By John Clarke
WASHINGTON, May 24 (Reuters) - One week after a gathering of biker gangs in Texas that resulted in nine deaths and 170 arrests, thousands of motorcycle riders roared into the nation's capital Sunday to honor military veterans, prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
Rolling Thunder, an annual event that has been bringing motorcyclists and spectators to the National Mall in downtown Washington since 1988, started the "Ride for Freedom" at the Pentagon in Virginia, crossed the Potomac River over the Memorial Bridge and circled the Mall.
Organizers estimated that more than a million bikers and spectators attended, making it the largest one-day motorcycle gathering in the world, Rolling Thunder spokeswoman Nancy Regg said.
There were no reported criminal incidents at the event, Regg said.
"They're not here to party and get drunk," she said of Rolling Thunder, named after a 1965 bombing campaign against North Vietnam. "No fights. No attitudes."
Bikers and veterans could be found scattered throughout the National Mall. Many gathered at the Vietnam and Korean War memorials. Some relaxed in the shade and drank beer.
A stage below the Lincoln Memorial hosted speakers and musicians, including former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, singer Nancy Sinatra and actor Robert Patrick.
"I thank you for your service and I thank you for my freedom," Patrick told the crowd. "Each and everyone of you are the real deal."
Throughout the day, at the edge of the stage, a scrawny, bearded man in tattered fatigues sat locked in a bamboo cage holding a sign reading "Never Forget."
Sunday's ride was part of a weekend of events that included a "blessing of the bikes" outside the National Cathedral and a day-long barbecue hosted by motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson.
There were several other biker events across the country planned for the Memorial Day weekend. Rallies were held in New Mexico, Mississippi, Missouri and South Carolina with heightened security, according to media reports.
Last Sunday, 170 people were arrested in connection with the shootout among rival bikers that left nine dead and 18 wounded and turned a Waco, Texas restaurant into a blood-soaked crime scene. (Reporting by John Clarke in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Eric Walsh)