Category Archives: Flags

Two Hundred Forty Years of Steadfast Colors

On May 30th, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation to establish a national day of observance to honor the national ensign of the United States of America. Though the national annual observance wasn’t signed into law until President Truman did so in 1949, the annual recognition of honoring Old Glory was carried on by many Americans each year since 1916. With all that has transpired in the realm of politics within our nation, I suspect that rather than rendering honor to our flag, many of the people living within our borders will, instead choose to desecrate it…but I digress.

This illustration dates from 1885 and shows the first five flags of the U.S along with the (then) current configuration with 38 stars.

Flag Day (June 14) was set aside to encourage American citizens  to display their nationalism, patriotism and civic pride by hoisting the national ensign on their homes, places of business and on public and government buildings. To put it simply, it is a day in which we show and honor the flag.

The Flag Day observances can be traced all the way back to 1885, when a teacher in a small town in Wisconsin decided that he would honor the flag. The National Flag Day Foundation cites,

Our mission is to carry on the tradition of the first flag day observance. On June 14th, 1885, Bernard J. Cigrand, a 19 year old teacher at Stony Hill School (located in Fredonia, WS), placed a 10 inch, 38- star flag in a bottle on his desk then assigned essays on the flag and its significance.

What is the significance of June 14 and why did Cigrand choose that date for recognition and rendering honors to the flag? In 1777, the second Continental Congress passed a resolution that stated,

Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.

There is significant debate as to who is credited for designing and creating that first flag of the United States–none of which I will discuss here, leaving it for you to make your own determination. Meanwhile, if you reside within a tolerable driving distance from the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, you can take part in the final events of Flag Fest which concludes tomorrow, June 17, 2017.

For those seeking WWI or WWII period flags, 48 star flags are readily available in either vintage or excellent, weather-proof reproductions.

This week (as we do for each patriotic holiday) we are flying the Stars and Stripes in front of my home. Though we are consistent in honoring our current flag (thirteen stripes of alternating red and white; fifty stars, white in a blue field), I have considered acquiring and hoisting some of the historic iterations in its place.

Even if I could afford to purchase an antique iteration of the flag, obviously, I’d never run it up the staff, subjecting it to the elements thereby inflicting rapid deterioration and damage to the delicate fibers and stitching. Instead, locating high-quality reproductions (nylon, sewn and two-sided construction) of those historic colors that could stand up to the forces of nature are more reasonable and would afford me the opportunity to publicly display an area of my collecting interest.

This is a reproduction guidon for “I” company of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, 70th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers (known as “Rush’s Lancers”) is similar to the one I just ordered for my collection (source: eBay photo).

One of my most recent flag acquisitions is a hand-sewn reproduction of the regimental guidon of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (“F” company), the unit in which my 3-times-great grandfather served during the Civil War.  I would love to have a period-correct original for my collection, but even if I had the financial resources, sourcing something with such rarity is next to impossible.

Happy 240th to Old Glory!

Waving the Vexillologists’ Banner

The first step on the path to recovery is admitting that you suffer from vexillology. Let’s say it together, “I am a vexillogist.” Great. Now that we have that out of the way, we can begin to examine this illness along with the diagnosis – treatment relationship.

By now, I am sure that you’ve already sought the definition of the term and know that vexillology is neither a medical or psychological condition requiring any sort of treatment. Many of you would hardly fancy yourselves as vexillologists, yet you do have interest in the subject matter. For me, I only dabble and have a specific, myopic interest as it pertains to my own militaria focus. For those of you who decided to forgo your own online search (knowing that I would eventually get to it), Merriam-Webster defines vexillology very simply as, “the study of flags.” I’ll leave the etymology of the (relatively new) term for you hardcore folks.

My post today really isn’t about the study of flags per se, but it does play into what I want to share with you. Learning where to turn for sound research and trusted sources is highly important to verifying details as to the authenticity of a flag: the maker, when it was made, who it was made for, et cetera.

