Unofficial Ship Flags

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From the early days of the United States Navy, ship captains have regularly flown a number of flags aboard their ships other than those appearing in the official signal books.  Here are a few of them, ranging from the slogan flags hoisted in battle during the War of 1812 to the ship flags flown today on special occasions.

War of 1812

Free Trade and Sailors' Rights

Free Trade and Sailors RightsThis long swallowtailed flag bearing the slogan embodying what the United States considered the causes of the War of 1812 did not have the most distinguished of records as a battle flag.  It flew most famously at the head of the mainmast of Captain James Lawrence's USS Chesapeake during her disastrous encounter with HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813.  The following year, Commodore David Porter hoisted it aboard the USS Essex in his March 28, 1814, engagement with HMS Phoebe and HMS Cherub off the coast of Chile, in which both Essex and her consort, Essex Junior, were captured.  Apparently, however, it was also flown at times by the USS Constitution, although not in any of her most renowned battles.

Don't Give Up the Ship

Don't Give Up the ShipThis flag, one of the most historic in the annals of the United States Navy, was commissioned by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and flown in his flagship, the USS Lawrence, during the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813.  The slogan "Don't give up the ship" came from the last words of the vessel's namesake, Captain James Lawrence, as he lay mortally wounded on the deck of the USS Chesapeake three months earlier.  In what was certainly the most famous shifting of flags ever carried out in U.S. naval history, Perry took this battle flag along with his commodore's broad pennant from the sinking Lawrence and hoisted them in the USS Niagara before going on to capture the entire British squadron on the lake, HMS Detroit, HMS Charlotte, and four smaller vessels mounting a total of 63 guns to Perry's 54. This flag is now in the possession of the United States Naval Academy.  The image above was made from a photograph of the original.

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Early 20th Century Battleships

The naval expansion of the early 20th century coincided with the period in which most state flags were adopted.  This was no coincidence.  The centerpiece of the naval expansion was the construction of a number of "all-big-gun" battleships based on the example of the British HMS Dreadnought. As American battleships were named for the states of the Union, an obvious way for the public to express its support of a strong Navy was for the people of the namesake state to "adopt" their battleship by presenting her crew with a variety of gifts upon the ship's commissioning.  These included such mementos as elaborate sets of silver for the wardroom, but also state flags to be flown on special occasions.  In several cases, the creation of these flags was directly related to the desire to present them to the ships.  The association of state flags with American battleships survived right up to the end of the battleship era; on her voyage to her final berth at Camden, New Jersey, in August 2000, the USS New Jersey proudly flew the New Jersey state flag below the national ensign.

USS Utah (BB-31)

UtahThe USS Utah was laid down and launched in 1909 and commissioned on August 31, 1911.  The following year, the Sons and Daughters of Utah Pioneers ordered a custom made copy of the newly adopted state flag to be presented to the battleship.  When it arrived, the group discovered that the manufacturer had made the coat of arms on the flag in full color instead of white, as the official specifications required, and had added a gold ring around the shield.  Rather than have the flag remade, the legislature in 1913 changed the law to match the battleship's flag, which was duly presented.

USS Arkansas (BB-33)

ArkansasIn early 1912, the Pine Bluff chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution decided to present a "stand of colors," consisting of the United States flag, naval infantry battalion flag, and Arkansas state flag to the newly constructed battleship USS Arkansas.  Informed by the state secretary of state that there was no official state flag, the DAR sponsored a contest for designs.  A committee chose the design shown, which was approved by the legislature as the Arkansas state flag on February 26, 1913.  The Pine Bluff DAR then carried out its original intention and presented a flag to the officers and men of the ship.  (The design of the state flag was subsequently changed to add a blue star representing the state's membership in the Confederacy.)

