U.S. Navy Flag Usage and Ceremonies

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Morning and Evening Colors

Following the 1797 mutinies in the British fleet at Spithead, Admiral Lord St. Vincent established the practice in the Royal Navy of raising and lowering the colors--the ensign and jack--at a formal ceremony with the band and guard of the day paraded. The practice was taken up by the U.S. Navy from an early date and first codified in the 1843 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Navy. At first, the time of morning colors was based on the time of sunset; if the sun set before 6:00 p.m., morning colors took place at 8:00 a.m., otherwise at 9:00 a.m. This conformed to the contemporary British practice. The modern practice of making morning colors at 8:00 a.m. regardless of season and latitude was set by regulation in 1870.

The current regulatory provisions on morning and evening colors are in Article 1206 of Navy Regulations. They provide for the observance of the ceremony on all ships that are not under way and at all shore stations of the Navy and Marine Corps. Although few ships or shore stations have bands or buglers nowadays, the ceremonies are still conducted with as much formality as local resources will permit. At a minimum, the word is passed over the ship's loudspeaker system, the "1MC." The following is the sequence of events.

Morning Colors

1. At 7:55 a.m., the word is passed "First call, first call to colors," and the yellow and green "PREP" pennant is hoisted at the outboard signal halyard on the port yardarm. If a bugler is available, he sounds "First Call" instead. The guard of the day and the band, if available, form near the point of hoist of the ensign.
2. Immediately before 8:00 a.m., "Attention" is sounded on the bugle or one blast is blown on a police whistle and "PREP" is hauled down. All persons in uniform within sight or hearing face the ensign and, if not in formation, render the hand salute. Boats in the vicinity lie to, or proceed at the slowest possible speed, and the boat officer or coxswain stands and salutes.
3. At exactly 8:00, the ensign is hoisted smartly to the top of the ensign staff, all ships in the same port doing so simultaneously with the ship of the senior officer present afloat. If music is available, the band or recording plays the National Anthem, or the bugler sounds "To the Colors," with the ensign starting up the staff on the first note of the music. In the case of a ship, the union jack is hoisted simultaneously to the top of the jack staff at the bow.
4. At the end of the music (or if there is no music, once the ensign reaches the truck of the flagstaff), the bugle call "Carry On" is sounded, or three blasts are given on the police whistle, or the word is passed, "Carry on," at which time salutes are terminated and the ceremony is over.

Evening Colors

1. Approximately five minutes before sunset as calculated by the quartermaster of the watch, the word is passed, "First call, first call to colors." If a bugler is available, he sounds "First Call" instead. The guard of the day and the band, if available, form near the point of hoist of the ensign.
2. Immediately before sunset, "Attention" is sounded on the bugle or one blast is blown on a police whistle. All persons in uniform within sight or hearing face the ensign and, if not in formation, render the hand salute. Boats in the vicinity lie to, or proceed at the slowest possible speed, and the boat officer or coxswain stands and salutes.
3. The order "Execute" is then given and the ensign is lowered slowly. If music is available, the band or recording plays the National Anthem, or the bugler sounds "Retreat," with the ensign starting down the staff on the first note of the music and timed to reach the bottom at the last note of the music. In the case of a ship, the union jack is lowered simultaneously with the ensign.
4. When the ensign is completely lowered, the bugle call "Carry On" is sounded, or three blasts are given on the police whistle, or the word is passed, "Carry on," at which time salutes are terminated and the ceremony is over.

At ceremonial observances of evening colors ashore, when a band is present, "Retreat" may be sounded before the lowering of the flag, with the flag then lowered to the playing of the National Anthem. In this case, the salute is rendered only during the playing of the anthem and lowering of the ensign, not during the playing of "Retreat."
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Shifting Colors

When a ship is anchored or moored between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and sunset, it flies its ensign at the flagstaff and the union jack at the jackstaff. When it is under way, the ensign is flown at the gaff (the diagonal spar projecting aft from the mast) and the jack is not flown at all. The process of changing from one display to the other is known as shifting colors.

