Flag Officers of the U.S. Navy

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The flying of a flag at the masthead to designate the vessel of a fleet commander is more than twice as old as the United States Navy, dating well back into the Middle Ages.  The first known orders covering this subject in the English navy were issued in 1530:  "the Admiral ought to have this order before he joins battle with the enemy that all his ships shall bear a flag in their mizzen tops and himself one in the foremast beside[s] the mainmast."

Until shortly before the Civil War, the highest permanent grade in the U.S. Navy was that of captain, with those captains serving as squadron commanders bearing the courtesy title and flying the broad pennant of a commodore.  Commodore's broad pennants were blue, red, or white, depending on seniority, with stars equal to the number of states in the Union.  The senior commodore present flew a blue pennant with white stars, the next senior red with white, and any others white with blue stars.  In 1857, Congress created the title of "flag officer" and in 1862 finally authorized the first American use of the title "admiral."  The flag officers and later the rear admirals initially flew plain rectangular flags of solid blue, red, or white, again depending on seniority, but in 1865 a new issuance of Navy Regulations introduced the modern system of designating flag officers' ranks with flags showing the number of stars matching the  insignia on their uniforms.  Initially the stars were small and grouped in the upper hoist of the flag, but by the time the first signal book was issued implementing these regulations in 1867, however, the arrangement of stars had taken on much the appearance it has today.  The starred rank flags were replaced in 1870 by a system of red-and-white striped flags, but were restored in 1876 and have remained in use ever since.

The rules for the use of personal flags in the Navy are carefully spelled out in Navy Regulations and Flags, Pennants and Customs.  A summary may be found below.


Chief of Naval Operations

Although the Navy was the first service to use flags to distinguish its senior officers, it was among the last to adopt distinctive designs for its chief and vice chief.  The personal flag of the Chief of Naval Operations, modeled after those of the Army and Air Force chiefs of staff and the Chairman of the JCS, was approved in October 1964 and made its first appearance in the 1965 edition of Flags, Pennants and Customs, some 50 years after the position of Chief of Naval Operations was established in 1915.  The flag is divided diagonally from lower hoist to upper fly, blue over white, with the central device of the CNO's office on a white disk at the center surrounded by a golden chain.  The device is an eagle with a U.S. shield on its breast and holding an anchor horizontally in its talons.  Four stars in a diamond pattern surround the disk, blue on the white field and white on the blue. The staff ornament for the CNO's flag is a spread eagle.



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Vice Chief of Naval Operations

The Vice Chief of Naval Operations' flag was introduced in the 1970s.  Its basic design is the same as the CNO's, but the field is divided into four sections by two crossing diagonal lines, blue in the hoist and fly sections and white in the upper and lower.  The trim and accoutrements for parade and indoor display are the same as the CNO's, but the flagstaff ornament is a halberd.



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Fleet Admiral

In 1944, the five-star rank of fleet admiral was authorized by Congress.  Only four officers have been entitled to use the corresponding flag, blue with a ring of five white stars, making it the rarest of the Navy's personal flags:   William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz, and William Halsey.  The last official display of the five-star flag was when it was carried before the casket at the funeral of Fleet Admiral Nimitz in 1966.  In boats and for indoor or parade display, the flagstaff is topped by a spread eagle.



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Admiral

David Glasgow Farragut became the U.S. Navy's first full admiral under an Act of Congress of July 25, 1866.  The 1867 signal book showed his flag as blue with four large white stars distributed evenly on the field in a diamond pattern.  With minor modifications in the size and spacing of the stars, the same flag is flown by full admirals today.  A version in red with white stars existed from 1915 to 1940 to indicate a junior admiral in the presence of a senior, and Admiral Hyman Rickover, an engineering duty officer, had a white version with blue stars as an officer not eligible for command at sea.  In boats or for indoor or parade display, the flagstaff is topped by a halberd.



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Vice Admiral

David Glasgow Farragut became the U.S. Navy's first vice admiral in 1864, but at the time his flag was simply a solid blue field flown at the head of the foremast.  Although a blue flag with three stars arrayed in a triangle was authorized by the 1865 regulations, the first vice admiral actually to fly it was David Dixon Porter, who succeeded Farragut in the position of vice admiral when Farragut was given his fourth star in 1866.  As with the admiral's flag, there was a red version with white stars from 1915 to 1940 to indicate a junior vice admiral in the presence of a senior.  In boats or for indoor or parade display, the flagstaff is topped by a halberd.



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Rear Admiral

Under the 1865 regulations, the nine (later 10) rear admirals flew their two-star flags at the mizzen, following the traditional color scheme of white stars on blue or red or blue stars on white depending on seniority.  The stars were arranged in a vertical line centered on the flag in essentially the same pattern used today.  The white and red variations were abolished in about 1906 and in 1940 respectively.  In boats or for indoor or parade display, the flagstaff is topped by a halberd.



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Rear Admiral (Lower Half)

This newest of the Navy's rank flags was created as a result of the establishment of the rank of commodore admiral under the 1982 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act.  This anomalous title was invented to satisfy Army and Air Force complaints that naval officers went straight from no-star to two-star precedence when they were promoted to rear admiral.  To go with the new rank, a blue flag with a single white star was created.  This flag, not the traditional broad pennant, continued in use when the title was changed to commodore in 1983 and finally to rear admiral (lower half) in 1986.  In boats or for indoor or parade display, the flagstaff is topped by a halberd.



