Some 2,000 motorcycles formed a procession almost 5 miles long Sunday morning and rumbled through Berks County in a show of remembrance and solidarity.
The annual Ride for Freedom honors prisoners of war and those missing in action, especially three Berks County men who have been missing since the Vietnam War.
They are Lt. Col. Ralph H. Angstadt of Oley Township; Capt. David E. Pannabecker of Womelsdorf; and Col. Thomas W. Dugan of Reading. All served in the Air Force.
The ride passed through each man's hometown, starting at the Reading Motorcycle Club in Oley and then stopping in Womelsdorf to gather more participants before ending at City Park in Reading.
In Womelsdorf, a sea of motorcyclists flooded the borough, spilling from one street into another in an infusion of patriotism and leather.
Organizers said the borough has embraced their annual event, which coincides with a fundraiser for the Womelsdorf Volunteer Fire Company.
From Womelsdorf, riders poured onto Route 422, passing through Robesonia, Wernersville, Sinking Spring and West Reading before flowing over the Penn Street Bridge and into the city.
Hundreds of people - children, parents, grandparents - gathered along the route to watch the procession and show their support. Many were dressed in patriotic colors, waving flags, cheering and smiling.
One spectator held a sign that said simply: "Thank you for caring."
During the ceremony in City Park following the ride, Diane L. Simmons, ride coordinator and secretary of the POW/MIA Forget Me Nots in Berks County, told the story of Pannabecker, who grew up in Womelsdorf, graduated from Conrad Weiser High School and Albright College, and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
The ride this year was held in his honor, commemorating 45 years since he went missing when his helicopter crashed into the Cambodian jungle.
Two partially deployed parachutes found near the crash site raised questions about whether some on the had aircraft survived, Simmons said.
Bernie Bingham, director of the POW/MIA Forget Me Nots and past president of the Reading Motorcycle Club, said honoring all Vietnam veterans helps them recover from fighting an unpopular war.
"They were just doing a job, but you have to understand what the atmosphere was like during Vietnam," he said. "Finally now they're getting some of the recognition, gratitude and thanks that they deserve."
Bingham joined the Army at age 17 and returned home to Berks County three years later, which, he said "was pretty much my growing up." Then he discovered motorcycles and never looked back.
"The community of people absolutely is supportive and caring," he said. "I never met a bad person on a motorcycle, no matter where you are in the country."
The Ride for Freedom started with fewer than 200 people. Now, 24 years later, it has grown to more than 2,000.
"Next August we'll be here again," Bingham told ride participants. "One day we will account for our MIAs. We need to, just so the families can have some kind of relief.
"When you sit down at the table to eat your supper and there's an empty spot and you have no idea where he's at and what he did or is doing, that breaks your heart, man. That breaks your heart in half."
Family members of the three missing Berks County veterans attended the ceremony, during which organizers read the names of 91 service members from across Pennsylvania who have remained missing since the Vietnam War.
Participants unfolded a large POW flag and held tight to the sides while white doves were released as "Amazing Grace" was played.