“Semper Fidelis” — Always Faithful — is the motto of the United States Marine Corps and this day, in the sunshine as the Stars and Stripes were raised on the mast, this was the moment that three Veteran Marine Corps personnel took their cue from the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to honor their nation.
But they were also honoring the nation of Cuba, all these years on. After the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was time to put the past into history.
Cuba, not that far from the Florida Launchpad of Apollo 11 that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969, was again seeing the national flag of the Land of the Free once again flying in the Havana sunshine. It was the healing of the wounds of over half a century, bringing peace to a country, a neighbor of the United States, just 90 miles off the shores of Florida.
It was January 4, 1961, that U.S. Marines Jim Tracy, Mike East and Larry C. Morris, who were assigned to U.S. Embassy Havana, faced a hostile crowd doing their duty — but the protestors parted to let them lower the American flag for the last time.
Now they were fulfilling their promise that they would once again be back to honor the United States of America again, to restore diplomatic relations between the two neighbors.
The drum roll, incessant, and unrelenting, brought Cubans and Americans together. Moments earlier they had all just witnessed the playing of the Island’s National Anthem. And the diplomats from Switzerland, the neutral custodian of international relations during Fidel Castro’s presidency, were also there to see Secretary of State John Kerry reopen the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
The drum roll of the US Marine Corps is world-renowned. Even at such international gatherings as the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, visited by many thousands of Americans each year in Scotland. But today International diplomacy and Protocol took on a new meaning.
The economy of Cuba is now growing — bringing new hope for every citizen, and for new trading opportunities. This was the day to push away old barriers and to explore new possibilities for the future.
The handshakes of greetings done and the medals presented to the three Veterans Marine Corps Personnel, Secretary of State Kerry addressed the gathering. “My friends, we are gathered here today because our leaders — President Obama and President Castro — made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that we should or will forget the past; how could we, after all? At least for my generation, the images are indelible.”
He told the gathering: “In 1961, the Bay of Pigs tragedy unfolded with President Kennedy accepting responsibility. And in October 1962, the missile crisis arose — 13 days that pushed us to the very threshold of nuclear war. I was a student then, and I can still remember the taut faces of our leaders, the grim map showing the movement of opposing ships, the approaching deadline, and that peculiar word –—quarantine. We were unsettled and uncertain about the future because we didn’t know when closing our eyes at night what we would find when we woke up”.
Secretary of State Kerry said in that frozen environment, diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana were strained, then stretched thin, then severed, and in late 1960, the U.S. ambassador left Havana and by January Cuba demanded a big cut in the size of the diplomatic mission. President Dwight Eisenhower then decided he had no choice but to shut the embassy down.
Although most of the U.S. staff departed quickly, a few stayed behind to hand the keys over to their Swiss colleagues, who were to serve diligently and honorably as a protecting power for more than 50 years.
Among those remaining at the embassy were three Marine guards, Larry Morris, Mike East, and Jim Tracy. As they stepped outside, they were confronted by a large crowd standing between them and the flagpole. Tensions were high. No one felt safe. But the Marines had a mission to accomplish. And slowly, the crowd just parted in front of them as they made their way to the flagpole, lowered Old Glory, folded it, and returned to the building.
Larry, Mike, and Jim had done their jobs, but they also made a bold promise that one day they would return to Havana and raise the flag again.
A prelude to the playing of the Stars and Stripes, Secretary Kerry said: “It is with that healing mission in mind that I turn now to Larry Morris, Jim Tracy, and Mike East. Fifty-four years ago, you gentlemen promised to return to Havana and hoist the flag over the United States Embassy that you lowered on that January day long ago. Today, I invite you on behalf of President Obama and the American people to fulfill that pledge by presenting the Stars and Stripes to be raised by members of our current military detachment.
“Larry, Jim, and Mike, this is your cue to deliver on words that would make any diplomat proud, just as they would any member of the United States Marine Corps: Promise made, promise kept. Thank you”.
(All photos via YouTube)
International news correspondent Graham Bardgett has reported for the BBC in London and Belfast and for UK national newspapers, the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sunday Express, and Financial Times, becoming a Veteran reporter of the Northern Ireland Conflict and Peace Process. He reported the Enniskillen Poppy Day Remembrance Day bombing and other atrocities, as well as the good news stories that came out of Northern Ireland. He later worked in the British Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, working for the Second Sea Lord, the Lord Chancellor, and the Commander in Chief FLEET.