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Navy - Command and Commission Pennants (U.S.)

Last modified: 2015-05-09 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | pennant | command pennant | commission pennant | homeward bound pennant |
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U.S. Navy Regulations, article 1259, provides that every U.S. Navy ship in commission flies one of four types of "distinctive marks" at all times, from the moment it is commissioned until the moment it is decommissioned: a commission pennant, the personal flag of a flag officer, a command pennant, or (for hospital ships) the Geneva Convention red cross flag.
Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999

Commission Pennant

[Navy Commissioning Pennant] image by Joe McMillan, 24 August 1999

Description: Blue at the hoist (one quarter the length of the pennant) with seven evenly spaced white stars. The remainder divided horizontally red over white. The original design had 13 rather than 7 stars, but the number was reduced as the length of the pennant was shortened over the years. At one time, the pennant could measure as much as 70 feet.

Dimensions: In two sizes: Size 6 measures 72 inches long, 2.5 inches wide at the hoist and 0.5 inches at the fly, with a 9-inch swallowtail. Size 7 measures 48 inches in length, 1.875 inches at the hoist and 0.375 inches at the fly, with a 6-inch swallowtail.

The hoisting of the commission pennant is considered the key moment in the commissioning of a ship. Once hoisted, it flies continuously, night and day, except when displaced by an admiral's flag, a command pennant, or the flag of a senior civilian official as directed by U.S. Navy Regulations.

Although not a personal flag as such, the USN uses the commission pennant as the symbol of the commanding officer of a ship. It is depicted on his/her personal stationery, is half-masted if he/she dies aboard ship, and is carried on a staff, draped in black mourning, before his/her casket in the funeral procession. The last commanding officer is allowed to keep the commission pennant when a ship is decommissioned.

The ceremonies for commissioning and decommissioning a U.S. Navy warship call for the hoisting of the ensign, jack, and commission pennant as the first act after the new captain reads the commissioning order, and as the final act before the last captain declares the ship decommissioned.

Joe McMillan, 24 August 1999

The size of these pennants has been reduced so much that they're practically invisible. The large size in the USN is 2 1/2 inches wide and six feet long, not the easiest thing to find at the top of the mainmast of an aircraft carrier! In the days of sail, the U.S. commission pennant for a ship of the line was 100 feet long, rather easier to see. Even on a stealth basis, these are quite relevant flag objects--especially to the captains of the ships whose command they symbolize.
Joe McMillan, 24 July 2001

The Army Commissioning pennant is similar with the two colours exchanged.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 20 November 2010

Homeward Bound Pennant

[Navy Homeward Bound Pennant] image by Rick Wyatt, 13 October 2000

The Navy also uses a "homeward bound pennant" of similar design for ships returning to the United States after prolonged deployments. The dimensions are not prescribed by regulation, but NTP-13(B) describes the customary practice as one white star for the first nine months of continuous service outside the U.S., plus another for each additional 6 months. The overall length of the pennant is one foot for each member of the ship's company on duty outside the United States for more than 9 months, but not to exceed the length of the ship itself. The proportions are 1:200. The homeward bound pennant is flown when getting underway to a U.S. port and remains hoisted until sunset on the day of arrival at the destination, at which time the commanding officer is presented the blue portion and the members of the ship's company dividing the remainder.
Joe McMillan, 14 November 1999

Command Pennants

A broad or burgee command pennant is the personal command pennant of an officer, other than a flag officer, commanding a unit of ships or aircraft. It is flown in exactly the same way as a personal flag: at the head of the aftermost mast in lieu of the commission pennant; at a yardarm if a civilian official entitled to display a personal flag is aboard; at the bow of a boat; at the right yardarm of a flagmast at a shore facility; on the left bumper of an automobile; and carried on a staff in advance of the casket during the funeral of an officer commanding such a unit.
Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999

Broad Command Pennant

[Navy Broad Command Pennant] image by Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999

Broad command pennant: Used by the commander of a force, group, or squadron of ships or an aircraft wing or carrier air wing. White, with blue stripes along the upper and lower edges, with the number of the command in blue. Arabic numerals are used, unless there are two echelons with the same number within the same chain of command both entitled to the broad command pennant. For instance, a Destroyer Squadron 5 assigned to Cruiser-Destroyer Group 5. In this case, Roman numerals would be used for the higher echelon commander, but in practice the situation doesn't arise, since group, force, and flotilla commanders are all flag officers. The pennant depicted is intended to represent Destroyer Squadron 2, the oldest squadron of ships in the U.S. Navy, having been established in 1919, but the same pennant would be used by the commanders of Amphibious Squadron 2, Submarine Squadron 2, Carrier Air Wing 2, etc.
Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999

Burgee Command Pennant

[Navy Burgee Command Pennant] image by Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999

Burgee command pennant: Used by the commander of a division of ships or craft or a major subdivision (e.g., a group) of an aircraft wing. It is white with red stripes on the upper and lower edges and the number of the command in red Arabic numerals. Although still on the books, I do not believe this pennant is any longer in use since, as far as I know, the Navy has no division or air group structure at present. The pennant depicted therefore represents a historic unit, Destroyer Division 231, part of Adm Arleigh Burke's famous Destroyer Squadron 23, the "Little Beavers" of World War II Pacific fame.
Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999

A note on the numerals: Many publications show the numerals in a rounded type-font style. I recently had a chance to see first hand the pennant of a recent former commander of DesRon 2 and have seen others in the past--the numerals are in the block style depicted. Apparently the supply system provides only the basic pennant and the local command sews on the appropriate numbers, so the appearance may be crude but functional.
Joe McMillan, 6 September 1999