Jim Tracy, Mike East and Larry C. Morris received a standing ovation at the seaside diplomatic mission as they handed a folded flag to three active Marines, who raised it to a brass band rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Secretary of State John Kerry lauded the men for their composure during a tense moment, in 1961, when they emerged from the building to find a large crowd between them and the flagpole.
"No one felt safe. But the Marines had a mission to accomplish. And slowly, the crowd just parted in front of them as they made their way to the flagpole, lowered Old Glory, folded it and returned to the building," Kerry said.
He added that the Marines vowed back then they would return to raise the flag, although nobody could have imagined how many years would pass.
"This is your cue to deliver on words that would make any diplomat proud," Kerry said, "just as they would any member of the United States Marine Corps: Promise made, promise kept. Thank you."
In comments published on a U.S. State Department blog post, East recalled the moment when Washington and Havana broke off diplomatic relations at the height of Cold War tensions.
"It was a touching moment," East said. "To see Old Glory flying for the last time in Cuba, it was .... just didn't seem right."
Morris said he had been stationed on the island for just four and a half months, but he "enjoyed the people and Cuba better than any place I've ever been."