CRIPPLE CREEK, COLO., AUG. 16-18–As 3,500 riders staged for the 26th annual POW/MIA Recognition Ride to Cripple Creek and the 21st Salute To American Veterans Rally, waiting to launch the 38-mile ride to Cripple Creek, the excitement in the air was palpable.
There has always been a feeling of anticipation, and to a degree, spirituality, waiting for the ride to start. This annual pilgrimage to what has become the healing home for United States veterans and their supporters has come to represent something a little different for everyone who attends. Some keep feelings private, others do not, but nearly everyone participating recognizes Cripple Creek and the stretch of Colorado Highway 67 leading there as something akin to hallowed ground.
Even so, this year was different. It was a feeling of celebration; it was that kind of excitement, and riders couldn’t wait to get started. As bikes roared onto U.S. Highway 24 to start the ride, the pack was tight and nearly perfect in formation. When the ride rolled into the town of Divide and turned south on Highway 67, there it was; the reason for the excitement. Standing alone against an azure-blue Colorado sky was the sign that made everything official. The green Colorado Department of Transportation sign, erected only a few days earlier, proudly announced that these motorcyclists were on the newly-named POW/MIA Memorial Highway. And bikers that were on the 26th annual ride leading to this naming were the first to ride on the officially-named roadway. That was reason enough, and a good one, to be excited.
The ride snaked its way along the curvy mountain road, stretching out to become a miles-long parade of polished, thundering steel. Well-wishers, area residents and patriotic spectators filled the few wide spots in the road to wave and shout out support. Then, almost too soon, the ride dipped down Tenderfoot Hill and rumbled into Cripple Creek.
The crowd meeting them had that same feeling of excitement; the hoots, hollers and cheers were enthusiastic—as if welcoming heroes. The town was in celebration mode as this year’s rally was already something a little more special… special on many levels.
“This was one of the best years for the rally,” said organizer Jim Wear of Pro Promotions. “The city says there were between 25,000 and 30,000 people in town for the weekend, and like always, pretty much everyone who came was into the spirit of the event. It was a great atmosphere to be around again. Being able to ride on the POW/MIA Memorial Highway for the first time was a pretty big deal. Definitely a highlight of the weekend.”
Once the bikes were all parked, a crowd gathered in City Park for the much-anticipated Remembrance Ceremony at noon, surrounded by mountains and an endless stream of the stars and stripes, including the monster flag hanging over the Bennett Avenue courtesy of the Cripple Creek Fire Department. Of course, there were motorcycles parked in every nook and cranny around the park and throughout town.
Once the dignitaries were introduced and the colors presented, the ceremony began with the dedication of a plaque honoring World War II Medal of Honor recipient PFC Floyd Lindstrom. Lindstrom, a Colorado Springs resident, was recognized for his actions under fire in Italy with the 3rd Infantry division. He turned down a trip to Washington to be awarded the medal in order to stay with his unit for the upcoming landing at Anzio, Italy. There, he was listed MIA before having been found to be KIA. He is buried in Colorado Springs.
“The rally isn’t a typical motorcycle rally,” Wear explained. “It has always been about recognizing the men and women who defend this country so we can go out and have party rallies. So honoring a Medal of Honor recipient is part of our program. People who come here get that and expect that.”
After a few more short addresses to the crowd, it was time to officially dedicate the POW/MIA Highway. On hand to cut the ribbon were three ex-POWs, Ed Beck and John Pederson (World War II) and Les Stroup (Korea).
“I can’t think of a better way to dedicate a highway honoring and remembering American POWs and MIA soldiers than having three former prisoners of war do the ribbon cutting,” said Wear. “These are the guys we do this for. I feel honored those three heroes were able to join us and have the privilege of dedicating the highway. While it was never our goal in holding the ride and rally, Highway 67 is now the POW/MIA Memorial Highway because we held a ride 26 years ago, and people kept coming back year after year and making it their own. Sure, we feel a sense of pride about it, but so should everyone who ever made the ride over the years. Most of the credit belongs with Ed Wearing and the American Legion, which got this through the legislature.
“The ride and rally is about recognizing and remembering the men and women who sacrificed for us. Long after this rally is gone, and we’re all dead and gone, this highway will still be the POW/MIA Memorial Highway, and the sign will still have Newt Heisley’s art on it. People will remember what these heroes did. It’s really a highlight of the rally this year.”
