When three Marines were called upon to lower the flag outside the American embassy in Havana 54 years ago, they did their duty. They and the crowd who gathered on that January 4, 1961, day, were somber — unsure of when, or if, they would ever see the stars and stripes fly outside the embassy again.
But on Friday, those same three Marines were called back to the newly reopened American embassy in Cuba to watch as the American flag was raised again to mark restored diplomatic relations between the two countries.
"It was beautiful going up today. I’ve never seen a better flag," said Larry Morris who, with Mike East and Jim Tracy, was tasked with taking the flag down in 1961 after President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that Cuba and the U.S. had severed diplomatic ties.
Hundreds of people who had come to the embassy to get last-minute visas watched the Marines lower the flag that day, but the significant act lacked ceremony. The three men took down the flag, completed some other duties, and were on a boat sailing away from Cuba within hours.
Five decades later, Friday's flag raising was gushing with pomp and circumstance.
Secretary of State John Kerry — the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the island since World War II — presided over the ceremony, and those in the crowd enthusiastically waved their own American flags.
"Larry, Mike and Jim had done their jobs, but they also made a bold promise — that one day they would return to Havana and raise the flag again," Kerry said.
Morris, recalling that promise, said he didn’t expect to return to Cuba soon after the flag was lowered, but added, "we didn't think it was going to go 54 years.”
Tracy said he has often thought about seeing the flag again flying high above the American embassy in Cuba.
“I've been dreaming for 20 years,” he said. "We thought the governments would work a little bit better with each other," he added.
President Barack Obama announced in December that the U.S. would end an "outdated approach" of economically and diplomatically isolating Cuba.
The U.S. removed Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in May, and Cuban officials inaugurated their embassy in Washington in July.
Cuba and the U.S. still face hurdles and ideological disputes, which Kerry acknowledged Friday. But the raising of the American flag in Havana serves as an important step toward normalized relations between the two countries.
And Morris, East and Tracy were proud to be a part of this particular phase.
"To me it was an honor to be there on this side putting the flag back up," East said.