Flags play a significant role in militaria collecting. While creating a display with period-correct items, collectors may seek a flag that would provide an appropriate accent or aesthetic value. For a World War II display, the requisite 48-star flag would be fairly easy to source. Or, perhaps a captured German or Japanese flag would be fitting? Acquiring flags that look correct is one thing but buying the real thing requires due diligence and still might not guarantee an authentic flag purchase.

A beautiful example of a WWII Pacific Theater submarine battle flag from the USS Blackfin (SS-322) (source: Naval Historic & Heritage Command).

A beautiful example of a WWII Pacific Theater submarine battle flag from the USS Blackfin (SS-322) (source: Naval Historic & Heritage Command).

Perhaps the ultimate American vexillological artifact is the subject of a bicentennial celebration that took place just a few years ago. More than two hundred  years have passed since the last national conflict with Great Britain concluded– which is also the last time a foreign enemy invaded the home front (not counting the Confederate northward invasion of 1863) – and there are celebrations and recognition events that took place throughout the United States. The most significant flag of the United States, The Star Spangled Banner, whose popularity stems from the Francis Scott Key poem of the same name, was also recognized during these bicentennial celebrations (the Battle of Baltimore and the shelling of Fort McHenry occurred September 5-7, 1814).

Documenting the Star Spangled Banner: Because of its size and the confined space of the lab, the flag could not be photographed as a whole. This is a composite of seventy-three separate images (source: Smithsonian Institute).

Documenting the Star Spangled Banner: Because of its size and the confined space of the lab, the flag could not be photographed as a whole. This is a composite of seventy-three separate images (source: Smithsonian Institute).

Canvas Bag - the Armistead family kept the Star-Spangled Banner in this large canvas bag (source: Smithsonian institute).

Canvas Bag – the Armistead family kept the Star-Spangled Banner in this large canvas bag (source: Smithsonian institute).

The commander of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead anticipated a British attack and desired to have an enormous American flag flown over the fort. The renowned flag maker, Mary Pickersgill, was contracted to construct the garrison flag that measured 30 by 42 feet. Pickersgill and her assistants spent seven weeks constructing the flag (along with a smaller, inclement weather or storm flag that measured 17’ x 25’). In the years following the battle, Armistead’s family kept the flag, passing it down two generations. 90 years after the Ft. McHenry bombardment, Key’s poem had gained incredible popularity and the legend of the flag blossomed. Armistead’s grandson, Eben Appleton, released the flag for public display during Baltimore’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1880. The flag then remained in locked storage (in a New York safe deposit box) as deterioration had become an issue. By 1912, the flag was permanently donated to the Smithsonian Institution by Appleton with the directive that it be forever viewable by the American public. The provenance for this flag is traceable and verifiable over the course of the last 198 years, making it truly priceless.

In my collection, I have some significant flags that have more personal historical importance. I served aboard the Navy’s newest (at the time) cruiser, the first of its kind to serve in the Pacific Fleet. I was assigned to the ship 10 months prior to her commissioning. Because of the significant period of time spent with the ship as she was being completed, I developed quite a fondness for her and her legacy (three previous naval warships proudly carried the name). I suppose that my desire for the preservation of history was nurtured in these early years, prompting me to save a number of disposable artifacts.

I have yet to actively pursue any flag purchases, however during that time aboard my ship, five vexillological artifacts found their way into my collection. The most significant (to me, at least) was my ship’s very first commissioning pennant and the acquisition was a matter of happenstance.

During our transit to our home port from Mississippi (where the ship was built and commissioned) a few weeks after the ship was placed into service, I found myself coming off a 4-8am watch, making my way back to the signal bridge to catch up with one of my friends who was a signalman. He was in the process of swapping out the grungy, grimy commissioning pennant with a brand new one, prompting me to ask if I could have it. My shipmate confirmed that the grayed and soiled pennant had flown since the commissioning ceremony and that it was destined for the shredder before I rescued it.

In addition to the pennant, I also have a standard (daily) ensign and union jack set that flew on the ship while in port in 1987. The other two flags were from the captain’s gig (ensign and jack), obtained when I was part of the boat crew serving as the rescue swimmer.