As the ship prepares to get under way, sailors are positioned at the bow, fantail, and bottom of the halyards running to the gaff and the signal yards. The "steaming" ensign is attached--or "bent on"--to its halyard in preparation for hoisting. The ship's call sign and any other prescribed signal flags are run up, packed to be "broken" at the right moment. At the instant that the last mooring line leaves the pier or buoy, or the moment that the anchor is aweigh, the boatswain's mate of the watch blows a long blast on his whistle and passes the word, "Underway--shift colors." Immediately and simultaneously:

A ship mooring or coming to anchor goes through the same process in reverse, with the boatswain's mate giving the word "Moored--shift colors" when the first mooring line is made fast or the anchor is let go. In either case, the desired effect is one set of flags vanishing and another flashing out at precisely the same time. Ships take pride in achieving this effect, while, as the Bluejacket's Manual puts it, "A ship that does not shift colors smartly will soon have a reputation she does not want."
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Ensign When Rendering Honors

In addition to the normal display of the national ensign at the gaff (when under way) or at the flagstaff (when not under way), an additional ensign is flown at a masthead aboard a ship that is firing a salute. The U.S. national ensign is flown at the head of the mainmast when the salute is being fired in honor of a U.S. national anniversary (Presidents Day or Independence Day). It is also flown at the mainmast if the salute is being fired in honor of the President or a former President, and at the foremast for salutes to other American officials. The exception in the case of salutes to the President and other officials is that the ensign is not flown at the masthead by a ship that is itself flying the personal flag of the official being saluted. For example, if the President arrives aboard the USS Constellation, the Constellation breaks (unfurls) the Presidential flag at the head of the mainmast and begins firing a 21-gun salute. Other ships present are required to salute the President's flag when it appears, during which they would fly the ensign at the main.

When the salute is in honor of another country or another country's official, the ensign of that country is flown at the appropriate masthead. This would include a ship firing a salute:

If the salute being fired is of 21-guns--the national salute upon arrival or in honor of an anniversary, etc., or to the head of state or member of a reigning royal family--then the ensign is flown at the head of the mainmast. Otherwise it is flown at the fore. The ensign used is normally the foreign warship ensign, which is often of a different design than the more familiar national flag used ashore. Shore commands firing salutes in honor of foreign officials or anniversaries fly the foreign ensign or flag at the point where the commander's personal flag is normally displayed, his personal flag being temporarily shifted to another point of hoist. See also Foreign Flags on U.S. Navy Ships.

Note: As a practical matter, the distinction between flying the flag at the mainmast or foremast has now largely been lost, as almost all classes of ship in the modern Navy have only a single mast. However, there remain a few two-masted ships in which the distinction continues to be observed.

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Mourning, Funeral, and Memorial Customs

Half-Masting the Ensign and Jack

According to W. G. Perrin's British Flags, the custom of flying a flag at half-mast as a sign of mourning was already established by at least 1612, when it is recorded that the British ship Heart's Ease lowered her ensign to "hang over the poop" after her captain was killed while exploring for the Northwest Passage in what is now Canada. The practice was embodied in Royal Navy regulations by the last half of the 17th century. It seems most probable that half-masting comes from an even older practice of giving a ship a slovenly appearance as a sign of bereavement. L. P. Lovette's classic Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage, first published in 1934, explains that, at one time, ships in mourning would droop their sails, slacken the rigging, leave rope ends trailing, and "cockbill" their yards, that is, arrange them askew at varying angles rather than having them neatly squared in seamanlike fashion. Royal Navy ships are known to have cockbilled their yards as recently as 1908. While there are many other explanations of the significance of half-masting, some of them quite poetic (for instance, that lowering the ensign leaves space for "the invisible flag of death"), these seem to be without any historic basis. For a further discussion of the history of half-masting flags, see David Prothero's short essay on the subject (as well as other contributions) on the page entitled "Flags at Half-Mast" at the Flags of the World website, from which I have drawn heavily.