USS Nevada (BB-36)

NevadaAlthough Nevada already had a state flag approved by the legislature in 1905, a new design was designed and made by Clara Crisler in 1915 based on the state seal.  With the approval of the governor, Miss Crisler's flag was presented in 1916 to the new battleship USS Nevada.  Because of the high cost of producing the complicated design, this flag (while official) was flown only aboard the ship, in the governor's office, and on ceremonial occasions, and was replaced by a new design in 1929.  Clara Crisler's original flag is now in the Nevada state museum.

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World War II Submarine Battle Flags

During the early days of World War II, it became customary for submarines returning from successful patrols to mount a broom atop the conning tower (or sail) to indicate a "clean sweep" of enemy shipping.  (This is an interesting echo of the Dutch Admiral Marten Tromp's practice of hoisting a broom on his mast as a claim that he would sweep the seas of English shipping in the 17th century.)  By 1944, submariners were attaching pennants to the brooms with marks to indicate the numbers and types of enemy ships they claimed to have destroyed:  the rising sun flag to signify a Japanese warship, the plain sun disk flag for a merchant vessel.  As the war went on, crews added the unofficial ship patch, usually a reference to the name of the boat, and other symbols for shore targets attacked, Allied pilots rescued, and citations and decorations received, until one could read the record of the boat in its often very elaborate battle flag.  Here are a few of many examples; those marked with an asterisk are from photographs of flags provided by James Ferrigan.

USS Sculpin (SS-191)*

SculpinThe USS Sculpin was commissioned on January 16, 1939, and soon took part in one of the epics of submarine history, the rescue later that spring of the crew of Sculpin's stricken sister ship, the USS Squalus (SS-192). Two and a half years later, Sculpin began one of the first war patrols of World War II, getting under way on December 8, 1941.  On her ninth patrol, in December 1943, Sculpin was serving as flagship for Captain John P. Cromwell's "submarine coordinated attack group" or wolfpack.  After being severely damaged by depth charges, her commanding officer, Commander Fred Connaway, took her to the surface to fight it out in an attempt to escape.  When she was clearly too badly damaged to get away, and with Commander Connaway dead, Cromwell ordered her scuttled to avoid capture.  Forty-two members of the crew were rescued and captured by the Japanese, but 20 of those were lost shortly after when the Japanese escort carrier Chuyo was sunk by the USS Sailfish--ironically the former Squalus, raised and renamed following her 1939 accident.  Captain Cromwell was not among those captured; he had elected to go down with the ship, along with 11 other volunteers, rather than risking the compromise of extremely sensitive information under Japanese torture.  For this deed, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

USS Growler (SS-215)*

The USS Growler's flag is a classic of the early period of this art form, with the simple Jolly Roger motif in the hoist and the depiction of the boat's war record--white silhouettes representing sinkings by torpedo or by gunfire--in the fly.  From her commissioning on March 20, 1942, until the end of the war, Growler completed eleven patrols, winning eight battle stars.  Her greatest moment came on February 7, 1943, when, under heavy fire on the surface, she rammed a Japanese gunboat in a last ditch effort to keep it from ramming her.  Her commanding officer, Commander Howard W. Gilmore, then ordered the bridge cleared, remaining topside himself until the rest of the watch had gone below.  Before he could follow them, however, Gilmore was mortally wounded by the intense fire from the Japanese force.  Too badly hurt to crawl to the hatch, Gilmore then gave his final order, "Take her down," sacrificing his own life to save his ship and earning the Medal of Honor.

USS Barb (SS-220)*

BarbAmong the unique emblems on the battle flag of the USS Barb is the silhouette (bottom center) of a train labeled "Karafuto Exp," commemorating a train destroyed by a landing party of Barb sailors that was the only U.S. force to set foot on the Japanese home islands before the end of the war.  Other points of special interest on Barb's battle flag include the German merchant ensign (to the left and above the ship's emblem), placed on the flag by mistake after the submarine sank a Spanish merchant ship off Cape Finisterre on December 29, 1942, believing it to be an enemy vessel.  The small Japanese merchant flags below the boat's name, each with a black "7" superimposed, each represent seven small Japanese craft destroyed.  The large rising sun ensign above the emblem represents the escort carrier Unyo.  The flag also bears emblems representing gun and rocket attacks against various Japanese targets; Barb was the first submarine to fire rockets against the shore.  Finally, and most notably, the flag bears the light blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor awarded the boat's captain, Commander (later Rear Admiral) Eugene Fluckey, awarded along with the Presidential Unit Citation for a daring attack on a 30-ship convoy during the eleventh of Barb's twelve war patrols.

