Aim High: History and Significance of Air Force Day

On a chilly, windswept dune in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright experienced the longest controlled, powered flight yet known to humankind. The date was December 17, 1903.

The initial flight lasted 12 seconds and covered 10 feet per second. The day culminated with a flight of 59 seconds, which traveled across 852 feet of sand. Continue reading

The Flag of the United States Marine Corps

US marine corps flag

The emblem of the United States Marine Corps is one of the most recognizable symbols in America. The Corps accepts only the most elite, dedicated soldiers, and that dedication truly lasts a lifetime. Marines proudly display the Corps emblem on their vehicles, their clothing and even their skin!

The flag of the Marine Corps flies outside homes across the country, showing support for the members of this elite group that protects our country. While the flag displays the iconic emblem, there are also other important features to understand on this proud banner and the history behind its creation. Continue reading

Celebrate Armed Forces Day with Military Gifts

Armed Forces Day has been recognized as an official national holiday since 1961. America celebrates Armed Forces Day on the third Saturday of May every year, and in 2017, May 20th is the day to remember.

Since Armed Forces Day is not far off, many of us want to find the perfect gift to show our love and support for the U.S. military and their families. Showing support by visiting military air shows and attending patriotic parades it a wonderful way to spend the day. Giving a gift, however, serves as a constant reminder of our American pride all year long.

American flag against blue sky Continue reading

The Flag of the U. S. Navy

United States Navy flagOf all the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, the Navy may be the most diverse. Everyone thinks of the Navy as just sailors, protecting our country from the deck of a ship, but the Navy has a rich intelligence branch, a naval air force and a special operations force, the Navy SEALS.

The brave men and women who serve our country in the Navy are much more than sailors patrolling our waters. With their prestigious history of service, it is fitting that the Navy has a flag as proud as their servicemen. Continue reading

Semaphore Flags

11949934001267935583semaphore_positions.svg.medDid that get your attention? It should have, because that motion with the flags in that position is the internationally designated semaphore signal for “Attention!” It also means “Error,” but we can skip that for now.

Semaphore flags are the end result of a signaling system developed in the late 1600s by Robert Hooke (of microscope fame). He presented it to the Royal Society, but they failed to do anything with it. A century later, it was adapted and used by Claude Chappe in France, eventually covering much of the country and allowing for very rapid transmission of information across vast distances.

Chappe’s design was a tower with a large crossbar at the top, with arms at either end that each could be arranged in seven different positions. The crossbar itself could assume four different positions, allowing for a total of 196 different configurations. This allowed for a sophisticated system of phrases and messages to be sent to another tower within extreme visual distance, which would then copy it, allowing the next tower to copy it, and so on.

These towers were so successful that the French government initially rejected Samuel Morse’s telegraph on the basis that the wires could be too easily cut. Eventually, of course, they fell out of favor, largely because they were pretty much useless at night, and when they could be seen, everyone could see them, so secret signals were suddenly no longer as much so.

Before that time, though, they inspired the development of the smaller version used shipboard to great effect. Those were flags, and that’s why we’re here.

US_Navy_030611-N-3160B-003_Signalman_Seaman_Adrian_Delaney_practices_his_semaphore

Semaphore flags are (if on a ship) red and yellow or (if on land) blue and white. The colors are split diagonally with the red hoist-side and on top. (Although the colors don’t matter: the land-based version is blue with a white square in the center. It’s just to make the arm position more obvious.)

The arm position is what gives the letter – or numeral, depending on what you need to signal. The flags do not overlap unless they are in the “rest” or “space” position, in which case they are directly in front of the signaler with both arms straight down. The alphabet is laid out similarly to a wheel: each arm can take one of eight positions, and the combination of the positions of the two arms denotes the letter. Six of the letters require an arm to be brought across the body so the flags are on the same side, and there is a unique signal to denote that the signaler is switching to numbers. (The switch back to letters is denoted by signaling “J”.)

Starting in the rest position with both flags in the down position, the right arm rising to low gives “A”, and rises a quarter-rotation for B, C, and D. Then the right arm drops back to down, the left arm goes to the high position for “E” and follows down to “G”.

