Marines who took down US flag in Havana raise it again

John Kerry entourage travels to Cuba as countries restore diplomatic relations

The US embassy at the time the US broke diplomatic relations with Cuba Photograph:  Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The US embassy at the time the US broke diplomatic relations with Cuba Photograph: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

 

At about noon on January 4th, 1961, after spending hours feeding mounds of government documents into an incinerator, three marines assigned to the US embassy guard force in Havana turned their attention to a solemn task: lowering the American flag.

As they stepped outside, the marines were greeted by a throng of Cubans who had gathered, many of them clamouring for visas, hoping to get a ticket out before diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana were formally severed.

“We looked at the flagpole, we looked at them, we looked at the flagpole, we looked at them,” James Tracy, one of the marines, recalled. “I guess they got the idea. They cleared the sidewalk.”

Tracy saluted the flag as Larry Morris pulled the halyard. Once down, Mike East grabbed the tips of the flag as his two comrades stepped in to help fold it. The Cubans gave them polite applause as the men headed back into the building.

“Anytime you take down the flag for the last time, it’s symbolic,” said Tracy ( 78).

Since the United States and Cuba became enemies after Fidel Castro’s ascent to power, thousands of Cubans and Americans have left the island with a sense of unfinished business.

Soul-wrenching

The enmity between the two countries outlived many of them. With relations starting to normalise since last year, a growing number have managed to return to reconnect with old friends, explore new possibilities or simply take stock of how Cuba has changed over the decades.

Today, the three marines will fulfil an old dream as they return to Havana with US secretary of state John Kerry, who is travelling there to mark the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. The US government has asked the men to raise the flag once again.

“We’re doing something that not too many marines have ever done,” Morris (75) said. “It’s thrilling.”

Havana was a happy posting for marines in the early 1960s, even as the socialist government of Fidel Castro became more anti-American in its policies and outlook. The night life was thrilling, the women were beautiful and American casino owners often covered any losses the marines incurred.

Though the Castro government started to nationalise American companies soon after taking power in 1959 and condemned American policy in the region, Cubans were never hostile toward the marines.

“The people did not want to see us go,” Tracy said. “We could do things for them; they could do things for us. We loved them.”

The relationship between the governments turned poisonous as Havana grew closer to the Soviet Union and the Eisenhower administration began training a group of exiles to overthrow Castro. When Eisenhower announced that diplomatic ties would be cut, the Cuban government gave the Americans 48 hours to leave.

The evening that was announced, several Cuban women marched to the presidential palace. “Cuba yes, Yankees no!” they chanted, according to an article from that day in the New York Times. “We will win!”

But many Cubans seemed distraught to watch the Americans pack up. “Men and women would come up and say, ‘Don’t leave, don’t leave, we need you,’” Tracy recalled. “Especially if they were trying to get out of the country.”

It was clear to them that diplomatic relations would not be repaired soon. “With the Russians and the Chinese coming in, we knew it would be a while,” East (76) said.

Female militia

Once on the boat, the marines turned on a radio to see how their departure was being portrayed in Cuban news reports. The government had jammed every radio station except one, which was playing the song This Land Is Mine, from the 1960 film Exodus on a loop.

The marines figured they should have a parting gesture of their own. “So we pulled out our Fourth of July sparklers and waved goodbye at them,” Tracy said with a chuckle.

– (New York Times service)

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