This standard navy Ensign flew over the USS Vincennes CG-49 during the 1988 deployment in the Persian Gulf. The fly is tattered from the winds and there is some soiling from the stack gasses (exhaust) from the ship's gas turbine propulsion.

This standard navy ensign’s  fly is tattered from the winds and there is some soiling from the stack gasses (exhaust) from the ship’s gas turbine propulsion.

A few years ago, an auction listing for a standard naval ensign that was described as having flown over the USS Vincennes (CG-49) during her 1988 deployment to the Persian Gulf. My interest piqued (mostly fueled by skepticism as to the authenticity of the flag and the credibility of the seller) I placed a watch on the auction. Since I served aboard the ship during that time, I contacted the seller to ascertain details that would prove (or disprove) the veracity of the seller’s description. The seller responded that he was a commissioned officer who had served as the ship’s navigator. This officer departed the ship just prior to the conclusion to our time in the region and was presented the flag by the chief signalman as a memento of the trying deployment and his time serving aboard the ship. A few days later, the auction closed and my bid was one of only three. I was very proud to have the flag along the accompanying provenance from the officer (in a printed email) to add to my collection.

I obtained this flag from the ship's navigator a few years ago. The flag was presented to him by the chief signalman upon detaching from the ship, bound for a new command.

I obtained this flag from the CG-49’s former navigator a few years ago. The flag was presented to him by the chief signalman upon detaching from the ship, bound for a new command.

The ship was decommissioned a few years ago and subsequently scrapped, making these flags even more significant in my collection. As of yet, I have not affixed any documentation or description to provide provenance to the flags and pennants. If something should happen to me, these flags become nothing more than nice examples of naval flags. With the Star Spangled Banner, the flag was kept in a bag that possessed the documented provenance along with the narrative that was passed down from one generation to the next.

Flag Collecting Resources/References

Following the Flag

The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground

Depicting the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment at Fort Wagner, SC, this (2004) painting, “The Old Flag Never Touched the Ground” by Rick Reeves prominently displays the flag leading the troops in battle.

Today is Flag Day. On June 14, 1777, Congress passed a resolution to adopt the stars and stripes design for our national flag. In honor of that, I felt compelled to shed some light on how the impact of the flag holds for men and women who serve this country in uniform.

Throughout the history of our nation, the Stars and Stripes have had immeasurable meaning to to those serving in uniform. On the field of battle, the Flag has been a rallying point for units as they follow it toward the enemy. From their vantage points, commanding generals are able to observe their troop movements and progress throughout battles by following the flag.

Troop reverence for the national ensign was no more apparent during the battle during the early American conflicts (Revolutionary War through the Civil War). Carrying the flag in battle was a considerable honor and the bearer was especially vulnerable to enemy fire. If the color bearer was wounded or killed, the colors would be dropped increasing the potential to demoralize the troops. If the bearer was incapacitated, another soldier would drop his weapon and pick up the flag, continuing to lead the unit toward the enemy.

In the 1989 TriStar film Glory (starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington), Private Trip (Washington’s character) prevented the colors from hitting the ground when the flag bearer was shot during the assault on Fort Wagner. At that moment, the troops were mired in the hail of Confederate gun and cannon fire and the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment casualties were piling up. The troops, seeing the flag raised even higher, rose to the occasion and broke through walls of the fort.

Though Glory was a fictitious portrayal of actual events, a similar factual event took place in the November 25, 1863 Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee. A young Union officer, 1st Lt. Arthur MacArthur (father of future General Douglas MacArthur) took up the regimental colors, taking it to the crest of Missionary Ridge and planting it for his regiment to see, shouting, “On Wisconsin” rallying the (24th Wisconsin Infantry) regiment. MacArthur, the last in a succession of color bearers (each falling during the assault on the ridge), was awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.


USS Grenadier crew member Engineman 1/c James Landrum holds the handmade American flag above a crowd of jubilant Omori Camp prisoners who were being liberated. August, 1945 (source: U.S. Navy photo).

