After 54 years, three United States Marines have returned to Cuba to finish a job that, despite being their duty, none of them truly wanted to do in the first place.
On January 4, 1961, James Tracy, Mike East and Larry Morris walked out of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and in a silent ceremony, in front of the hundreds of Cuban gathered outside in the hopes of obtaining a visa to the U.S., took down the U.S. flag for what they assumed would be the last time in Cuba.
The three former Marines, however, have been called back to Cuba to perform one final task for their nation: to once again raise the flag they thought they’d never see fly over Havana as the U.S. officially reopens its embassy in the Cuban capital on Friday.
"I think about it every night now," East said in a video recorded by the White House. "Seeing that flag go back up."
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All three armed service members have fond memories of their time on the island –as brief as it was – and the Cuban people.
‘I was just there four and half months but I enjoyed the people and Cuba better than any place I’ve ever been," Morris said in the video.
But their task wasn’t so easy five decades ago. While the three could have very easily just taken the flag and walked back inside, they instead decided that it was important for them to fold the flag.
More than 50 years later, this moment still stirs up deep emotions with the three Marines.
"That was a touching moment," East said. "To see Old Glory flying for the last time in Cuba, it just didn’t seem right."
The United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, but President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced in December that they intended to normalize relations between their two countries, former Cold War foes.
At the time it was hoped that could be accomplished by spring, but the process dragged on longer than expected, with several issues requiring more time to resolve than anticipated.
Along with three marines, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be on hand during the ceremony, which marks the highest ranking American government official to visit the island since relations between Washington and Havana soured back in the early 1960s and the first by a secretary of state since 1945. It is also seen as a prelude to a possible visit by Obama before the end of his term.
The flag raising ceremony is expected to be a major event in Havana on Friday, met with all the pomp-and-circumstance that surrounds major state events in either nation.
"We’re doing something that not too many Marines have ever done," Morris told the New York Times. "It’s thrilling."