Easy enough, right? Then “H” is done by the right hand being straight out and the left hand going across to the low position underneath. Keep your left hand there for “I” while raising the right hand up to the high position. Skip “J” for now; “K” continues the same circle except for convenience’s sake you swap arms. That is to say, right hand in the low position, left hand in the up position. “L” through “N” continue the sweep, then you move your right hand up one more to straight out and cross your left hand over again. Then the pattern continues – it’s actually much easier than it sounds from just reading it.

We did imply we would come back to “J”. That’s a unique position where your right hand is straight up and your left hand is straight out. This may seem odd, but it’s a consequence of assigning numbers to the first series of letters; the signal to switch back has to be significantly different so the intent is clear.

Semaphore is not outdated quite yet; it has significant use as a quick signaling system for areas – such as in the mountains or onboard ship – where visual clarity is good but the distance between participants may be too great for verbal clarity. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have used it (without flags, unfortunately) for years in such situations.

Of course, the most famous use of semaphore is probably Monty Python’s depiction of the classic British pastime of reciting Wuthering Heights completely in semaphore, as Emily Bronte probably originally wished.

You Are Not Forgotten

2000px-United_States_POW-MIA_flag.svgIn rear windows, on motorcycles, flying on flag poles in front of businesses and homes, the POW-MIA flag has become an iconic symbol in America for the nation’s concern for military personnel missing and unaccounted for in foreign wars. The idea for such a flag was first thought of by Mary Helen Hoff, wife of Navy pilot Lieutenant Commander Michael Hoff who had been missing in action in Vietnam since January 7, 1970.

Hoff was a member of the National League of POW/MIA Families, an organization whose sole mission is “to obtain the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for the missing, and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died serving our nation during the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia.” Created in 1969 by the wives of POWs in Southeast Asia, their purpose was originally to raise awareness about the mistreatment of POWs, and it grew into much more.

Feeling as though the organization needed a standard in which to spread the message of the organization, Hoff called the world’s oldest, well-known flag maker Annin Flagmakers in Verona, New Jersey. The company was honored to be chosen to make such a flag, representing so much for many families across the United States. They took it to their advertising agency to design, and the assignment was given to one of the graphic designers.

In 1972, Newt Heisley created the design for the now famous flag. Heisley was a veteran himself, a pilot in World War II who flew C-64 transports for the 433rd Troop Carrier Group and earned the bronze star for his service. He modeled the silhouette profile we readily recognize in the POW-MIA flag after his son who, at the time, was serving in the Marine Corps. In an interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette in 1997, Heisley told reporters that the flag “was intended for a small group. No one realized it was going to get national attention.”

But that’s exactly what happened. The flag was used to keep the POW-MIA issue fresh in the minds of Americans across the country. Finally, Congress passed a law in 1990 stating the flag was now recognized “as a symbol of our Nation’s concern and commitment to resolving as fully as possible the fates of Americans still prisoner, missing, and unaccounted for in Southeast Asia. Thus ending the uncertainty for their families and the Nation.” It is now widely accepted to represent not only prisoners and missing from Southeast Asia, but all foreign wars.

Aside from Congress putting into law the recognition of the POW-MIA flag, many states have made it mandatory to fly the flag on state government buildings. Idaho became the first state to require the flag to be flown on flagpoles in front of every state building, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week  “or until such time as all our unaccounted for and missing members of the Armed Forces return.” The message “You are not forgotten” is being sent loud and clear, coast to coast, and felt in the heart of every American.

The Controversial Green Mountain Boys

 Green Mountain Boys Flag

The American Revolution was a turbulent time for a new nation on the verge of being born. Settlers who had come here to escape the oppression of England’s royal rule banded together to fight for freedom, to establish a new republic in which all men are created equal. To unite the people, creating a feeling of belonging, pride, and patriotism, flags were flown for various purposes and over clusters of militia.

Who Were the Green Mountain Boys

One such militia consisted of the Green Mountain Boys, a group of settlers and land speculators who controlled the area called the New Hampshire Grants, located between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain, what we know today as Vermont. Technically, they were under the control of New York, a decision made by the British; however, no town (save Brattleboro) acknowledged the laws imposed by the Brits.

