National Colors:

Ensign, Jack, and Commission Pennant

U.S. Navy ships in commission fly three basic flags identifying their nationality and status:

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National Ensign

National EnsignThe United States national ensign is the national flag that was originally adopted by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, and that took its present 50-star form on July 4, 1960.  Since at least the 1850s, the Navy has used the ensign in the approximate proportions of 10:19.  These proportions were made standard for all U.S. government use on June 24, 1912 by Executive Order of President William Howard Taft.

Display aboard Ships--Not Under Way. When not under way, a ship in commission or in service flies the national ensign from a flagstaff at the stern from 8:00 a.m. until sunset. In addition, a ship that enters a port at night displays its ensign from the gaff at daylight for a sufficient time to establish its nationality.  (Navy Regulations 1259) When a ship fires a salute in honor of President's Day, Independence Day, or the President, it flies an additional ensign at the head of the mainmast, or at the head of the foremast if firing a salute to any other U.S. civil official. (Navy Regulations 1261)  A ship that is dressed or full-dressed for a U.S. holiday or other special event flies its largest available ensign at the flagstaff and an ensign at each masthead at which a personal flag or command pennant is not hoisted.  If it is dressed in honor of a foreign nation, that nation's naval ensign flies at the head of the mainmast.  (Navy Regulations 1279)

Display aboard Ships--Under Way.  The ensign is displayed from the gaff of a ship during daylight hours when getting under way or coming to anchor, when falling in with other ships, when cruising near land, during battle, or whenever else the senior officer present directs. (Navy Regulations 1259.4)

Display in Boats.  The ensign is flown in the stern of a boat when under way in daylight in a foreign port, when ships are dressed or full-dressed, when going alongside a foreign vessel, when an officer or official is embarked on an official occasion, and when a flag or general officer, a unit commander, a commanding officer, or a chief of staff is embarked in uniform in a boat of his command.  In these cases, the staff on which the ensign is mounted is topped with a finial indicating the rank of the senior officer or official in the boat. (Navy Regulations 1262 and 1275)

Display Ashore.  The ensign is displayed from 8:00 a.m. to sunset near the headquarters of every command ashore, or at the headquarters of the senior officer if several headquarters are located close together.  Generally it flies at the top of the flagpole (except when half-masted).  The exception is that it flies at the gaff of any pole-mast  that is equipped with one. (Navy Regulations 1260, NTP 13(B) 0801)

Other Regulations.  The United States national ensign is dipped in salute only in return for such a salute rendered by a vessel registered in the United States or in a country recognized by the United States.  (Navy Regulations 1263).  For rules on half-masting the ensign, see customs on half-masting.

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Union Jack

Union JackThe U.S. union jack consists of the blue canton of the ensign.  Jacks are displayed at the jackstaff, a pole mounted on the bow of the ship, on ships in commission or in service.  They are never flown ashore.  The size of the jack is always the same as the size of the canton of the ensign at the flagstaff.  The jack is displayed only during the hours between 8:00 a.m. and sunset, when the ship is not underway and the ensign is flying on the flagstaff.  If the ensign is half-masted, so is the jack. (Navy Regulations 1259.5 and 1264; NTP 13(B) 0804)

At one time, the jack could be displayed at various locations on the ship as a special signal--at the mainmast to signify that the President of the United States was aboard or at the foremast to call for a pilot, for example.  Only one such usage survives.  The union jack flying at the yardarm of a ship indicates that a general court martial or a court of inquiry is in progress.  (Navy Regulations 1259.6)

Finally, the union jack is displayed at the bow of a boat whenever a U.S. chief of diplomatic mission is officially embarked in the waters of the country to which he or she is accredited, or when a governor general or governor commissioned by the President is embarked within the waters of the territory of which he or she is in charge.  (Navy Regulations 1274).  See also:  Diplomatic officials.

By SECNAVINST 10520.6 of May 31, 2002, the Secretary of the Navy directed that the First Navy Jack be flown at the jackstaff in lieu of the Union Jack for the duration of the global war on terrorism.

First Navy Jack

First Navy JackThe "first Navy Jack" was one of a number of rattlesnake flags popular in the Continental Navy as well as throughout the colonies during the American Revolution.  The symbolism is of a deadly animal that strikes only after giving fair warning.  The rattlesnake is portrayed with 13 rattles symbolizing the 13 colonies.  In 1975, the Secretary of the Navy directed that this jack be flown in lieu of the normal union jack from the Navy's 200th birthday, October 13, 1975, through the end of the bicentennial year of 1976.  The flag was so popular that in 1980 a Secretary of the Navy instruction directed that it continue to be flown in place of the union jack by the ship in regular commission with the longest time of active service.  That is currently the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

More recently, on May 31, 2002, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England directed that "the first Navy jack will be displayed on board all U.S. Navy ships in lieu of the union jack, in accordance with sections 1259 and 1264 of [Navy Regulations]" for the duration of the global war on terrorism. Display of the striped jack throughout the fleet actually began at morning colors on September 11, 2002, first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, in accordance with Chief of Naval Operations message 301329Z Aug 02. Although by specification the First Navy Jack is in the same proportions (about 7:10) as the normal union jack, flags in commercially available proportions including 2:3 and 3:5 were distributed to meet the September 11 deadline.


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Commission Pennant

Commission PennantThe commission pennant is the normal characteristic emblem of a warship.  Also called a commissioning, masthead, long, narrow, or coachwhip pennant, the use of such a mark has long been limited by international custom to public vessels of sovereign states.  England restricted its use exclusively to the King's ships in 1674, and today, for most navies, the narrow pennant serves as the chief "distinctive mark" called for in article 8 of the 1958 Convention on the High Seas to distinguish warships from other vessels.  In the U.S. Navy, the commission pennant is flown day and night at the loftiest point on the aftermost mast, from the moment the ship is put into commission until the moment it is taken out of commission.  The only exception is (a) when it is displaced by the personal flag of an admiral or a senior civilian official, or (b) in the case of hospital ships, which fly the Geneva Convention (Red Cross) flag.  The commission pennant is flown in the bow of a boat to denote the presence of a commanding officer.  If he dies in command, it is flown at half-mast in his ship as well as in the bow of the boat carrying him ashore. Mounted on a staff and draped in black crepe, the commission pennant follows a ship commanding officer's casket in the funeral procession.  Although the commission pennant is not technically a personal pennant of the commanding officer, it is generally used as if it were.  For example, a picture of it adorns his official social stationery and he is normally presented a pennant used by his ship when is relieved from command.  The commission pennant that is hauled down at a warship's decommissioning becomes the property of its last commanding officer.

At one time, masthead pennants were extremely long; the 1854 Tables of Allowances issued by the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repair prescribed pennants measuring up to seven inches by 100 feet for ships of the line and 6.75 inches by 90 feet for frigates.  Originally all U.S. masthead pennants had 13 stars, but, since those flown in boats to signify the presence of a commanding officer were too small for all the stars to be distinguished clearly, a seven-star version was adopted only for boats in 1854.  With changes in the design of warships, the length of the pennant for shipboard display was gradually reduced until 1933, when the maximum size was set at 2 1/2 inches by 6 feet and the number of stars for all pennants was fixed at seven.  The one exception to these specifications is the special case of homeward bound pennants.  The term "commission pennant" was officially adopted in lieu of "masthead pennant" in 1922.

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