When a flag is to be flown at half-mast, it is first hoisted briskly to the top of the pole (truck or peak aboard ship) then lowered just as briskly to the half-mast position. If the flag is half-masted at morning colors, the lowering takes place at the last note of "To the Colors" or the National Anthem. In naval use, the exact position of half-mast traditionally depends on the configuration of the mast or pole on which the flag is being flown. On a simple pole, half-mast has traditionally been considered to be one-quarter of the pole length below the top, although Department of Defense Directive 1005.6 now defines it for all the services as halfway. On the pole with crosstrees that is most commonly used at naval installations, a flag at half mast has its lower edge level with the crosstrees. An ensign displayed on a pole equipped with a gaff is flown from the gaff, with halfmast being halfway from the ground to the peak of the gaff. When a flag at half-mast is lowered, it is first returned to the truck or peak for a moment before being hauled down. When this is done in the context of evening colors, the raising of the flag to the truck is done before the signal for the salute or the sounding of "Retreat" or the National Anthem. Outside the United States, the flag is half-masted when ordered by the President even if the flag of another country is being flown at full-mast on an adjacent pole.

Ships not under way fly the union jack at half mast whenever the ensign is at half mast. The masthead ensigns used to dress or full-dress a ship are not half-masted.

Several laws and directives govern when the U.S. naval services fly the ensign at half-mast.

Half-Masting While Passing Mount Vernon. Ships of the Navy and Coast Guard rarely visit Washington, D.C., any more, but when they do, they carry out a time-honored ceremony as they pass the tomb of George Washington, first President of the United States, at Mount Vernon, Virginia, some 15 miles downriver from the capital. In full form, the ceremony stipulated by article 1281 of Navy Regulations calls for parading the full guard and band, tolling the bell, and lowering the national ensign to half-mast. When the ship is directly opposite Washington's tomb, the guard presents arms, everyone on deck faces the tomb and salutes, and the bugler sounds "Taps." At the last note of "Taps," the ensign is closed up to the peak, the tolling of the bell ceases, and the band plays the National Anthem. "Carry on" is then sounded.

The first recorded instance of a ship of the Navy paying such a tribute was in May 1801, less than a year and a half after Washington's death, when the USS Congress lowered her sails, half-masted her ensign, and fired a 13-gun mourning salute as it passed the tomb. When President Theodore Roosevelt observed his Presidential yacht, the Mayflower, rendering similar honors in 1906, he ordered that the ceremony be officially mandated. This resulted in the issuance of General Order 22 of June 2, 1906, the original source of the provision in the modern Navy Regulations. The requirement for the National Anthem was added in 1913.

Of course, if few ships come as far up the Potomac as Mount Vernon, fewer still do so with a bugler and band aboard. Nevertheless, the honors are paid to the extent practicable. Typically, as the ship approaches Mount Vernon, all crew members not on watch are mustered topside, forming on the side facing the Virginia shore, and "Attention" is sounded. As the ship comes opposite the tomb, the signal for "hand salute" is given. The ensign is half-masted and the ship's bell is struck eight times at five-second intervals. After the eighth ring, the ensign is closed up to the peak. Two blasts are sounded on a whistle to end the salute and then three blasts to signal "carry on." In recent years it has also become customary for civilian vessels equipped with bells to toll them when entering the Mount Vernon approach channel.

Further information on this ceremony and its history can be found at the website of the Naval History Center.

Note on terminology: The United States Flag Code (Title 4, U.S. Code, Sec. 7) as well as Department of Defense, Army, and Air Force directives use the term "half-staff" rather than "half-mast." "Half-mast," however, is of much longer established usage in both American and British English, and it is the term officially used by the sea services.

Draping the National Ensign with Crepe

It is the custom in many countries to attach black crepe streamers to the staff of a flag that cannot be lowered to half-mast, such as an indoor or parade flag. In the United States armed forces, the national flag is draped only when directed by the President. (The naval services do drape personal flags and pennants carried during funerals.) When the President directs, a black streamer about one and a half times the length of the fly of the flag is tied in a bow knot around the base of the battle-ax at the top of the staff. The streamer is arranged so that the end are of equal length and the bow has loops about six inches across. The width of the streamer is proportional to the size of the flag but not more than 12 inches.