Aside from their use on the battlefield, the Stars and Stripes has been known to rally servicemen and women to survive horrific and trying situations and conditions. In the numerous prisoner of war (POW) camps in Japanese-occupied territories and home-islands, American POWs were not permitted to possess a flag. When the Japanese military was on the verge of capitulation, the Americans gathered what materials they could to construct a flag which was captured in a famous image (snapped by an unknown photographer on August 29, 1945) of jubilant POWs celebrating their impending liberation.

Though I have seen the image countless times in my life, I never stopped to consider who the men were or what became of the flag. In my own collection, I have managed to maintain a few flag items of significant meaning (at least to me and my shipmates) from the first ship that I served aboard and until recently, I didn’t give them or any other flags a lot of thought. Instead my flags sat in boxes, tucked away for safekeeping. For the Omori POWs, the flag has a meaning that is tenfold more significant than the manufactured, government-issue items I possess.

My interest in this Omori POW flag was ignited when the daughter of WWI veteran Electrician’s Mate 3/c Charles Johnson, initiated a thread (on a militaria discussion board) in 2012 with a post detailing her pursuit of a hand-made flag that was made famous in a photograph of the liberation of an Allied POW camp in Japan. Her father was a survivor of the U.S. submarine, USS Grenadier (SS-210) and a POW at the Omori prison camp near Yokohama.

The daughter continued her post, “My father wondered what happened to the flag and was afraid it was molding away in someone’s attic (or) gotten thrown away by someone who did not know the story behind it.” She continued, “I promised him before he passed that I would continue to look for it.”

Over the course of the ensuing weeks, many helpful replies were submitted by forum members yet no certain leads on the flag were submitted. At the end of September a break in the daughter’s pursuit came when a gentleman submitted a post stating that he was the son of the man holding the flag (Engineman 1/c James D. “Slim” Landrum – USS Grenadier) when the photo of the POWs was taken.

The son of Landrum recalled his father’s story of how he attached the handmade flag to a fireman’s pike pole because he wanted the American flag to extend up higher above the others (displayed by the British and Dutch POWs).  Afterward, the senior Landrum returned the flag to the fellow POW who supplied the bed sheet.

Armed with this information, the daughter of Petty Officer Johnson was able to locate a 1973 news article that told of the flag’s history and disposition. The Aomori camp flag was made by (then) Boatswain’s Mate 1/c Raymond Jakubielski (survivor of the USS Tanager – AM-5) and a handful of fellow POWs. In 1971, Jakubielski told the story, “In August when we heard from the camp grapevine that the Japs were about to surrender, I figured we ought to have a flag to welcome our boys in. Being the camp tailor, it was easy to get hold of an extra bed sheet and steal a couple colored pencils. Four of the mates helped color the flag and we had it up on the roof August 15, the day the Japs (sic) offered to surrender. Later, when the boats came to rescue us, our boys ran the flag up on a pole.” Having attained the rank of lieutenant prior to retiring from the navy, Raymond Jakubielski further remarked, “It was a welcome sight after seeing that rising sun thing around all the time.”

The Jakubielski family presented the flag to the U.S. Navy at Submarine Base in Norwich, Connecticut (Sunday, July 8, 1973) to Admiral Paul J. Early (a noteworthy veteran of the USS Nautilus’ submerged polar ice explorations known as Operation Sunshine) to be preserved for posterity. Subsequent to the gifting of the flag to the U.S. Navy, then-Connecticut senator Abraham A. Ribicoff arranged to have the flag flown over the U.S. Capital in tribute.

Though the information helped to close the loop for Charles Johnson’s daughter, the current disposition of the flag remained unknown. My curiosity had been piqued and I was subsequently prompted to reach out to the folks at the Naval Historical and Heritage Command. I requested information regarding the current location of the flag and, if it was in their possession, I asked if it would be photographed and shared within their Flickr photography collection. Several months after contacting them,  I received the greatly anticipated affirmative response from the NHHC staff. They did, indeed have the flag within their collection and they had photographed and posted the flag at my request.

