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New York National Guard's 'Fighting 69th' leads world's largest St. Patrick's Day parade

By Eric Durr | New York National Guard | March 16, 2016

NEW YORK - The New York National Guard's 1st Battalion 69th Infantry—"The Fighting 69th"—will lead the world's largest St. Patrick's Day Parade for the 165th time on Thursday.

The 69th Infantry, which was originally organized as a militia unit for Irish immigrants to New York, has led the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade every year since 1851. The unit's Soldiers distinguished themselves in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 42nd Infantry Division Band will also participate in the parade along with Maj. Gen. Anthony German, the assistant adjutant general of New York, and other New York National Guard leaders.

"Leading New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade is a tremendous honor for the Soldiers of the 69th Infantry and all members of the New York National Guard who participate in this wonderful tradition," said Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, the adjutant general of New York. "It is a chance to show the people of New York their pride in their service and embrace their roots as an Irish-American regiment."

The 69th Infantry's association with the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade, which was first held in 1762, began when parade organizers feared that anti-Irish and anti-Catholic groups might attack the marchers.

New York City's Irish Catholic population was rapidly increasing, but so-called "Native American" groups opposed the Irish presence and were not above using violence to break up Irish events.

To protect the marchers, a New York State Militia regiment composed mainly of Irishmen, the ancestor of the 69th, volunteered to march at the front of the group to protect the parade.

Since then, there has always been a 69th Regimental presence in the parade. During World Wars I and II, which the 69th served in Europe and the Pacific respectively, and again during Operation Iraqi Freedom, members of the unit's Veterans Corps marched in the parade in place of the serving National Guard Soldiers.

A host of traditions surround the 69th and the St. Patrick's Day Parade.

The members of the 69th place a sprig of boxwood on their uniform as a reminder of the regiment's charge against the Confederate Army's positions on Mayre's Heights during the Battle of Fredericksburg, on Dec. 13, 1862.

To mark their Irish Heritage, the men of the Irish Brigade, including the 69th Regiment, put sprigs of green boxwood in their hatbands that day. 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 the fearlessness of the Soldiers at Fredericksburg that reportedly led to their nickname, coined by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: "the Fighting 69th."

During the parade, 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 26 years, the dogs have been provided by Irish wolfhound breeder Eileen Flanagan.

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 of the Lexington Avenue Armory, 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 and carried in the parade.

At 6:30 a.m., the regiment's honorary bagpiper Joe Brady will lead the Soldiers out of the Lexington Avenue Armory and over to 51st Street for a special Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The Soldiers occupy the southern half of the church as the place of honor. The battalion commander traditionally joins the adjutant general of New York, the governor of New York and mayor of New York City in a front pew for the service and the blessing for the regiment's Soldiers.

Following mass, the battalion marches to 44th Street and 5th Avenue, the official start of the parade.

When the 11 a.m. start time for the parade arrives, a member of the Parade Committee approaches the commander of the battalion and asks him the traditional question: "Is the 69th ready?"

At that point the Soldiers will roar back "The 69th is always ready!" and step off on the parade route north up Fifth Avenue.

At the end of the parade route, the Soldiers take a special subway train south to the station at 28th Street and march back to their armory.

Once at the armory, the unit's officers line the front steps to honor their men as they pass by. The parade is then followed by lunch and an awards ceremony.

On St. Patrick's Day in 2015, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, took part in the 69th unit day events and led the Soldiers in singing the traditional Irish folk song "The Fighting 69th."

The song—which has been recorded by the traditional Irish folk group "The Wolfe Tones", as well as the Celtic punk rock band "Dropkick Murphys" - the story of the 69th Infantry during the Civil War.

The 69th's service in World War I, when it fought as the 165th Infantry Regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division was the subject of the 1940 movie "The Fighting 69th" starring Pat' O'Brien and Jimmy Cagney.

This St. Patrick's Day the 69th will also change commanders during the unit day events.

Lt. Col. Don Makay, a Brooklyn resident with extensive combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Kosovo, will take over the battalion from Lt. Col. Sean Flynn, who has led the unit since January 2014.

Flynn, a Delmar, New York, resident deployed to Iraq as a company commander in the 69th Infantry and wrote a book about the battalion's experience there. He is being reassigned as executive officer of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Syracuse.

Makay, a 1999 graduate of Michigan Tech University, served on active duty with the Army for more than a dozen years, with leadership positions at Fort Campbell, Kentucky in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) with deployments to both Kosovo and Iraq, staff duties with 8th Army headquarters in Korea, the 1st Armored Division in Germany with two more deployments to Iraq in 2005 and again in 2008.

In 2009 he deployed to Afghanistan as the deputy operations officer of the counter IED task force. After assignment to the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, he returned to Iraq in 2010 as deputy team chief for a Stability Transition Team until Operation New Dawn and the withdrawal from Iraq concluded. From there he transferred to Afghanistan to be the deputy director for the 1st Cavalry Division and RC-East Regional Communications Center.

Makay's military training and education includes the Army Ranger Course, Airborne Course, Pathfinder Course, Air Assault Course, Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, Bradley Leader Course, Command and General Staff College, the Joint Domestic Operations Course, and he is currently attending the Advance Operations Course.

His awards and decorations include three Bronze Star Medals, the Defense Meritorious Unit Medal, and two awards of the Meritorious Service Medal the Ranger Tab, Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Infantryman Badge, Pathfinder Badge, Air Assault Badge and Airborne Badge.