National Ensign at Funerals

A deceased member or veteran of the uniformed services, or a public official entitled to a military or naval funeral, is entitled to have his or her casket covered by the national ensign. Originally, the Navy used the union jack for this purpose, but in response to a campaign by Captain William F. Halsey, father of the famous World War II admiral, the use of the ensign was adopted in the early 20th century. A 5 x 9.5 foot ensign is draped over the casket with the blue union over the deceased's left shoulder, the side of the heart. At one time, an officer's cocked hat or uniform cap and sword were placed on top of the flag, but the modern custom is that nothing is ever placed on the American flag. This includes floral tributes of any kind. Before the casket is lowered into the grave, the flag is removed, ceremonially folded, and presented to the next of kin.

In addition, deceased service members of the rank of master chief petty officer of the Navy and above are entitled to a color party carrying the national and Navy flags in the funeral procession.

For further discussion of the procedures used for naval funerals, including display of personal flags, see Mourning and Funerals.

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Dressing Ship and Holiday Colors

To "dress" or "full-dress" a ship is to hoist a display of flags in celebration of a festive occasion such as a national holiday. A ship is "dressed" by hoisting the largest available national ensign from the flagstaff at the stern, a union jack of corresponding size at the bow, plus an additional ensign at each masthead. *. The exact sizes of the ensigns used depends on the length of the ship. The holiday ensign at the stern is normally 8.95 by 17 feet for the largest ships (over 450 feet), with the masthead ensigns one size smaller, or 5 by 9.50 feet. Ships are dressed (or full-dressed) only during the normal hours for displaying the ensign and jack in port, 8:00 a.m. to sunset. Fleet commanders, senior officers present, or other competent authorities may direct the display of dress-ship lights, also known as Mediterranean or friendship lights, as the nighttime equivalent. These are strings of lights running from the jackstaff to the masthead(s) and down to the flagstaff.

To "full-dress" a ship, in addition to the large ensign at the stern, the jack, and an additional ensign at each masthead, a "rainbow" of signal flags and pennants arrayed from stem to stern, strung from the base of the jackstaff over the masts and then down to the base of the flagstaff. Ships that have no masts or an unsual mast configuration do the best they can to approximate the same effect. In the days of sail, a ship full-dressed by hanging every bit of bunting in its flag locker between the bowsprit and the mastheads, and down the shrouds and signal halyards (see the Sea Flags banner at the top of this page). This display usually included foreign ensigns, jacks, and admirals flags--everything the ship had on board. Nowadays, only signal flags are used, and the sequence in which they are displayed is precisely prescribed by directive--in the case of the U.S. Navy by NTP-13(B), Flags, Pennants and Customs. This guarantees a uniform appearance and ensures that no offensive or inappropriate messages are inadvertently (or mischievously) embedded in the display.

When a ship is dressed or full-dressed for a U.S. celebration, the ensigns at the mastheads are the Stars and Stripes. When it is dressed or full-dressed in honor of a foreign celebration, such as when a U.S. warship is present in a foreign port on a major foreign holiday, the foreign country's naval ensign is flown at the head of the mainmast. (See also Foreign Flags on U.S. Navy Ships.)

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard do not dress or full-dress ship while under way, although some other navies, including the Royal Navy, do so on particularly special occasions.

On the same days that ships dress or full-dress, shore installations fly larger than usual ensigns, normally the next larger size than those flown on a daily basis. The exact size depends on the height of the flagpole. Holiday-size colors of 20 by 38 feet are used by installations with flagpoles of 55 feet or more (65 feet in the Marine Corps).