Though the Green Mountain Boys did not recognize the laws of the British, they did support the call to arms at the start of the American Revolution. Led by Ethan Allen, his brother Ira Allen, and their cousin Seth Warner, the Green Mountain Boys had great success in the revolutionary war. Being hardened settlers, with a strong desire for freedom to live as they please, these men rallied around their standard, flying it at every conquest.

Their Successes During the War

While their victories may have been small, they were strategic wins in the war. At the beginning of the conflict, Allen and his men trekked north and took Ticonderoga, a small British garrison. After that, they headed down to Boston to defeat the British siege on the city. By taking the fort in the north, they cut off supplies and communications coming through Canada, as well as an attack from the redcoats stationed at the fort. Freeing the city of Boston ended the stand-off with the British.

The Green Mountain Boys contributed during the Battle of Bennington and the Battle of Hubbardton, and they participated in the invasion of Quebec.

Why So Controversial?

This militia was formed to stop New York from attempting to control their land, which they had rightfully settled years before New Hampshire lost its claim on it. Created in the 1760s, the Green Mountain Boys’ goal was to stop land surveyors, and, according to www.vermonthistory.org, they would evict people from their home and land if they held a grant from the state of New York. They may have been lawless and harsh, but they were a necessary force at the time.

Aside from their apparently lawless ways, governing the New Hampshire Grant area as their own republic, they were also said to be a “bigger deal” than they actually were. For example, in the taking of Fort Ticonderoga, they fought in tandem with another group led by Benedict Arnold. They downplayed the Arnold’s participation—to the point they “lost” his memoir.

Their Legacy

The Green Mountain Boys disbanded in 1777 when Vermont declared its independence from Britain and became a republic for fourteen years before becoming the 14th state admitted into the union. The remnants of the Green Mountain Boys became the Continental Rangers, led by Seth Warner. Ethan Allen had left the militia to join the Northern Army of New York with a rank of Lieutenant Colonel under Philip Schuyler. During the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the Spanish American War, the Green Mountain Boys mustered to fight again.

Their flag is a green field with a blue canton in the upper left corner containing 13 stars in a natural pattern. The green is representative of the area they lived, the Green Mountains. The thirteen stars symbolized the original thirteen colonies of the United States. It is potentially the most well-known flag of the Revolutionary War.

Today, this flag is still flown to symbolize the Vermont National Guard. This standard and many others can be found at AmericanFlags.com, where you will only find flags made in America by Americans. Fly your colors with pride!

Honor and Glory: The Standard Bearer

Battle Flag

Flags have long delineated who we are as individuals, what groups we belong to, and what we want to claim as our own. The brilliant colors and strange menageries found on banners are their own language, for flags were meant for communication before literacy was common. In the less civilized days of our past, the designs on flags gave travelers, soldiers, and common folk basic information about the areas they were living in or traveling through.

At the very apex of these communications, flags were the ones used in battle. Any given army or unit would be identified by their ensign from afar, and the most vital (and dangerous) job on the field was the standard bearer. An unusual position of honor, the person chosen to carry the flag for his army had to be an extraordinary one, for he was the primary target for all as soon as he set foot in battle.

Quick Communication: A Bright Idea

Before the modern invention of the radio, communication at a distance—whether during war or peace—was a difficult prospect. Written messages and couriers were somewhat effective, but hazardously slow and hard to deliver, especially during pitched battle. Accurate positioning of appropriate forces was absolutely essential—so each unit would have a designated soldier who carried a token of identification on a long pole. These manifested in several ways, with animals being the most popular icons.

The Aquila: A Spirit of Battle

Of particular importance for the Romans was the Aquila, the bronze eagle carried to represent the spirit of the entire army. A general, from a small distance, could see the movements of his forces by their ensigns and correct them swiftly. In return, any given soldier could find his general by seeking the Aquila. Being chosen to carry the Aquila was one of the highest honors that could be bestowed upon a soldier: Not only was that eagle the rallying point, it was the avatar of the army’s fighting spirit.

To the Romans, the Aquila was a god. To carry and defend that spirit required a fighter of the highest ability, possessed of independent intelligence and a fanatical devotion to Rome itself. Concurrently, the standard bearer was usually accompanied by the general himself and an elite group of soldiers: the color guard. While still being an active part of the fighting force, this particular unit was devoted to the preservation of their standard. The loss of that symbol, that god, was a devastating blow for two reasons.

