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The Colors of a Navy and Nation

By Annalisa C. Underwood
Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

Flags, standards, and banners have been used for thousands of years as visual symbols of those who bear them. “The broad stripes and bright stars” of the American flag represent an indivisible nation “with liberty and justice for all” and symbolize sacrifices made by many for the sake of the nation and the freedom they hold dear.

For many years, the U.S. Navy has flown the various flags of our growing country and carried on the customs of honoring those flags.


It is widely believed that when the Navy was established on Oct. 13, 1775, ships of the Continental Navy flew a “jack” consisting of alternating red and white stripes, having the image of a rattlesnake stretched across it with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” symbolizing America’s independent spirit and resistance to tyranny. This flag is commonly referred to as the “rattlesnake” jack. While there is no firm historical evidence that this flag was the first Navy jack, it is well documented that the rattlesnake and the motto were used together on several flags during the War of Independence.

The Navy jack eventually evolved into a blue flag containing a white star for each state. Commonly referred to as the “union” jack, it remained the Navy jack until 1976 when the rattlesnake jack made a one-year return in honor of the nation’s bicentennial. In August 1980, the Secretary of the Navy directed that the oldest ship in commission in active status was authorized to display the rattlesnake jack. Then in 2002, the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack for the duration of the Global War on Terrorism. On Feburary 21, 2019, NAVADMIN 039/19 directed the Navy to return to the union jack beginning Tuesday June 4, 2019, marking the anniversary of the Battle of Midway. The change signifies the Navy has entered a new era of competition and highlights our recommittement to the core attributes that made us successful at Midway: integrity, accountability, initiative, and toughness. For more than two hundred and forty years, the Union Jack, flying proudly from jackstaffs aboard U.S. Navy warships, has symbolized these strengths.


On Dec. 3, 1775, Lt. John Paul Jones, having just received his first commission, hoisted the Grand Union Flag, also known as the First Navy Ensign, aboard the warship Alfred. This flag consisted of thirteen alternating red and white stripes with the British Union flag of the time in the canton. It was the first time the American flag was raised over an American naval vessel and marked the beginning of a number of traditions related to the raising of the flag the Navy observes to this day.

As the nation grew, so did the flag. With its 15 white stars and 15 alternating red and white stripes, one of the most notable flags was Ft. McHenry’s “Star-Spangled Banner” which gained fame during the War of 1812. The sight of the flag defiantly flying over the fort after a night of British bombardment inspired lawyer Francis Scott Key to write what eventually became our national anthem.



In today’s Navy, only a few select flags are authorized to be displayed from a ship or craft of the Navy or from a naval station.

The most honored flag in the Navy is, of course, the U.S. national ensign. The national ensign consists of a blue canton with one star for each state and a field with 13 alternating red and white stripes to denote the first states of the nation. Others include the Navy jack, personal flag or pennant, commissioning pennant, and the command pennant.

When not underway, regulation calls for the national ensign and the Navy jack to be displayed from 0800 until sunset from the flagstaff aft and the jackstaff forward. The national ensign shall be displayed during daylight from the gaff of a ship underway when it is falling in with other ships, cruising near land, engaged in battle, or getting underway and coming to anchor. Additionally, the national ensign shall be displayed from 0800 to sunset near the headquarters of every command ashore.

Personal flags or pennants are those that represent senior officials, such as the President of the United States or the Secretary of the Navy, Navy flag officers, or an officer of the Navy commanding a ship. A flag officer or unit commander afloat shall display his or her personal flag or command pennant from his or her flagship. When a senior civilian official makes an official visit to a Navy ship afloat, his or her personal flag shall be displayed from the ship. A flag or general officer ashore shall display his or her personal flag both day and night at a suitable and visible place within his or her command.

The commissioning pennant is the distinguishing mark of a commissioned Navy ship. A commissioning pennant is a long streamer, blue at the hoist, bearing seven white stars. The rest of the pennant consists of single longitudinal stripes of red and white. The pennant is flown at all times as long as a ship is in commissioned status, except when a senior official is embarked and flies his personal flag in its place.

The command pennant is the personal command pennant of an officer of the Navy, not a flag officer, commanding a unit of ships or aircraft. There are two types of command pennants: broad or burgee. The broad command pennant indicates command of a force, group, or squadron of ships of any type or an aircraft wing or carrier air wing. A burgee command pennant indicates command of a division of ships or crafts or a major subdivision of an aircraft wing.

As you can see, flags are not only an indication of the loyalties to which an organization belongs. They are important markers for identifying who is present on a ship or in command at shore.