Days for Dressing Ship and Flying Holiday Colors

January 1 New Year's Day
January 20 Inauguration Day (every fourth year)
3rd Monday in Jan Martin Luther King, Jr., Birthday
3rd Monday in Feb President's Day (Full-Dress)
(Variable) Easter Sunday
April 6 Army Day
2nd Sunday in May Mothers Day
3rd Saturday in May Armed Forces Day 
May 22 National Maritime Day
Last Monday in May Memorial Day 
June 14 Flag Day
July 4 Independence Day (Full-Dress)
1st Monday in Sept Labor Day
September 17 Constitution Day
3rd Friday in Sept National POW-MIA Day
2nd Monday in Oct Columbus Day 
October 13 Navy Birthday (Full-Dress when ordered) 
October 27 Navy Day 
November 10 Marine Corps Birthday (Marine Corps only)
November 11 Veterans Day
4th Thursday in Nov Thanksgiving Day
December 25 Christmas Day

In addition to the days listed above, ships and installations fly holiday size colors on Sundays and on the anniversary of the admission to the Union of the state in which they are located, or on foreign holidays when in foreign waters or on foreign territory.

*If the President is aboard, his flag remains at the mainmast in lieu of the national ensign. If any other personal flag or pennant would ordinarily be flying at the mainmast, it is shifted to the foremast in lieu of the ensign that would be hoisted there or, if there is no foremast, to the starboard yardarm.

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Dipping the Ensign

Historically, various countries have attempted to claim sovereignty over portions of the high seas and required that foreign ships passing through those seas salute the ships and forts of the coastal states by lowering their flags, taking in their sails, and so on. Over the centuries, such claims came to be rejected and the requirements for paying tribute to the coastal state were dropped. Perhaps the only vestige remaining is the custom by which a merchant ship passing near a warship of any country dips its ensign in salute. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels are entitled to this salute and dip their ensigns in return, the only case in which the U.S. flag is dipped in salute.

The procedure followed is that, as it approaches the warship, the merchant ship lowers its ensign to approximately a half-mast position and holds it there. The warship responds by lowering its own ensign at the moment the two ships reach their nearest point of approach, holding it there for an instant, then returning it to the peak of the gaff (under way) or truck of the flagstaff (not under way). The merchant ship then returns its own ensign to the peak or truck. When a warship receives a salute while it is not flying its ensign, such as in port before 8:00 a.m. or after sunset, or when steaming in peacetime out of sight of land, it hoists an ensign for the purpose of returning the salute, then lowers it again after the salute is concluded. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard return salutes only from vessels flying the U.S. flag or the flag of a nation formally recognized by the Government of the United States. Warships never initiate such a salute, nor do they dip to each other. Ships of the Military Sealift Command, however, do follow the merchant marine custom in dipping to men-of-war, and also answer salutes rendered to them by merchant ships. By Navy Regulations, submarines and or ships in which doing so would be hazardous for the crew are not required to dip the ensign.

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Homeward Bound Pennant

From at least the early 19th century, it has been the custom of ships returning from a long overseas deployment to fly an extra long commission pennant made up of whatever bunting could be assembled. In the Royal Navy, this is known as the "paying off pendant" because a ship used to be taken out of commission and its crew "paid off" at the end of each cruise. In the United States Navy, it is called the homeward bound pennant. Although not officially sanctioned by regulations, the Navy has issued guidelines for the use of this pennant in NTP-13(B), Flags, Pennants and Customs.

The display of the homeward bound pennant is limited to ships that have been outside the United States continuously for 270 or more days. It is made up by the crew and flown in place of the normal commission pennant from the time the ship gets under way to proceed to a United States port until sunset on the day of arrival in the United States. The pennant is 200 times longer than its width at the hoist. Like the commission pennant, the homeward bound pennant consists of white stars on a blue field at the hoist, and is divided red over white at the fly. It has one star for the ship's first nine months continuously outside the United States, plus another star for each additional six months. The length of the pennant is one foot for each member of the crew who has been on duty outside the United States for nine months or more, not to exceed the length of the ship itself. Once the ship arrives home, the pennant is divided among the crew, with the captain getting the blue portion and the rest of the crew sharing the red and white portion equally.

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Copyright 2000, 2001 by Joseph McMillan