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Military Flags (U.S.)

Last modified: 2024-03-23 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | military | order |
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Order When Displayed

The order of precedence when displaying military flags together is Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. Except that Coast Guard moves up right behind Navy when the Coast Guard serves as a service of the Dept of the Navy in time of war. The basic citation is Department of Defense Directive 1005.8. It's promulgated down the line in various service directives. I believe for the Marines its Chapter 12 of U.S. Navy Regulations and NAVMC 2691, the Marine Corps Drill Manual.

Army comes first because it was created first -14 June 1775. Marines come second because, even though they were created a month after the Navy (10 Nov vs. 13 Oct 1775), some Secretary of the Navy accorded them precedence back in the days before defense unification (late 1800s, as I recall).

Coast Guard last, I guess because they're not one of the big four, even though they're 150 years older than the Air Force.
Joe McMillan, 22 September 1999

People sometimes ask why the Marine Corps flag comes before the Navy flag. The Marines have had an official corps color since 1881, and the current scarlet flag since 1939. But there was no official U.S. Navy flag until 1959, and by that time the official order of precedence among the services had already been set as Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard.

The real question is why the Marines take precedence over the Navy, even though the Navy's official founding date is 28 days earlier. The Navy History Center says it's because the Marines have, since 1921, consistently claimed 10 November 1775, when the Continental Marines were created, as their founding date. The Marines chose to disregard the gap in their lineage caused by the disestablishment of the Corps after the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the Navy had variously claimed 1794, when the Navy was reestablished after the Revolution, and 1798, when the separate Department of the Navy was created, settling on 13 Oct 1775 (the founding date of the Continental Navy) only in 1972.

But this all ignores the fact that by the 1890s Navy landing force manuals, which governed not only combat tactics but parade protocol, already stipulated that when Marine and Navy battalions were paraded together, the Marines would take the position at the right, or more senior, end of the line. I believe the practice stems from a decision by a Secretary of the Navy some time in the mid-19th century, but have never been able to pin it down more precisely than that.
Joe McMillan, 17 December 2001

In 1972 the Navy officially changed to October 1775, which was one month prior to the Marines at November 1775. Prior to officially changing to this date, they were a younger service than the Marines -- Congress didn't authorize a Navy until 1789. In 1972, the Navy chose to make their inception date October 1775, which was when the Continental Congress authorized a Continental Navy to search out ships bringing munitions to the British. After the war for independence, the ships were sold and the personnel released.
Tammy Baker 31 May 2002

According to the website,
House Resolution H.R.1119 National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998 SEC. 1054.

includes the following provision:

PROTOCOL: If flying the flag from ONE FLAG POLE, the POW/MIA flag is flown directly below the National Colors and above any state flag.
  • If flying National, POW/MIA and State flags from TWO poles, the POW/MIA flag should be flown from the same pole as the National Colors, and beneath the American Flag, with the state flag flying from the pole to the left.
  • If flying flags from three poles, the National Colors occupy the place of prominence (the right), with the POW/MIA flag immediately to the left of the U.S. Flag, and the state flag to the left of the POW/MIA flag.
Ned Smith, 28 November 2003

It should be noted that the act in question only pertains to certain government facilities, such as the White House, State Department, Defense Department and U.S. Postal Service, among them. It does contradict certain policy issued by the protocol directorate at the U.S. Air Force Academy: "POW/MIA flag is displayed when appropriate and normally only with the U.S. flag (U.S. flag takes the position of honor)." Not all of these institutions fly a state flag.
Phil Nelson, 28 November 2003

This White House photo confirms the suspected order of precedence including the US Space Force flag:
1) US Army (out of the picture frame)
2) US Marine Corps
3) US Navy
4) US Air Force
5) US Space Force
6) US Coast Guard

At present, it does not have any campaign streamers attached, but I expect there will be a concerted effort by the Air Force Historical Research Agency to compile a list of actions that Air Force Space Command units have participated in since its inception in 1982. (Contrary to popular belief, expeditionary space units do deploy into combat zones).
Dave Fowler, 21 June 2020

DOD directives and Army regulations only address the (now six) armed forces, and not all eight uniformed services flags when displayed together.

However, the ceremonies manual for the US Public Health Service does specifically discuss this and order the US Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps flags to be displayed directly after the US Coast Guard flag (page 17):
The attached (pre-Space Force) picture shows an example of this.
Dave Fowler, 10 April 2021

Reverse Depictions of the US Flag

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard wear the "reverse" flag on the right sleeve of OCPs (occupational camouflage pattern uniform) or non-camouflage utility uniforms.
The Marine Corps, US Public Health Service and NOAA don't wear the flag.
The Space Force wears it on the left sleeve.

Here is an article as to the "why" of the reverse flag.
Dave Fowler, 1 May 2022

As a custom, this display was commented on in NAVA News #179, Jul-Sep 2003, p.5 in an article entitled “Flying The Flag On A Vehicle” by David B. Martucci. The article references a prior piece found in Raven 7, 2000 “Evolution Of The U.S. National Air Insignia: 1861 to the Present”, p.57 by John Gámez. In particular, see illustrations on p.86 and related text on p. 88. These publications are available on the NAVA web site.
Dave Martucci, 2 May 2022

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