Omori POW Flag

Purported to be the first American flag to fly over Tokyo, this 48-star flag was made from a white bed sheet and colored with colored pencils by prisoners at Sendai Camp No 11 in Omori Japan. It was flown in August, 1945 (source: collection of Curator Branch: Naval History and Heritage Command).

The conclusion to this story (locating the Omori flag), as happy as it may be for some readers, is not always a good one for a handful of collectors. The value in having an artifact of such incredible historical significance in the hands of archivists who will strive to preserve it and share it with the nation is immeasurable. Had the flag landed into a private collection or, worse yet, befallen the fate described by Charles Johnson, the history could have been lost.

Learn more about the American POWs in Japan:

Related Flag-Collecting Articles:

Ancestral Flag: A “Guidon” my Family History

lance - US Army Heritage Education Center

Housed at the US Army Heritage Education Center (located in Carlisle, PA), this image shows one of the actual lances carried by 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry troops.

Years ago, I embarked on a project to document most (if not all) the members of my family’s ancestry who served in the United States armed forces. Researching genealogy can be quite a daunting task when pursuing such a specific theme within confines of a family history. The difficulty in that task is compounded when the there is little or no documentation available to begin with.

I began my research with the names that I knew on my list – my father, grandfather (only one served), uncles, grand uncles and so on. Merely working backwards two generations, I accounted for six veterans (five with combat experience). The third generation up is where I began to experience challenges (some parts of the family emigrated from Canada or the United Kingdom which adds another complexity layer to the research effort), but was able to persevere, discovering several more U.S. service members.

It was at the fourth generation (removed from me) that I discovered one veteran in particular that had really captured my attention. My 3-times great-grandfather was a veteran of the American Civil War (ACW). I took several notes of his vital information and continued searching. I found that two of his grandfathers and at least one great-grandfather were veterans of the Revolutionary War. With this information, I established a stopping point and began to focus on ferreting out as much data as I could find. I decided to hone in on the Civil War veteran and began exhausting all of the online resources.

After receiving two packets of information following a National Archives request (and several weeks of waiting) I began to piece together what my ancestor did during his time in service. Like thousands of young men across the Union, my great, great, great-grandfather, Jarius Heilig, volunteered (September, 1861) to serve alongside his (Reading, PA) neighbors and relatives, enlisting into the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry (70th Pennsylvania Volunteers) – a unit formed by Colonel Richard Henry Rush (son of Richard Rush who was President Madison’s Attorney General and grandson of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence), classmate and friend of General George McClellan.

One interesting fact about the 6th Penna is that their primary weapon. the lance (rather than the standard U.S. cavalry-issued carbine rifle), was suggested by McClellan, harkening to the once-feared European dragoons and cavalry units. The weapon is described as:

“The Austrian pattern was adopted. It was nine feet long, with an eleven inch, three edged blade; the staff was Norway fir, about one and a quarter inches in diameter, with ferrule and counterpoise at the heel, and a scarlet swallow-tailed pennon, the whole weighing nearly five pounds.”

Rush's Lancers - 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry

“I” Company of the famed Rush’s Lancers as captured by Matthew Brady.

Though injured (by a horse-kick, of all things) at the end of 1862, Heilig had seen his share of combat serving entirely with “F” company until his February 1863 discharge (due to disability), with action in the following battles and skirmishes:

  • Skirmish, Garlick’s Landing, Pamunkey River, VA (June 13, 1862)

  • Seven Days Battles, VA (June 25-July 1, 1862)

  • Battles, Gaines Mill, Cold Harbor, Chickahominy, VA (June 27, 1862)

  • Battle, Glendale, Frazier’s Farm, Charles City Crossroads, New Market Crossroads, Willis Church, VA (June 30, 1862)

  • Battle, Malvern Hill, Crew’s Farm, VA (July 1, 1862)

  • Skirmishes, Falls Church, VA (Sept. 2-4, 1862)

  • Skirmish, South Mountain, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)

  • Skirmish, Jefferson, MD (Sept. 13, 1862)

  • Action, Sharpsburg, Shepherdstown, and Blackford’s Ford (Boteler’s Ford) and Williamsport, MD (Sept. 19, 1862)

  • Actions, Bloomfield and Upperville, VA (Nov. 2-3, 1862)

Research resources are quite abundant for this unit (which I am still pouring through) and it has been the subject of a handful of books that were the product of painstakingly thorough historical investigation.

