Flags of the U.S. Coast Guard

U.S. Coast Guard Ensign

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About the Coast Guard Ensign

The Coast Guard ensign serves as the seagoing equivalent of a policeman's badge, the distinctive sign of a Coast Guard vessel's law enforcement authority.  It derives from the "revenue ensign" adopted on August 1, 1799, by Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, with the approval of President John Adams, to identify the cutters of the Revenue Marine, the principal predecessor of the modern Coast Guard.  On March 2 of that year, Congress had enacted the Customs Administration Act, providing in part that "the cutters and boats employed in the service of the revenue shall be distinguished from other vessels by an ensign and pendant, with such marks thereon as shall be prescribed by the President."  The law, and the adoption of the distinctive flag, were inspired by shipowners' concerns that a ship claiming to be a revenue cutter and ordering a merchant vessel to heave to might actually be a pirate.  Congress therefore directed the President to prescribe the special ensign, provided a $100 fine for its unauthorized use, and authorized the commanding officer of any cutter flying the ensign to use deadly force against vessels that failed to heed his instructions.  (With minor modifications, this law is still in force as 14 U.S. Code 637-639.)  On June 1, Secretary Wolcott submitted his proposed design, which the President approved with the exception of "the yellow color."  There is no record of what part of Wolcott's design was yellow, as the sketch attached to his submission is no longer extant.  The description of the final design, contained in a circular letter to the collectors of customs, was "sixteen perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white, the Union of the Ensign to be the Arms of the United States, in dark blue, on a white field."  The current definition of the flag is in 33 CFR 23.15.

The sixteen vertical red and white stripes on the Coast Guard ensign represent the number of states in the Union at the time the flag was adopted.  For many years, this flag was actually flown by vessels of the Revenue Marine (later called the Revenue Cutter Service) in lieu of the national ensign (the Stars and Stripes).  The current version of the ensign, dating to 1966, is the product of a number of minor alterations over the past two centuries.  Most of these have affected only the artistic treatment of the United States coat of arms in the canton, most recently in 1951 when it was made to conform to the arms as shown on the great seal of the United States.  Otherwise, the principal alteration was the addition of the badge on the fly in 1910 to differentiate the flag as used by revenue cutters from that flown  at customs houses and other ports of entry ashore.  The badge used was changed on the order of Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon in 1927 from that of the old Revenue Cutter Service to that of the Coast Guard, which had become an independent bureau of the Treasury Department in 1915.  This badge has been redesigned several times since, most recently by the deletion of the motto above and below the shield in 1966.

By regulation (33 CFR 23.05), the Coast Guard ensign must be displayed whenever a Coast Guard vessel is engaged in law enforcement actions.  Even when they are not conducting law enforcement missions, Coast Guard vessels nevertheless fly the distinctive ensign from the head of the forwardmost mast.  Aboard cutters in commission with a single mast, it flies immediately below the commission pennant.  It may be displaced to the starboard yardarm under certain conditions, such as visits by senior civil officials or when firing salutes to foreign countries, particularly on cutters with a single mast (increasingly the norm with modern vessels).  At shore installations it is displayed from the starboard yardarm of the flagmast.

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Coast Guard Commission Pennant

The commission pennant is the distinctive mark of a Coast Guard cutter in commission, that is, a vessel under the command of a commissioned officer or a commissioned warrant officer.  Its hoisting is the central event in the commissioning of a new ship and from that moment until the vessel is decommissioned the pennant is flown day and night from the aftermost masthead, unless the cutter is flying an admiral's flag or a command pennant.  Coast Guard commission pennants are the same sizes as those used by the Navy, 2 1/2 by 72 inches at the largest.

The commission pennant is also used to indicate the presence of a commanding officer in a boat and is otherwise used for all the same purposes served by its Navy equivalent.

Beginning before the Civil War, cutters of the Revenue Marine used a commission pennant that was white with 13 blue stars at the hoist, with red and white vertical stripes taking up the fly.  Some time after the war, it switched to one that was similar to that used by the Navy at the time--with 13 white stars on blue at the hoist--but with the tail still striped vertically rather than, as for the Navy, simply divided red over white.  By 1938, however, the Coast Guard, the successor of the Revenue Marine and Revenue Cutter Service, had revived the old antebellum pennant, which remains in use today.

The design and use of the Coast Guard commission pennant are regulated by 33 CFR 23.20 and 33 CFR 23.05(b).

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Coast Guard Color

The Coast Guard color (known until 1962 as the Coast Guard standard) serves as the organizational flag for parade and display purposes.  It may have originated in the use of the canton of the Coast Guard ensign as a jack.  By 1917, this type of jack was no longer used aboard ship but was being carried as an organizational color ashore.  The current design, which was approved on January 28, 1964, is white, 52 by 66 inches, with the national arms of the United States in blue (the stripes of the shield red).  Above the arms are the name of the service and below it the motto, with the date of the Coast Guard's founding at the bottom.  The flag is trimmed with 2 1/2 inch golden-yellow fringe and the staff is topped by a battle-ax finial.  Below the finial are attached the battle streamers won by the Coast Guard throughout its history.  When the flag is displayed without the streamers, the staff is decorated with a blue and white cord and tassels.

