NEW YORK - After a two-year COVID-19 hiatus, the New York Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, will once again lead the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade down Fifth Avenue.
“The Fighting 69th,” which was organized in 1849 as an Irish-American militia unit, has led the parade every year since 1851.
Because of fears that anti-immigrant groups would attack the Irish Catholic parade, the 69th was asked to lead parade to fend off attackers.
The parade first took place in 1762 but was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, joined members of the parade committee in marching up Fifth Avenue in the early morning March 17, 2020, to keep the tradition going.
On March 17, 2021, 50 face-masked Soldiers conducted an abbreviated parade once again to maintain the traditions of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Lt. Col. Shawn Tabankin, the commander of the 69th, said this year’s parade will be particularly significant for his Soldiers.
They have been involved in the two-year New York National Guard response to the COVID-19 pandemic and they are preparing to deploy to the Horn of Africa for a security mission.
“It represents a return to normalcy following the COVID-19 pandemic, “Tabankin said. “Many of the Soldiers marching have been on the front lines of the COVID response mission, and this parade will mark the point where we transition from our state mission back to our federal one as we prepare to deploy.”
During an event at the Lexington Avenue home of the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment, parade organizers said this year’s parade will be the biggest ever.
The 2021 parade was supposed to be a salute to those who died when the World Trade Center Towers were attacked Sept. 11, 2001, as well as first responders and essential workers.
This year’s parade celebrations will include that salute following a special mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
New York Army National Guard Soldiers will play taps along with members of the New York police and fire departments in a salute to the 2,763 people who died at the World Trade Center.
The parade will also commemorate the Irish American labor movement and the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Irish government.
The 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, supposedly earned the nickname “Fighting 69th” from Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He is said to have referred to the Irish-American unit as “that fighting 69th regiment” following the battle of Fredericksburg in 1863.
The unit’s Soldiers have distinguished themselves in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and, since 9/11, deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
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.
The 1st Battalion 69th Infantry is the subject of the Irish folk song “The Fighting 69th” and the 1940 movie of the same name starring Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney.
A host of traditions surround the 69th and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. These include:
• Soldiers place a sprig of boxwood on their uniforms because members of the Irish brigade put boxwood springs in their hatbands at the Battle of Fredericksburg Dec. 13, 1862, to mark their Irish heritage;
• Officers of the 69th carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood imported from Ireland because they are considered the mark of an Irish leader and gentleman;
• Soldiers are accompanied on the 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”;
• The battalion commander carries the “Kilmer Crucifix,” the religious icon once worn by poet Joyce Kilmer — the author of the poem “Trees” — who was killed in action serving in the 69th in World War I;
• The regiment’s officers start the day with a toast of Irish whiskey;
• Before the parade, the regiment attends a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to honor the regiments fallen and honor its Irish heritage;
• The city of New York provides a dedicated subway train to transport the Soldiers back down to the East Village 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 noncommissioned officers.
“For us, it is a day where nearly every action taken is a nod to some portion of our long and storied history,” Tabankin said.