Miscellaneous Navy Flags

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Geneva Convention (Red Cross) Flag

The Red Cross flag is flown in lieu of the commission pennant by hospital ships of the Navy in commission.  Ashore, it may be flown at naval medical facilities on a separate pole from that at which the ensign is hoisted, or it may be flown at the gaff or the signal yard of a staff flying the ensign, but it is not flown on the same halyard as the ensign.  It is also displayed on a staff in the bow of a boat devoted to medical uses.

The Red Cross flag originated in the 1864 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, which provided that "a distinctive and uniform flag shall be adopted for hospitals, ambulances and evacuations," and that "the flag and the arm-badge shall bear a red cross on a white field."  This design, the Swiss national flag with the colors reversed, was selected in recognition of the pioneering work of Swiss citizens in establishing internationally recognized standards for the protection of wounded combatants and military medical facilities.  A convention signed at the Hague in 1899 extended the use of the Red Cross flag to naval use, requiring that "all hospital ships shall make themselves known by hoisting, together with their national flag, the white flag with a red cross provided by the Geneva Convention."

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Church Pennant

The church pennant and the Jewish worship pennant are the only two flags that ever fly above the national ensign.  They are hoisted above the ensign, either at the flagstaff (in port) or the gaff (under way) during the conduct of religious services by a naval chaplain aboard ship.  This usage is expressly authorized by law.  U.S. Army directives also provide for use of this pennant above the ensign during services aboard Army vessels, but the legal authority for this would appear to be questionable.  Although these pennants may be flown ashore, they may not be flown above the ensign except aboard ship.  The use of a pennant to signal that divine services were in progress aboard ship is traditionally said to date from the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century.  The first mention of such a pennant in the U.S. Navy is in a manuscript signal book dated circa 1827.  The earliest depiction, from the journal of a midshipman aboard USS Ohio in the early 1840s, looks very much like the pennant used today.

Jewish Worship Pennant

The Jewish worship pennant, depicting the tablets of the Law given to Moses on Mt. Sinai inscribed with the Hebrew letters signifying the numbers one through ten for the Ten Commandments, was approved by the Secretary of the Navy in December 1979.  It is flown during Jewish worship services under the same conditions prescribed for the church pennant.

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Prisoner of War-Missing in Action Flag

The Prisoner of War-Missing in Action (POW/MIA) flag was created in 1971 by Mrs. Michael Hoff, wife of an officer who was missing in action in Vietnam, and subsequently adopted as the emblem of the National League of Families of POWs and MIAs.  In 1985, the Secretary of the Navy released ALNAV 105/85, which authorized its display in the Navy and Marine Corps on Memorial Day, National POW-MIA Recognition Day, and Veterans Day, as prescribed by the senior officer present.  Navy ships that are not under way display the POW/MIA flag from 8:00 a.m. to sunset at the inboard halyard of the port signal yardarm.  It must not be flown when under way.  When displayed at shore installations it flies beneath the national ensign at the same point of hoist.

The POW/MIA flag was officially recognized as a national patriotic symbol in 1990 by Public Law 101-355 (36 USC 189), which referred to the flag as "the symbol of our Nationís concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the Nation."  Its display was made mandatory in the 1998 Defense Authorization Act, which required that "the POW/MIA flag shall be displayed" at a series of specified federal facilities, including all major military installations, not only on the days for which it was previously authorized but also on Armed Forces Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day.  The new law also expanded the symbolism of the flag to represent other POWs and MIAs, past, present, and future.  NAVADMIN 200/98, released by the CNO on September 16 of that year, defined "major installations" in the Navy as four-star headquarters, regional coordinators (naval bases and the headquarters of Submarine Group TWO), making display of the flag on the designated dates mandatory at those locations.  The message went on to encourage all Navy flag commands to support the cause by flying the flag on the designated days.  For the Marine Corps, MARADMIN 212/99, issued on May 12, 1999, directed that the flag be displayed at all buildings and grounds under Marine Corps jurisdiction on the days specified in the law.

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Flags of International Organizations

The following flags are or have been flown on U.S. Navy ships under certain circumstances, explained in the section on each. It should be noted that under no circumstances do these flags take the place of the United States national ensign, nor does their display as described imply that a U.S. warship comes under the sovereign control of the international organization concerned.

United Nations

In 1951, the Naval Academy was presented a United Nations flag that had flown from the fore truck of the battleship USS Missouri on four occasions in September-October 1950 during the naval bombardment of Samchok and other targets in support of UN Command operations in Korea.  In 1952, however, Department of Defense Directive 1005.1 stipulated that the UN flag would be flown at Department of Defense installations only when honoring senior officials of the United Nations during visits.  NTP 13(B) applies this principle to shipboard use, providing for the display of the UN flag aboard ship in the same manner as a foreign ensign is displayed for the visit of a foreign head of state.  Otherwise, U.S. forces display the UN flag only when directed by the President.  For its part, the United Nations places similar restrictions on the use of the flag.  Specifically, the UN flag may be used in military operations only upon the express authorization of a competent United Nations organ.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization

U.S. Navy vessels participating in NATO's permanent multinational naval forces, Standing Naval Force Atlantic and Standing Naval Force Mediterranean, regularly display the NATO flag from a yardarm.

Western European Union

For a brief period in 1995, the destroyer USS John Rodgers functioned as the flagship for the Italian general commanding WEU relief operations in Bosnia.  During this time, when no U.S. flag officer was aboard, John Rodgers displayed the WEU flag.

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Naval Reserve Pennants

Naval Reserve Merchant Marine Pennant

The Naval Reserve Merchant Marine pennant is flown at a signal halyard in port aboard ships that have been warranted by the Secretary of the Navy to be suitable for wartime use as naval auxiliaries.  The master of the ship and at least half of its licensed officers must be members of the U.S. Naval Reserve.  The pennant was originally prescribed by Navy Department General Order 285, dated April 14, 1917.  The current statutory authorization for the pennant is contained in Title 10, U.S. Code, section 7225.

Naval Reserve Yacht Pennant

The Naval Reserve yacht pennant may be flown by yachts warranted by the Secretary of the Navy as suitable for wartime use as naval auxiliaries.  In addition, either the captain or the owner must be a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve.  The pennant is authorized by Title 10, U.S. Code, section 7226.

Naval Reserve Yacht Owner's Distinguishing Pennant

The Naval Reserve yacht owner's distinguishing pennant was adopted following World War II as personal recognition to yacht owners who had made their craft available to the Navy during the war.  Such owners could then display the pennant aboard any vessel they owned, whether or not it was the yacht that had been provided to the Navy.

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Copyright 2000, 2001 by Joseph McMillan