Background - What's a Jack?
There are two naval jacks in use by the United States Navy. The jack is a flag flown at the bow of every navy warship. It is not the same as the national ensign (commonly known as just "The US Flag"). The purpose of the jack is to identify that the ship belongs to the Navy. Any ship of a country's origin can fly the National ensign (which is the US Flag), whether is be a private craft, merchant vessel, or warship. The jack is strictly a naval flag, rich in tradition and symbolism. On a properly equipped ship, the jack is flown from, very appropriately, the jackstaff. The tradition of flying a "jack" representing the Navy dates back to the 15th century with the British Royal Navy.
The First US Navy Jack
The original jack that is held in tradition to be one of the first jacks flown on ships of the US Navy during the War for Independence. The design of this jack is thirteen horizontal, alternating red and white stripes. A mobile serpent is superimposed on the jack, above the words in block print: DONT TREAD ON ME. This symbol was one of resistance to the British during Colonial America.
The actual first Naval jack is not truly known. Commodore Esek Hopkins provided signal flags for ships of the new Continental Navy when it was first formed. Among his provisions was for a National Ensign and striped jack to be flown on the ships. The image that is now generally accepted as the "first" Naval jack comes from a book published in 1880. US Navy Admiral George Henry Preble penned a book entitled History of the Flag of the United States. In it, was a color plate that illustrated the first Naval jack. Since then, it has been copied and widely accepted as the proper and official design.
In addition to being a historical flag it has been flown at other more recent times. In 1975, the Secretary of the Navy ordered that the jack be flown on all US Navy ships in celebration of America's Bicentennial. In 1977, the Secretary of the Navy ordered that the oldest active, commissioned ship in the US Navy fleet to fly this historic jack in lieu of the standard "Union jack". Currently, that ship is the Aircraft Carrier CV 63 USS Kitty Hawk, which was commissioned April 29, 1961. (Also see the War on Terrorism section for an additional exception to this provision).
The Union Jack
The normal Naval jack that is in use with the US Navy (except for the current "War on Terrorism" substitution) is called the Union Jack. The standard Naval jack is simply the canton part of the US National Ensign. In other words, the naval jack is the blue field with 50 white, 5-point stars on it. It is the same size and layout as the canton from the National Ensign.
It has been in use for the majority of the history of the US Navy. The earliest depiction of the Union Jack in use was in a 1795 engraving of the USS Philadelphia, proudly flying the Union Jack from her jackstaff. The jack has been updated with General Orders over the years to reflect the number of stars on the US flag at the time.
The "War on Terrorism"
On September 11, 2002, then Secretary of the Navy, the Honorable Gordon R. England instructed (SECNAV Instruction 10520.6) all Naval ships and stations to fly the first Naval jack in lieu of the Union Jack for the remaining duration of the global war on terrorism as "an historic reminder of the nation's and Navy's origin and will to persevere and triumph." (- England) Each ship currently active, in commission, was issued with four of the first navy jacks.
The Navy jack that is currently prescribed will fly from every US Navy ship from sunrise to sunset when in port or anchored. The navy jack is flown to indicate that a court martial is in process aboard a ship. The jack is also the personal flag flown for the President of the United States or the Secretary of the Navy when aboard a ship.
- Poirier, Michel T., CDR, "A Brief History of the U.S. Navy Jack," Undersea Warfare.
- Official USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) Web Site, http://www.kittyhawk.navy.mil/
- Personal Knowledge