Another highlight was the appearance of a privately-owned British Hawker Sea Fury in the sky above the rally. As the World War II-era Navy fighter made several passes overhead, the activities continued in the park. The plane’s appearance was to be the only aerial display this year. In fact, there was very little official military presence, and even less equipment on display due to the government sequester, according to Wear.
Without knowing it, though, the rally had perhaps the biggest and best highlight waiting to wrap up the ceremony. Former Cripple Creek resident, 94-year-old Lowell Freeman, was brought to the front of the stage. Then, a recommendation for the Congressional Medal of Honor dated September 20, 1944, for his actions in Italy in World War II was read aloud. Freeman braved withering enemy fire, rescued two wounded comrades, snatched vital maps from the hands of a German officer and lived to tell the tale. His actions were credited with paving the way for the 5th Army to advance north out of what had been a bitter, slow battle. Freeman was not awarded the Medal of Honor, but was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and a chest-full of additional medals.
Command Sergeant Major Doug Maddi, CSM of the Third Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, stepped forward. The highly-decorated Army Ranger addressed the crowd and said, “It’s men like this who made me want to join the Army. This man and his actions are why I became a Ranger.” Back in the day, Rangers wore no special insignia; they were just Rangers. CSM Maddi changed that for Freeman. He presented the World War II hero with a framed plaque and engraved knife commemorating his actions and service. He then went a step further. CSM Maddi “pinned” Freeman, meaning he pinned a Ranger tab on his shoulder. Earning that Ranger tab is the highlight of a Ranger’s career, and the tab is highly valued. Then Maddi pinned the crest of the 75th Ranger Battalion on Freeman’s lapel. The 75th Rangers are America’s Special Forces Ranger Battalion. As this happened, a pin could have been heard dropping in the grass, as everyone there realized they were witnessing something very special. What Maddi did for Freeman, who had no idea it was going to take place, moved the World War II veteran to tears. He wasn’t alone; there were tears in the audience. There were faces filled with pride, too. This was, in fact, the highlight of the rally.
“Pinning that Ranger tab on Lowell Freeman is the highlight of my military career,” Maddi said. “I grew up hearing stories about guys like him, and that’s what made me want to become a Ranger. I don’t know that I’ll ever top this honor, and the feeling I have being able to do it. That man is a hero, and I’m honored to have met him and pin a Ranger tab on his shoulder.”
As the ceremony wrapped up, the regular business of the rally took hold. The streets of the mountain burg were lined with bikes, and the main drag—Bennett Avenue—was filled virtually wall to wall with people milling about. Vendors were busy, other people stopped to chat with old friends and, of course, casinos saw a serious uptick in traffic through their doors. It was the busiest weekend of the year in Cripple Creek.
“The numbers were about where we expected them to be,” Wear said. “It was about the same as last year. Everything went smoothly; almost too smoothly. We kept waiting for some kind of problem, but it never came.”
Saturday night saw the party aspect kick into high gear. After a short break from the afternoon events, the Saturday street dance gave everyone who stayed in town the opportunity to cut loose on a fine mountain evening and stretch the party into the night.
Quietly, while rally events, parties, ceremonies and flyovers took place, the Traveling Vietnam War Memorial stood vigil at Cripple Creek High School. The Wall was available 24 hours a day to anyone who wanted to visit. Visitors walked the wall, sought out names, said quiet prayers and cried. The Wall still stirs deep emotions, and has a punching impact on all who see it. Because of it, a football field, normally loud, raucous and joyful, was turned into a quiet, respectful open-air cathedral for a few days.
And while that respect was omnipresent, there was the celebration. It makes the rally unlike any other motorcycle event, or veterans’ event for that matter.
“I’ve been to events like this all over the world,” said Army Colonel Mike Kasales, “and I have never been to another event like Cripple Creek. Having missed last year’s rally due to a deployment to Afghanistan, it was great to be back this year. With great weather, outstanding activities and events, awesome music and surrounded by tens of thousands of riders and veterans, you could not ask for a better way to spend your weekend. Whether a veteran or not, you could not help being moved by this honorable and patriotic event—one that every American must experience! It was good to be back in Cripple Creek.”
Yes, Colonel, it was.