NEW YORK -- Two months of staff planning and Soldier preparation comes to fruition Saturday 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 for the 162nd time.

At precisely 11 a.m., a Parade Committee member will ask Lt. Col. James Gonyo, the battalion's commander: "Is the 69th ready?" at which Gonyo and his Soldiers will roar back:"The 69th is always ready!"

With that command, the largest St. Patrick's Day event in the world will kick off with New York Army National Guard Soldiers of the 69th Infantry and the 42nd Infantry Division "Rainbow" Band in the lead.

"I don't know if words can ever truly capture the pride and humbling emotions association with leading the regiment during the parade," Gonyo said.

"It's a tradition, like a family reunion," explained Staff Sgt. Jerieme Murrel, an Amityville, N.Y. resident during last year's events. "Every year you go to it."

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.

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 and in , which the 69th served in Europe and the Pacific, respectively, members of the unit's Veterans Corps marched in the parade instead.

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, "Gonyo said.

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.

For the officers of the 69th the day begins at 0530 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.

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 the Mayor of New York City in 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.

"The excitement crowd size continues to build throughout morning and the honor of leading the parade and walking the green line (marking the route) while the Garryowen ( the battalion's official march) is played and people are cheering is an amazing rush," Gonyo said.

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.

In recent years the battalion has hosted a number of military dignitaries. In 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Army General 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 Gen. Frank Grass, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Page last updated Mon March 11th, 2013 at 00:00