What does this have to do with militaria collecting, you might be asking? Part of my quest in producing a historical narrative of my familial military service is to provide visual and tangible references. To illustrate history, words are only part of the equation in connecting the audience to the story. To see, smell and touch a piece of history provides an invaluable accompaniment to the narrative.

I have given considerable thought to my approach in gathering items to assemble a group of artifacts as a “re-creation” of things my great-grandfather might have kept over the years. Visual appeal, authenticity, believability and cost were all factors guiding me as I purchase various pieces for the collection. My goal with the group is to arrange it into an aesthetically pleasing display that I can then hang on my home office wall (along with the displays I have already created).

Collecting artifacts from the American Civil War is not a task that can easily be easily accomplished on a shoestring budget (such as my own). Seemingly everything is expensive from weapons (rifles, pistols and edged weapons) down to ordinary uniform buttons seen on literally millions of soldiers’ uniforms. The high prices and the popularity of the Civil War’s historical popularity (which is maintained by pop-culture with films like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) can have detrimental effects on the market as unscrupulous counterfeiters work tirelessly to cash in.

Adding to my challenge is the fact that there were far fewer cavalry soldiers who served during the war. Even more challenging is that my ancestor served with a state volunteer cavalry regiment, many of which had extremely unusual uniform appointments and accouterments  requiring even more research and discernment as to what my 3x-great grandfather would have been outfitted with.

These factors (combined with my own lack of experience) limited my focus to keep the pursuit as simplistic and affordable as possible while focusing on the more common ACW pieces for the display.

Since I embarked on this mission, I have acquired several pieces – a mixture of genuine and reproduction (recommended by a collector colleague) – that will display nicely together. From hat devices to corporal’s stripes (repro) to veteran’s group medals (GAR – Grand Army of the Republic – an ACW vets’ organization my ancestor was a lifelong member of).  In addition, I’ve collected some small arms projectiles (from weapons Heilig would have carried) excavated from battlefields where my great-grandfather fought.

Guidon - 6th Penna Cavalry

Nicely framed vintage American Civil War guidon of the 6th Penna Calvary (source: eBay image).

I am constantly on the lookout for pieces that would display well or that might be interesting additions to my militaria collection that could be directly tied to my ancestor’s unit. When a cavalry guidon flag (directly connected to the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry) was listed at online auction, my heart raced as I eagerly poured over the photos of the tattered and worn swallow-tailed cloth.

6th Pennsylvania Guidon Major Battles and Engagements

As was the custom of the Civil War, the major battles and engagements in which the unit participated were printed directly onto the stripes on the fly of the flag (source: eBay image).

Lost in the detailed images of the flag, I was amazed to see the faded relic nicely preserved in a frame behind glass. Bearing marks of the unit and the major battles printed directly on the red and white stripes, this flag appeared to be a true relic of the past. The the “I” designator in the blue canton (encircled by the white stars of the states) indicated that this was the guidon from I company (my great-grandfather served in company “F”). Everything about this flag excited me…until I read the description. The flag was a recreation of the original (which is permanently preserved and displayed at the Pennsylvania state house), right down to the synthesized aging (at least the seller was being honest about the piece).

6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Guidon Unit ID

Aside from the tell-tale swallow-tail design of the flag, the printed unit name indicates that this flag was from a cavalry regiment – specifically, the 6th Pennsylvania (source: eBay image).

6th Pennsylvania Cavalry Guidon - I company Canton

The letter “I” in the center of the blue canton represents the associated company within the 6th Pennsylvania that used this guidon (source: eBay image).

Had the price of the auction been realistic, (the starting bid was $1,000), I would have been interested in pursuing it as a realistic accompaniment to the display I am assembling.