USS Flying Fish (SS-229)

Flying FishThe USS Flying Fish carried out 12 war patrols and sank 58,306 tons of Japanese shipping between her commissioning three days after Pearl Harbor and the end of World War II.  After a fine record in the Pacific, she ended the war as flagship of Submarine Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet and subsequently became the first U.S. submarine to complete 5,000 dives.  The flag of Flying Fish is unusual in not portraying the fish for which the submarine was named.  Instead, one has to figure out that the wings on the "f" in "fish" make it fly.  The original is housed in the Navy Memorial Museum in Washington.  Contrary to the image on the Navy Historical Center's website, the actual flag is of the colors shown here.

USS Flasher (SS-249)*

FlasherThe USS Flasher was credited with the greatest total of enemy shipping sunk--100,321 tons--of any American submarine in World War II.  Flasher was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for the third, fourth, and fifth of her six war patrols, signified by the six white stars in an arc in the upper area of the badge.

USS Harder (SS-257)*

HarderThe USS Harder was commissioned on December 2, 1942, and was on her sixth war patrol when she was sunk with the loss of all hands on August 24, 1944.  Her fifth patrol is considered by some to have been "the most brilliant of the war," as Harder singlehandedly sank at least three Japanese destroyers in the space of two days, driving off Admiral Ozawa's Mobile Fleet from its planned operating area, and making a major contribution to the U.S. victory in the Battle of the Phillipine Sea.  Harder received the Presidential Unit Citation and her captain, Commander Samuel D. Dealey, the Medal of Honor for this patrol.  The U.S. aircraft marking at the bottom center of USS Harder's flag indicates a pilot rescued.  The five blue and one white star signify five completed patrols and one still unfinished.

USS Jack (SS-259)*

JackThe scarlet battle flag of the USS Jack shows the pennant of the Presidential Unit Citation in the upper hoist, followed by the ribbons of the American and Asiatic-Pacific theaters of operations and the Philippine Liberation Medal along the upper edge.  Down the hoist are the ribbons of the Navy Cross with three gold stars (four total awards), Silver Star with ten gold stars, Bronze Star with eleven gold stars, and Purple Heart with nine gold stars.  In nine war patrols, Jack accounted for sinking or damaging 15 Japanese ships with a total tonnage of 76,687 tons.  This included four 5,000-ton tankers sent to the bottom on a single day, February 19, 1944.

USS Ray (SS-271)

RayThe battle flag of the USS Ray is characteristic of the development of flags later in the war.  In addition to a large array of sinkings, it reflects personal decorations won by members of her crew (including three Navy Crosses), the Navy Unit Commendation, eight war patrols, and 23 rescued airmen, including 10 from an Army Air Corps B-29.

USS Tang (SS-306)*

TangThe striking and distinctive battle flag of the USS Tang shows a black panther ripping through the center of the Japanese rising sun naval ensign.  Tang was among the most successful of World War II submarines, destroying 24 Japanese ships displacing a total of 93,824 tons in a career of less than two years.  Her third war patrol, in the summer of 1944, was one of the most devastating of the war, for which her commanding officer, Commander Richard O'Kane, won the Medal of Honor.  Tang was sunk on October 24, 1944, when one of her own torpedos malfunctioned and circled back on her.  In the course of only four war patrols, Tang won two of the highly coveted Presidential Unit Citations.