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Coast Guard Guidon

The guidon is carried by company-sized formations on parade. It is a white swallowtail with the Coast Guard "slash" design and the service badge on the center.

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Coast Guard Personal Flags

Coast Guard personal flags are used according to the same rules followed by the Navy, serving as a distinctive mark in lieu of the commission pennant when a flag officer is on board a ship.  Their dimensions for flying aboard ship or from fixed flagpoles ashore are approximately 7:10.  They also come in the standard 52 by 66 inch size with golden yellow fringe, cord, and tassels for ceremonial and indoor use.

Commandant of the Coast Guard

Since 1979, the Commandant of the Coast Guard has flown a flag similar to that of the Chief of Naval Operations, but with the Coast Guard seal in full color replacing the Navy's eagle and anchor.  The Commandant is the Coast Guard's only full admiral. Before 1979, Commandants simply flew the flag appropriate to their rank, up to a four star version similar to the Navy full admiral's flag with the Coast Guard emblem in the center in white. When displayed in the bow of a boat, the staff is ornamented with a spread eagle finial.

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Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard

The Vice Commandant's flag is similar to that of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, but with the Coast Guard seal replacing the Navy eagle and anchor and one star deleted, as the Vice Commandant is a three- rather than four-star admiral. The flag was adopted in 1979 simultaneously with that of the Commandant. The flagstaff finial is a halberd.

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Other Coast Guard admirals fly flags similar to those of their Navy counterparts but with the Coast Guard emblem in blue and white added.

Vice Admiral

Rear Admiral

Rear Admiral (lower half)

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Coast Guard Command Pennants

As in the Navy, the flagship of an officer below flag rank who commands a unit of several cutters flies a command pennant in lieu of the normal commission pennant. The designs are the same as for the Navy pennants but with the Coast Guard badge in the center.

Broad Command Pennant

The broad command pennant is used by commanders of cutter squadrons and major aircraft units.

The burgee command pennant is used by commanders of cutter divisions and smaller aircraft units.

Coast Guard Award Pennants

In addition to the award pennants described below, Coast Guard units may also be awarded the Navy's Presidential Unit Citation for valor in combat and fly the PUC's blue, gold, and scarlet pennant.  They may also fly the Joint Meritorious Unit Award pennant if part of a joint force cited by the Secretary of Defense. As in the case of Navy award pennants, those for Coast Guard awards are displayed from the truck of the mainmast when a cutter is not under way, or from a yardarm of the flag-mast at shore installations. By Coast Guard practice, a unit flies the pennant for the three years following the award, and after that only when dressed for a ceremonial occasion.

Department of Homeland Security Presidential Unit Citation

. Originally established by President Eisenhower in 1957. the Coast Guard Presidential Unit Citation was renamed when the service was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The pennant was designed and approved in 2007.

Secretary of Transportation Outstanding Unit Award

Although this award has been in existence for a number of years, it was only in September 2002, in connection with awards made for service following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, that a pennant was introduced to be flown by ships and stations that received it. All activities and units under the Department of Transportation are eligible for this award. A silver-gray "O" is placed on the center to indicate that the award was for actual operational achievement. Although the Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security when DHS was stood up in 2003, units awarded this citation prior to that continue to fly the pennant when dressed or full-dressed.

Coast Guard Unit Commendation

The Coast Guard Unit Commendation was authorized by the Commandant of the Coast Guard on January 1, 1963.  It is awarded for deeds comparable to those for which the Navy Unit Commendation is awarded to Navy and Marine Corps units.  The CGUC pennant is the same as that for the NUC, but with the addition of a horizontal white stripe in the center.

Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation

The Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation, authorized on November 13, 1973, is comparable to the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation.  The pennant is dark green with dark blue stripes bordered with white along the upper and lower edges and a light blue horizontal stripe edged with white in the center.

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U.S. Coast Guard Academy

Regiment of Cadets

The flag of the Regiment of Cadets of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy at New London, Connecticut, is light blue with the Academy seal on the center.  The coat of arms on the seal is blue with a gold anchor surmounted by an open book inscribed "1876," the year in which the School of Instruction for the Revenue Marine, the predecessor of the Academy, was established aboard the school ship Dobbin near New Bedford, Massachusetts.  The crest is an eagle flanked by two upright tridents, symbolizing seapower.  The motto "Scientiae cedit mare" is translated as "The sea yields to knowledge."  The regimental flag is not fringed.  The staff is topped with a battle-ax finial.

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Coast Guard Academy Sailing Club

The Coast Guard Academy Sailing Club, founded in 1938, comprises the cadets who represent the Academy in intercollegiate sailing competitions.

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