NEW YORK – Fifty New York Army National Guard Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment, donned face masks and fell into formation early March 17 to take part in an abbreviated version of New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Since 1851 the 69th, which was formed as a militia regiment for Irish Catholic immigrants, has led the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which is known as the world’s largest.
The coronavirus pandemic put a stop to the traditional parade, which can have 2 million spectators lining Fifth Avenue and as many as 150,000 marchers.
But St Patrick’s Day Parade Inc., the parade sponsors, got permission to do a much smaller version of the parade. The 69th Infantry rounded up a few volunteers to lead the way.
Instead of marching down the middle of Fifth Avenue with 600 Soldiers, a few Soldiers walked the route with Lt. Col. Joseph Whaley, the battalion commander.
The 69th’s participation in the parade is surrounded by a host of traditions.
The leaders carry blackthorn sticks, the mark of an Irish gentleman, which can also come in handy in a brawl.
The Soldiers wear a sprig of boxwood on their uniforms because the Union Soldiers of the Irish Brigade put green sprigs of boxwood on their uniforms before the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.
The marchers are accompanied by a pair of Irish Wolfhounds, the regiment’s mascot, and the leaders start the morning with a toast of Irish whiskey.
Before the start of the parade, a special mass for the 69th Infantry is celebrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The day is a drill day for the battalion and the parade is followed by speeches and awards.
This year, with so few marchers, everybody carried a blackthorn stick and every marcher took part in the morning toast conducted at 6 a.m. by Whaley.
After a year spent focused on the New York National Guard’s coronavirus response mission, it was good to have a day to enjoy a tradition, even if it was smaller, Whaley said.
“Our guys have been in the fight for a little bit over a year doing COVID-19 stuff,” Whaley said. “So to have a little bit of freedom and get back to celebrating the history of the battalion is nice.”
The march to St. Patrick’s Cathedral launched shortly after 6 a.m. as 50 Soldiers and two Irish Wolfhounds fell in behind the regimental colors.
They were accompanied by members of the parade committee and health care workers who were the honored guests at the 2021 St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
“We got the blessing from both the mayor and the governor to have a small contingent of 30 to 50 personnel march to keep the tradition alive,” Whaley said.
“About 80% of our guys here have been vaccinated or have already had COVID, so I think we're pretty safe,” he added.
At St. Patrick’s Cathedral they were met by Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who celebrated the special mass.
Following the service, the Soldiers were dismissed, while Whaley led the battalion's staff up the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue along the parade's traditional route. Joining the battalion's staff were members of the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade committee and essential workers bearing the parade's banner.
Keeping the St. Patrick’s Day tradition alive is important, said Staff Sgt. Andres Diaz, a sniper section leader in the battalion headquarters.
Diaz carried the battalion colors in this year’s parade in recognition of his accomplishments in 2020.
He was the top shot in the annual Logan-Duffy marksmanship contest between the 69th and the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 182nd Infantry; he finished fourth in the National Guard’s annual sniper competition and he graduated from Ranger School.
“This is my 11th year marching in the parade,” Diaz said. “Marching helps show the younger generation the history of the unit and shows the camaraderie we've built.”