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Modern Battle Flags

The heirs of Perry, Lawrence, and Porter and of the World War II submariners continue to produce and display unofficial battle flags--also called house flags or unrep flags. The term "unrep flag" comes from the practice of unfurling the ship's flag from a yardarm when breaking away from the oiler following an underway replenishment, or "unrep."  These flags are also displayed on important occasions such as returning to homeport at the end of a long deployment.  (A note on terminology:  the large ensign hoisted at the gaff in battle, and by extension such a large ensign flown on holidays or festive occasions, is also sometimes called a "battle flag."  This should not be confused with the unofficial battle flags or house flags shown below.)  Photographs of a number of modern ship flags can be found at the House Flags site.

USS Benfold (DDG-65)


With the advent of official ship coats of arms, many of them beautifully designed by the Army Institute of Heraldry, some ships have adopted flags composed of the coat of arms on a plain blue field.  While undoubtedly dignified, these flags are not quite in keeping with the more colorful traditions of this art form.  The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Benfold provides an excellent example of this style of flag.

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71)

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has two flags.  One, hanging on a bulkhead in the hangar deck, is light blue with the monogram "TR" in black and the name of the ship.  The other is displayed from a staff on the quarterdeck.  It has the ship's emblem, also on a light blue field.

USS Cowpens (CG-63)


The battle flag of the Aegis cruiser USS Cowpens is more in the classic mold.  The snorting bull as well as the slogan are puns on the ship's name as well as expressions of a combative spirit.

USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53)

John Paul Jones

This Burke-class Aegis destroyer, named after the legendary naval hero of the American Revolution, uses a replica of the ensign flown by Commodore Jones aboard his frigate Bonhomme Richard when it defeated HMS Serapis.

USS Austin (LPD-4)

1839 Texas Ensign Texas
The amphibious transport dock USS Austin followed the same approach as John Paul Jones, flying a historic flag referring to its namesake.  In this case, it was the 1836 ensign (left) of the Republic of Texas, in the independence of which Stephen F. Austin was a leading figure.  In common with a number of other ships named after cities in Texas, including the USS San Jacinto, Austin also sometimes flew the present-day Texas state flag (right).

USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75)

Harry S Truman

Yet a fourth approach can be seen in the battle flag of the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman, which (in addition to the ship's hull number) is made up of references to the president after whom it was named.  The crossed cannons with the number "129" and the letter "D" signify Truman's World War I service as commander of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery.  The motto, "Give 'em hell," was an expression popular among supporters of the President's habit of speaking bluntly on any issue, especially to those who disagreed with him.

USS Elliot (DD-967)

ElliottThe Spruance-class destroyer USS Elliot flew a flag based on the traditional crest-badge worn by the Scottish Clan Elliot, the crest from the chief's coat of arms surrounded by a strap and buckle bearing the motto, "Fortiter et recte," which means "Might and right."

USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62)


The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald, follows the combative tradition with the figure of "Fighting Fitz," the personification of the ship.

USS Gary (FFG-51)


The USS Gary, a Perry-class guided missile frigate uses the same approach with a rendition of the ornery Warner Brothers character, Yosemite Sam.

USS Minneapolis-St. Paul (SSN-708)

Minneapolis-St. Paul

Present day submariners have preserved the World War II tradition of recording the ship's operational history on the battle flag.  The USS Minneapolis-St. Paul, a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarine, showed five Meritorious Unit Commendations, four battle efficiency Es, and two Mediterranean deployments, among other emblems.

USS Louisville (SSN-724)


The USS Louisville has the distinction of having carrying out the first actual war patrol conducted by an American submarine since World War II when she launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Iraq in the opening stages of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.  Her battle flag included the ship badge featuring a horseshoe symbolizing the city of Louisville's association with thoroughbred racing, the gold (officer's) and silver (enlisted) submariner's dolphin badges, symbols in the upper fly and lower hoist containing maps of the Persian Gulf for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm respectively, and, most notably, a Tomahawk missile flying across a disk containing the Iraqi flag.

USS John A. Moore (FFG-19)

John A. Moore

The Perry-class guided missile frigate USS John A. Moore carried on the tradition of the early days of the Navy with a flag consisting simply of its battle cry, "Never give in."

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