First, it meant that they had lost their deity and their honor. Second, and deadly from a tactical point of view, the regular army would have no visual signal to indicate central command. An army without a standard was often an army without a general, and, therefore, must be losing badly. Troops would often break and run without the assurance of an intact chain of command.

The Hundred Years War

Though the Roman Empire eventually fell, the sanctity of one’s standard and the honor of being flag-bearer continued down through the ages. In particular, as the ideals of chivalry spread through Western Europe, the honor of carrying your country’s emblem redoubled in importance. With the concept of knighthood came the secondary display of one’s own colors, or “device.” This was especially noteworthy during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between England and France. Rich ransoms could be acquired by capturing the right people. A captured knight was a valuable commodity, and the money his King would pay for his freedom not inconsiderable.

All you had to do was read the correct flags and capture soldiers carrying their easily identifiable shields. This was a common practice, for one or two ransoms could provide a gentlemanly retirement. Of particular interest on any given field of battle, then, was any monarch present, readily identified by his own personal standard.

The knight charged with the duty of carrying the king’s banner was one of proven skill and bravery, for once again the banner made him a target. As the model of the perfect knight, Sir Geoffroi de Charny of France may be the most iconic standard bearer in all of history. A noteworthy statesman and brilliant fighter, de Charny was charged to carry the Oriflamme—the standard of the French monarchy.  It was considered to be the embodiment of their military greatness, much as the Aquila was centuries before.

At the Battle of Poitiers (though at almost sixty years of age), the valiant de Charny carried the Oriflamme and fought at the side of the king himself. Against overwhelming odds (five Englishmen to every one Frenchman) de Charney’s courage never faltered. This “true and perfect knight” died at the hands of the English, but even as he perished he refused to relinquish the Oriflamme. Such was the power of these symbols and the collective belief accumulated with their presence. The French suffered a devastating defeat, but the legend and the impact of Geoffroi de Charny’s actions have remained impressive through the annals of history.

The Civil War

Over four hundred years later, the intertwined importance of the flag and the standard-bearer still carried great weight. Whereas before capture and ransom were an essential part of war, the American Civil War unfolded new depths of terror upon the battlefield. Unlike the almost ceremonial confrontations of Europe, this conflict was known for being horrifically bloody.

The invention of gunpowder and the common usage of rifles added incalculable risk to those chosen to carry the flag. Not only were the standard bearers still marked targets, they were now often the only visible targets in fields clouded with gunsmoke. Both the North and the South had conventions for the color guard—nine men total—but the peril was equal for both sides.

The army’s flag and flag bearer were always the prime targets for the densest and most violent fighting. Again, capturing the enemy’s flag was considered an act of the sheerest bravery, and the men responsible would be honored for their courage. No unit surrenders their standard easily, and the price men paid on both sides of the battle was incalculably steep.

Where Did the Battle Flags Go?

It is fairly accurate to say that very few elements of combat have stayed consistent since Roman times. The advent of modern warfare tactics, remote communication, flight, and motorized vehicles all contribute to a very different approach to warfare.

A flag is no longer strictly necessary. Often, in missions of liberation, an openly displayed flag would be viewed as an act of occupation and not one of rescue. Unit flags are still kept and treasured, but are only flown in the most tactful ways possible. Much of today’s warfare depends on swiftness and stealth, both of which would be greatly hampered by a gigantic flag. In lieu of this, members of the American army still carry the Stars and Stripes on their sleeves in muted colors. You can find almost any flag you may want to fly at AmericanFlags.com, where the standards are made in America, by Americans.

It is interesting to note, however, that the stars always face forward, signifying that each soldier is bearing the flag into battle. Many rituals still exist today that honor our flags and what they represent—notably at dawn and dusk to raise or lower the flag. Another remnant exists in the manifestation of color guards as part of marching bands and parades.

While no longer representing the flower of chivalry, members of today’s color guards still carry out important ceremonial functions. It is a rather pleasant change from the standard bearer’s violent history that the flag carrier no longer has to fear violent challenge and death for proudly carrying their banners.