war.
“They really love it, they appreciate it, and so do the teachers,” Palo said.
Rolling Thunder recently got a black chair installed at the MCU Park baseball stadium at Coney Island dedicated to prisoners of war (POWs) and soldiers missing in action (MIAs), who can’t be at the game. Met Life Stadium in New Jersey may soon also have its own POW/MIA chair.
The organization also holds coat drives for homeless veterans, raises money for veterans’ organizations, and sponsors Bingo at the Queens and Brooklyn veterans hospitals. It also helps move veterans that were buried at New York’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island to a military cemetery.
Rolling Thunder members don’t strictly have to be veterans, or even own a motorcycle. “You just have to believe in our mission … and pitch in to do some fundraising,” according to Palo.