In 1973, when the first prisoners of war were freed by North Vietnam and returned to the United States, many veterans believed that the actual number of POWs was much higher. One of those veterans was Walt Sides, a gold medal marksman in Marine Corps competition who served two tours in Vietnam, one as an instructor for the first sniper platoon in Corps history to be trained in a combat zone. After the war, Sides worked with other veterans to push the government to take a more active role in determining the fates of the POWs who didn’t come home and of the troops still listed as missing in action. To draw more attention to the issue, Sides and three other vets—Ray Manzo, John Holland and Ted Sampley—started the Rolling Thunder First Amendment Demonstration Run, which kicked off on Memorial Day 1988 with about 2,500 motorcycles roaring down the streets of the nation’s capital.
Born: Dec. 31, 1939, Mustang, Oklahoma
Residence: Round Hill, Virginia
Military service: Joined Marine Corps, Jan. 26, 1956, at age 16, lying about his age; left in January 1958, attended University of Oklahoma on the GI Bill and played football; returned to the Marines in late 1959; retired Jan. 27, 1977, as a first sergeant.
In Vietnam: January 1966 to March 1967, scout-sniper platoon sergeant, 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division; January 1969 to April 1970, company gunnery sergeant, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.
Today: Co-founder and executive director, Rolling Thunder, Washington, D.C.
The Rolling Thunder run is now in its 29th year. At what point did you know it would become a lasting tradition?
I think about Rolling Thunder VIII we figured out it’s here to stay.
What about the 1995 run made you realize it had staying power?
We were growing so rapidly. We started with 2,500 to 3,000 bikes. By Rolling Thunder VIII, we were over a couple hundred thousand. The fact that the event was in Washington, D.C., made it an attractive thing too.
Rolling Thunder was founded on concerns about the government’s efforts to find POWs and MIAs after the war. Yet many spectators now seem to see it as a flag-waving celebration of patriotism and military service in general. Why is that?
It is because people don’t know any better. We have 1.3 million people there. They’re not all there for the POW issue. They call it a parade. But I don’t think we’ve lost anything. You have to tell them it’s a First Amendment Demonstration Run. We have a booth in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and people still walk up there and ask you what POW means.
How do you see the Vietnam War 50 years later?
In my mind, it was a political football. I really believe that Johnson kind of committed us and committed us and committed us, and one day he walked in and was told, “Mr. President we’ve got half a million people over there.” I think it really came as a shock to him. They just crept in little by little, and then we were in too deep to get out.
Could we have done anything differently to win the war?
We could have won the war if they had turned us loose. But they had a tendency not to do that. We had no-fire zones and return-fire zones and free-fire zones. You couldn’t shoot into a village. The worst thing you could ever do was let all of those reporters in there. War is not made for them. War is a game of survival. You go there and come back, or you go there and don’t come back. It’s pretty simple, but you have a hard time explaining that to people who don’t know what’s going on.
What should we have learned from the Vietnam War?
What we really should have learned is that if we’re not going to win, don’t send us. And if you send us, then keep the politicians out of it. Once you send the troops in, you have to stand behind them and let the military people take over. They know what to do and how to do it.
During the Vietnam War, some government leaders argued that restraints should be put on the military to limit civilian casualties—a debate we’re still having about today’s conflicts.
That’s war. That’s why your politicians should stay out of it. I don’t think anybody goes in there to kill civilians, but when you can’t tell the difference and you get shot at, then you have got to return fire.
What military leaders from that era do you admire?
We had some hard-hitting battalion commanders, such as P.X. Kelley. I was with him at Street Without Joy [an area of northern South Vietnam where the Marines engaged in heavy fighting with the Viet Cong in 1967]. He was a lieutenant colonel and later became commandant of the Marine Corps [1983-87]. General Lewis Walt was a pretty good division commander.
Is there any music from that era that still resonates with you?
Our favorite song over there was “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” [by the Animals]. I also liked Barry Saddler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
Did you see any movies about the Vietnam War that you thought were good?
I’ve never seen one. Not even one. That never interested me at all. I was there in real time. I don’t need your movie edition.
During the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary, Vietnam is interviewing people whose lives are intertwined with the war and asking for their reflections on that era in American history.