Travelling Vietnam War monument to stop in Sumter

rcottingham@theitem.comMay 18, 2013 

One of the most iconic constructs of American history is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

And, one of the most iconic sounds in American lore is that of a motorcycle revving its engine.

Next week, the two will meld to form an incredible amalgamation of American ideals and history, and create a vision the likes of which few have seen before, especially locally.

Imagine it: The sun shining down on the traveling Vietnam Wall replica on board a tractor-trailer, crossing over Lake Marion on Interstate 95 as it makes its way to Sumter for Memorial Day weekend, surrounded by law enforcement and escorted by motorcycles. Hundreds of motorcycles.

Vehicles from Sumter Police Department, Sumter County Sheriff's Office, Clarendon County Sheriff's Office, S.C. Highway Patrol and several motorcycle clubs will meet up with the monument convoy at about 1 p.m. Wednesday at the rest area just south of the Lake Marion bridge on I-95.

The procession will then continue on I-95 North until it takes Exit 122 onto U.S. 521, which will bring the convoy into Sumter. Once in town, the motorcade will veer left onto South Guignard Drive, traveling to the West Liberty Street intersection, where it will make a left turn toward Alice Drive, finally stopping at Swan Lake.

Leading the charge is one of Sumter Police Department's own, Sgt. Anthony Rivers. "It definitely is an honor to escort the Traveling Vietnam Wall into Sumter," Rivers said. "It's a big part of history and the showcase item for the Iris Festival."

The wall being brought to Sumter is a city endeavor, but Rivers reached out to make sure things go smoothly.

"I reached out to other agencies," he said. "Clarendon County (Sheriff's Office) is riding with us to the Sumter County line, and Highway Patrolmen will help by regulating traffic."

As for organizing the motorcycles for the event, Tech. Sgt. Caleb Nicholas stepped forward and invited riders from all over.

"I looked into it and asked if anyone had volunteered to do the escort and was told that no one had," Nicholas said. "We always like to be involved in events like this. I invited people from every club in South Carolina."

By "we," Nicholas is speaking of the Green Knights Military Motorcycle Club, Chapter 58, of which he is a member. The Shaw Air Force Base chapter has 10 members, comprised of more than exclusively active duty personnel. Membership for the Green Knights was originally limited to Air Force only but has since expanded to include all branches.

"We have active duty, dependents and civilian contractors who are members," Nicholas said. "Anyone involved with the military can join. There are more than 100 chapters worldwide."

Nicholas said feedback for the escort has been incredible. He feels the escort will be quite the spectacle.

"If I had to guess, I'd say at least 500 bikes are expected to be there," Nicholas said. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was over 1,000, though. I know for sure that we'll be there, along with other chapters and clubs, such as the Warhorse Brotherhood and the Patriot Guard."

Nicholas extends the invitation to the general public, as well.

"Anybody that rides is welcome to join us," he said.

Rivers said law enforcement will also have bikes in the escort.

"We'll have two bikes from Sumter Police Department and one from the (Sumter County) Sheriff's Office, as far as on-duty bikes go," Rivers said. "I expect there will be several off-duty officers riding their personal cruisers, as well."

As for himself, Rivers said he'll stick to four wheels.

"I will be in a car," Rivers said with a chuckle.

Given the controversial nature of the Vietnam War, which took place predominantly in the sometimes inflammatory 1960s, it seems appropriate the monument will be escorted by motorcycle clubs, which have also been a divisive issue.

"There are quite a few stigmas out there about motorcycle clubs," said Nicholas. "Hollywood will do what they can to make things more entertaining, regardless of how factual the story is."

Nicholas, who has been riding for 22 years, said that motorcycle clubs and the military go hand in hand.

"There's a strong connection there, as many of the first motorcycle clubs that formed in the '30s and '40s were started by veterans and active-duty members," he said. "It was a means of fraternity, not the negativity you see in movies and on TV."

Regardless of public opinion, enthusiasm for motorcycles remains strong. From the thunderous rumble of cruisers to the high-pitched roars of street bikes, there's just something about those sounds that your heart can't ignore.

The Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall has been on tour across the country, but its arrival to Sumter will certainly be something special.

"I don't think many around here have ever seen something like this," Nicholas said. "They surely won't forget it."

Reach Rob Cottingham at (803) 774-1225.

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