Two months of staff planning and Soldier preparation comes to fruition
(NEW YORK) —Two months of staff planning and Soldier preparation comes to fruition Saturday, March 16, as 750 members of the New York Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry lead New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade once again.
The Soldiers from the “Fighting 69th” will be joined by the New York Army National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division Band and members of the 198th Army Band of the Army Reserve, as well as senior National Guard leaders and members of the unit’s veterans groups.
The 69th Infantry’s association with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade began in 1851. While there had been earlier St. Patrick’s Day Parades in New York City, that year the Ancient Order of Hibernians organized the parade.
St. Patrick’s Day has become the 1st Battalion 69th’s “Unit Day,” during which Soldiers are recognized for their accomplishments and enjoy a meal and fellowship together.
In recent years, the battalion has hosted a number of military dignitaries during the St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
In 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Army Gen. Martin Dempsey visited the 69th. He was the commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command on his first visit and then Chief of Staff of the Army during his first visit and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff respectively. Several times he led Soldiers in singing the song “The Fighting 69th” which commemorates the regiment’s Civil War service.
This year the unit expects to host General Frank Grass, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A host of traditions surround the 69th and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“Every aspect of the day is steeped in tradition which relates to either the Irish Catholic beginnings of the regiment of the history since then, “said Lt. Col. James Gonyo, the battalion commander.
The members of the 69th place a sprig of boxwood on their uniform as a reminder of the regiment’s charge against Confederate lines at Mayre’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13. To mark their Irish Heritage the men of the Irish Brigade, including the 69th Regiment, put sprigs of boxwood in their hatbands.
The Union attack failed, but the burial details found that the Union troops who made it closest to the enemy fortifications before being killed had sprigs of boxwood in their hats.
It was their ferocity at Fredericksburg that led to their nickname, coined by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, “the Fighting 69th.”
The boxwood sprigs the men place in the Velcro of their Army Combat Uniform pockets today comes from Fredericksburg each year.
The officers of the 69th carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood imported from Ireland. The sticks, much like a British officer’s swagger stick, are considered the mark of an Irish leader and gentleman.
The Soldiers are accompanied on their march by two Irish Wolfhounds, the official mascot of the 69th Infantry. For the last 24 years the dogs have been provided by Irish Wolfhound breeder Eileen Flanagan. The dogs are representative of the regimental motto, “gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.”
For the officers of the 69th the day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a toast of Irish whiskey in the commander’s office, a room lined with 69th relics dating back to the Civil War. The traditions of the boxwood and the blackthorn sticks are explained to the new officers, along with a look at the “Kilmer Crucifix.”
The religious icon was once worn by poet Joyce Kilmer–the author of the poem “Trees”–who died while serving in the 69th in World War I. Today it is handed down from battalion commander to battalion commander.
At 6:30 a.m., the regiment’s honorary bag piper leads the men out of the Lexington Avenue and over to 51st Street for a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Following mass the battalion marches to 44th Street and 5th Avenue, the official start of the parade.
It takes an hour for the Soldiers of the 69th to march up 5th Avenue to the end of the parade route, where a special subway train picks them up and transports them to the 28th Street Subway station.
At that point the battalion’s officers go ahead to line the front steps of the 100-year old armory has the Soldiers, led by their NCOs, march through and into the drill hall for unit day events.