On February 21, 2019, the Navy put out a press release announcing its decision to begin displaying the union jack instead of the first Navy jack aboard Navy ships. Beginning on June 4, the date of the Battle of Midway, all US Navy ships will return to flying the union jack. In its press releases Adm. John Richardson stated that “Make no mistake: we have entered a new era of competition. We must recommit to the core attributes that made us successful at Midway: integrity, accountability, initiative and toughness. For more than 240 years, the union jack, flying proudly from jackstaffs aboard U.S. Navy warships, has symbolized these strengths.”https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=108663 He also comments that “The union jack is deeply connected to our heritage and our rise as a global nation with a global Navy.” Once the union jack is returned to flying, the navy will re-establish the custom in where the commissioned ship in active service the longest total period in active service having will display the first Navy jack until its decommissioning This is other than the USS Constitution. Beginning on June 4th, this would mean the USS Blue Ridge (LLC 19). But for those not in the Navy, what is the union jack and what is its history. Below you will find excerpts from the Naval History and Heritage Command on the topic.
A jack is a flag corresponding in appearance to the union or canton of the national ensign. In the United States Navy, it is a blue flag containing a star for each state. For countries whose colors have no canton, the jack is simply a small national ensign. On a sailing vessel, the jack is hoisted at the jack-staff shipped at the bowsprit cap when at anchor or in port.
The United States Navy originated as the Continental Navy, established early in the American Revolution by the Continental Congress by a resolution of 13 October 1775. There is a widespread belief that ships of the Continental Navy flew a jack consisting of alternating red and white stripes, having the image of a rattlesnake stretched out across it, with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” That belief, however, rests on no firm base of historical evidence.
It is well documented that the rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” were used together on several flags during the War of Independence. The only question in doubt is whether the Continental Navy actually used a red and white striped flag with a rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” as its jack. The evidence is inconclusive. There is reason to believe that the Continental Navy jack was simply a red and white striped flag with no other adornment.
The rattlesnake emerged as a symbol of the English colonies of North America about the time of the Seven Years War, when it appeared in newspaper prints with the motto “Join or Die.” By the time of the War of Independence, the rattlesnake, frequently used in conjunction with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” was a common symbol for the United States, its independent spirit, and its resistance to tyranny.
Two American military units of the Revolution are known to have used the rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto: Proctor’s Independent Battalion, of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, and Sullivan’s Life Guard during the Rhode Island campaign of 1777. The rattlesnake and the motto also appeared on military accoutrements, such as drums, and on state paper currency, during the Revolution.
The Union Jack
The union jack, comprising the national ensign’s blue field and white stars, was first adopted on 14 June 1777. At this time, the jack’s blue field only displayed the 13 stars representing the union of the original 13 American colonies. The number of stars on the jack was periodically updated as the United States expanded. The 50-star jack in use until 10 September 2002—and again after 21 February 2019—was adopted on 4 July 1960 after Hawaii became the nation’s 50th state.
The Rattlesnake Jack and the Modern Navy
As part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of the American Revolution, by an instruction dated 1 August 1975 (SECNAV Instruction 10520.3) the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack during the period 13 October 1975 (the bicentennial of the legislation that created the Continental Navy, which the Navy recognizes as the Navy’s birthday), and 31 December 1976.
By an instruction dated 18 August 1980 (SECNAV Instruction 10520.4), the Secretary of the Navy directed that the commissioned ship in active status having the longest total period in active status to display the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive status.
With the implementation of that instruction, those ships included:
1981–82: USS Dixie (AD-14), commissioned in 1940
1982–93: USS Prairie (AD-15), commissioned in 1940
1993–93: USS Orion (AS-18), commissioned in 1943 (six months)
1993–94: USS Yosemite (AD-19), commissioned in 1944
1994–95: USS Jason (AR-8), commissioned in 1944
1995–95: USS Mauna Kea (AE-22), commissioned in 1957 (one week)
1995–98: USS Independence (CV-62), commissioned in 1959
1998–2009: USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), commissioned in 1961
By an instruction dated 31 May 2002 (SECNAV Instruction 10520.6), the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack for the duration of the Global War on Terrorism.
On 21 February 2019, to signify the Navy and the nation entering a new era of competition, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson directed the fleet, via NAVADMIN 039/19, to return to the previous practice of flying the union jack effective 4 June 2019. The date for reintroduction of the union jack commemorates the greatest naval battle in history: The Battle of Midway, which began 4 June 1942.