It was a few days into January 1961 when three Marines at the U.S. Embassy in Havana were given a sad task: Take down the American flag. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was shutting down the diplomatic compound and pulling Americans out, a response to the downward spiral in U.S. relations with the new government of Fidel Castro.
The non-commissioned officer in charge at the embassy asked for three volunteers — “the biggest, ugliest Marines you can find,” recalled retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Jim Tracy, then a sergeant. He and two others — then-Lance Cpl. Larry C. Morris and then-Cpl. Francis “Mike” East — were sent out to part a crowd of about 300 Cubans and take down Old Glory, Tracy said.
“We didn’t have anybody on the sidewalks at all,” Tracy said in a State Department video released this week. “They knew what we were going to do.”
On Friday, the Marines, now in their 70s, returned to Havana alongside Secretary of State John F. Kerry to take part in a ceremony to raise the flag again. It has been more than 54 years since U.S. relations with Cuba were severed, but the embassy reopened following an agreement reached earlier this year between Havana and Washington.
Kerry said that tensions were high as the Marines took down the flag in 1961. He recalled how they folded the flag surrounded by Cubans before returning to the embassy building.
“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,” the secretary said. “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.”
Kerry called it a “healing mission” to raise the flag in Havana again.
“We are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another as two people who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors, time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well,” Kerry said.
The Marines did not speak during the ceremony. Tracy, the senior-ranking Marine in the group, handed the flag to a current Marine sergeant in a crisp dress blue uniform. The three veterans saluted, and then watched as the flag was raised from the front row of chairs set up nearby.
The veterans were visibly emotional in the video released by the State Department as they described their memories of Cuba and taking the flag down. East, who later retired as a gunnery sergeant, recalled it being uneasy taking the flag down.
“To see Old Glory flying for the last time in Cuba, you know, it didn’t seem right,” he said. “You know, it just seemed like something was wrong, something was missing, you know.”
The men were interviewed earlier this week by The New York Times, and have recalled their experiences in the past. Tracy told the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina in January that the crowd outside the embassy was mainly waiting to get visas, and predicted that he and his fellow Marines who took the flag down would return to Cuba to raise one again.
“We’re going to talk over getting back to Cuba and putting a flag back up together,” he said at the time. “It won’t be the first flag that goes up, but it will be a flag.”
The Marines said in the State Department video that the Cuban people were mostly happy to have Americans around and wanted to interact with them. But there were indications ahead of the embassy’s closure that there were dangers looming.
Morris recalled in an interview for the Marine Corps Embassy Guard Association newsletter a Halloween party in October 1960 in which armed militants held Marines and other embassy personnel hostage for several hours. The gunmen ultimately left the party without harming anyone.
“That incident was an eye-opener for us all,” said Morris, who left the service as a corporal a few years later. “It raised an awareness of the increased tension between U.S. and Cuba. We were even beginning to be followed to and from our duty assignments. It was just no longer business as usual.”