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Commodore (obsolete)

The title of "commodore"--a term borrowed from the Dutch--came into use in the Royal Navy in about 1690 to designate officers below the rank of admiral who were temporarily assigned to command of a squadron of warships.  The commodore's distinguishing mark came to be a "broad pennant"(or, as it was spelled until the mid-nineteenth century, "pendant") a pennant that was wider and shorter than the narrow pennant (commission pennant), the distinctive mark of a warship that is not commanded by a flag officer.  In the early years of the U.S. Navy, the broad pennant was sometimes triangular and sometimes swallowtailed, but eventually came to be standardized in a swallowtailed format.  As noted above, throughout the first half of the 19th century, U.S. Navy commodores used broad pennants bearing the same number of stars as the number of states in the Union.  In 1857, the title of commodore was superseded by that of "flag officer" and the broad pennant by the plain rectangular flag officer's flag.  The same 1862 law that created the rank of rear admiral, however, also restored the title of commodore, leading the Navy to revive the broad pennant in its old design.  The 1865 Regulations altered this design to bring the broad pennant into line with the new system used for admirals, so that commodores bore a single star centered on the pennant.  In 1899, the rank of commodore was abolished in the active Navy, although captains who had served in the Civil War continued to be promoted to it as an honorary rank upon retirement.  The rank was revived in 1943, but as a temporary grade for wartime only.  The old commodore's broad pennant was restored accordingly.  Only 147 officers were promoted to commodore, none after 1945.  All of them were off active duty by 1950 and the rank was formally abolished in the active Navy in 1952.  Thereafter the broad pennant gradually became obsolete with the deaths of retired commodores and its design was dropped from the signal books in 1986.



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Officers not eligible for command at sea

In December 1948, the Chief of Naval Operations directed that flag officers not eligible for command at sea be authorized to use white flags with blue stars.  Such flags had previously been used for the junior flag officer of a given grade present at any particular location.  By article 1001 of Navy Regulations, only line officers who are not restricted in the performance of duty, and limited duty officers designated for duty in line technical fields, may exercise command at sea.  Those not eligible for command at sea include officers of the staff corps (medical, supply, chaplain, civil engineer, judge advocate general, dental, medical service, and nurse corps) as well as line officers restricted to engineering or special duties, such as cryptography, intelligence, public affairs, and oceanography.  These flags are never flown aboard ship, but may be flown in boats and are used ashore to designate the headquarters of such entities as the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, the Naval Supply Systems Command, naval medical centers, the Naval Construction Brigade, and the Naval Security Group Command.  As for unrestricted line officers of equivalent rank, the flagstaff in boats or for indoor or parade display is topped by a halberd.

Vice Admiral
 

Rear Admiral
 

Rear Admiral (Lower Half)
 

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Rules for the Display of Personal Flags in the Navy

When flown aboard ship or from a fixed flagmast ashore, admirals' flags, and other personal flags used by the U.S. Navy, are in the same proportions as the union jack, approximately 7:10. NavRegs Art. 1266 delineates how these flags are to be used aboard ship, where the admiral's personal flag is flown in his flagship, replacing the commission pennant at the masthead of the aftermost mast.  It is broken at the masthead at the moment he assumes command and remains there night and day, to be hauled down only when he is relieved from command or under specific circumstances:

In all these cases, the flag that is hauled down is replaced either by the flag of another admiral, a broad or burgee command pennant, or a commission pennant.

A flag officer, civilian official, unit commander, or ship commanding officer who is absent  for less than 72 hours from the ship in which his flag or command pennant is flying indicates his absence by flying one of the substitute pennants of the International Code of Signals at a specified point in the ship:
 

Pennant At Absentee
1st Substitute

 

Outboard halyard,
starboard main yardarm
Flag officer or unit commander 

 

2nd Substitute

 

Inboard halyard,
port main yardarm
Chief of staff 

 

3rd Substitute

 

Outboard halyard,
port main yardarm
Commanding officer (If CO is absent for more than 72 hours, 3rd Sub indicates XO is also absent.)
4th Substitute

 

Inboard halyard,
starboard main yardarm
Civilian or military official whose flag is flying in ship

Ashore, a flag officer in command displays his personal flag 24 hours a day at a suitable place in the command.  Normally, this is at the starboard arm of the crosstree on the installation flagmast, but if the flagmast is equipped with a gaff, the personal flag flies at the truck (top) of the pole.  As is the case aboard ship, the admiral's flag in this case may also be displaced by that of a more senior admiral or a civil official on an official visit.  The flags of officers who are not eligible for command at sea are displayed ashore.

In boats, an admiral's flag is flown from a staff in the bow whenever he is officially embarked on an official occasion.  When the occasion is unofficial, a miniature flag may be displayed near the coxswain's station.  The staff on which the admiral's flag is flown and the staff for the ensign in the stern of the boat are topped with the appropriate finial for the admiral's rank, either a spread eagle or a halberd.  In addition, the barge regularly assigned to an admiral is marked on the bow with metal stars arranged in the same pattern as those on his personal flag.  Admirals may also use small versions of their flags on the front of their automobiles on official occasions.

For indoor or parade use, admirals' flags are 52 by 66 inches, trimmed with golden yellow fringe.  Officers assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations are entitled to decorated the staff with a golden yellow cord and tassels.  Admirals almost invariably display such a flag in their offices.  A small replica of the flag adorns a flag officer's personal stationery and invitations, and, draped in mourning, precedes his casket to the grave at his funeral.


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Copyright 2000, 2001 by Joseph McMillan