NEW YORK – For the 168th time, the New York Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry – the famous "Fighting 69th – will lead the New York City St. Patrick's Day parade.
The 69th Infantry was originally organized as a militia unit for Irish immigrants, and it was asked to lead the 1851 St. Patrick's Day parade out of concerns that anti-Catholic nativists groups would attack the parade participants. Their job was to fight off attackers.
Since then the parade – this year on Saturday – has been the highlight of the year for the Soldiers of the battalion.
"St. Patrick's Day is our way to connect to the past service members from our unit," said Staff Sgt. Edwin Caba, the Battalion Scout Platoon platoon sergeant.
"Knowing that we have marched in this parade for over 160 years means something special," said Caba, a West Haven, Connecticut, resident.
"It means a lot to me personally, because it shows unit pride and strong tradition," said Spec. Kenney Victoria, a member of Headquarters Company from the Bronx. "I've marched in four parades, and it is nice to see the support from our local community."
The 69th Infantry supposedly got the nicknamed "The Fighting 69th" because of a remark made by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee during the Civil War because of their heroics during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1863.
According to the story, Lee was discussing the Union attack with his officer and referred to "that fighting 69th Regiment" when talking about the Union Army units which were attacking the dug-in Confederate forces.
The unit's Soldiers have distinguished themselves in World War I, World War II, and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.
The 30 members of the 42nd Infantry Division "Rainbow" Band will also be part of the parade.
Members of the New York Guard Band will join them. The New York Guard is the state's volunteer, non-federal emergency response force.
The regiment, renamed as the 165th Infantry for federal service in WWI, served in Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne at Château-Thierry, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne.
During World War II, the regiment, still known as the 165th Infantry, invaded Makin Atoll and fought on Saipan and Okinawa.
The battalion fought in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, securing the dangerous road between downtown Baghdad and the Baghdad International Airport which was known as Route Irish.
The battalion deployed a company to Afghanistan in 2008.
The 69th responded to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City and helped in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
The battalion is headquartered at the Lexington Avenue Armory in New York City and has infantry companies at Camp Smith Training Site near Peekskill in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island in Farmingdale.
The 69th Infantry is the subject of the Irish folk song "The Fighting 69th" and of the 1940 war movie "The Fighting 69th" which starred Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien.
Because of the regiment's roots in Irish-American history, St. Patrick's Day is also the 1st Battalion, 69th's "Unit Day," during which the battalion's Soldiers are recognized for their accomplishments.
This year the unit day ceremonies will include a change of command as Lt. Col. Joseph Whaley takes over leadership of the battalion. He is replacing Lt. Col. Don Makay who has led the 800-Soldier unit since 2016.
A host of traditions surround the 69th and the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
• Soldiers placing a sprig of boxwood on their uniform because members of the Irish brigade put boxwood sprigs in their hat bands at the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, to mark their Irish heritage;
• Officers of the 69th carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood imported from Ireland because these sticks are considered the mark of an Irish leader and gentleman;
• Soldiers are accompanied on their parade march by two Irish Wolfhounds, the official mascot of the 69th Infantry. The dogs are representative of the regimental motto, "gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked." Two Irish Wolfhounds are portrayed on the unit regimental crest;
• The battalion commander carries the "Kilmer Crucifix," the religious icon once carried by poet Joyce Kilmer – the author of the poem "Trees" – who was killed in action serving in the 69th in World War I. It is handed down from battalion commander to battalion commander;
• The regiment's officers start the day with a toast of Irish whiskey;
• The regiment attends a special Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral to honor the regiment's fallen and commemorate its Irish-Catholic heritage. The mass is conducted by the archbishop of New York and is attended by the mayor of New York City and the governor of New York along with other dignitaries;
• When the parade is ready to start at 11 a.m., the commander of the 69th Infantry is asked "Is the 69th ready?" and the commander always responds: "The 69th is always ready.";
• The City of New York provides a dedicated subway train to transport the Soldiers back down to Cooper Union for their unit day activities;
• When the Soldiers return from the parade and begin their unit day ceremonies, they are cheered by the battalion's officers who render honors and pay tribute to the enlisted Soldiers and Non-Commissioned Officers as they walk between the ranks of officers.
"Most people that served in the National Guard, regardless of their MOS (military occupational specialty) speak of their time as: 'When I was in the Guard,'" said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Walsh, a platoon sergeant from in the battalion's D Company from Farmingdale, New York.
"There are a small few that when they speak of their time in the Guard, they do not say 'When I was in the Guard' they lift their heads up and say 'When I was in the 69th,'" Walsh added.