The U.S. Coast Guard is often forgotten in a discussion of the American military, but they play a vital role in guarding and protecting the waters of the United States. They embark on hundreds of lifesaving search and rescue missions for boaters and sailors in distress. While nearly everyone is familiar with the flags for larger branches of the American military, the Coast Guard flag often goes unrecognized even though it has a long and proud tradition of faithful Americans serving under its banner.
The U. S. Coast Guard grew out of a multitude of American marine services, and its flag is a representation of many of these influences. The crest featured on the flag is partially derived from the flag of the U.S. Revenue Marine and Revenue Cutter Service. That flag was made official in 1799 and is still the guiding influence of the Coast Guard ensign. Otherwise, the origins are more obscure and difficult to trace, with little information for research.
Some claim that the flag was modeled on a jack flown by American vessels in the 1800s. A jack is a small version of a nation’s flag flown on ships in harbor to indicate their nationality. This theory is supported by a painting from 1840 depicting the ship Alexander Hamilton with a jack very similar to the current flag. The oil painting was done by R. Salmon, a prolific painter of naval vessels. Some of his works are currently showcased at the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
The first official flag of the U.S. Coast Guard appeared as an illustration in 1917. The illustration shows a white flag with a blue eagle in the center and a semi-circle of 13 stars around it. Sometime between 1917 and 1950, the words “United States Coast Guard – Semper Paratus” were added. The modern flag was developed around 1950, with a circle containing the 13 stars centered above the eagle. This standard is used in parades and ceremonies, and it is traditionally adorned with 34 battle streamers.
The blue crest is a representation of the Great Seal of the United States and, understandably, is packed with important symbols and meaning. The eagle is the official symbol of the United States. In the seal, it bears an escutcheon (or shield) of red, white, and blue that is reminiscent of the flag of the United States.
The eagle is supporting the escutcheon without support, which is a symbol to remind America that it should stand on its own, free from reliance on other nations for aid. The eagle is holding an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other. These represent the powers of peace and war that are wielded by the government.
The escutcheon is comprised of a chief and pales. The top part that features white stars on a blue field is called the chief. The red and white stripes are pales. The pales represent the several states joining together to support the chief, a symbol of Congress that governs the U.S. Each color has its own significance.
Red represents valor, white represents purity, and blue represents justice. Above the eagle is a circle with 13 stars, which is referred to as the constellation. This represents the government joining the thirteen original states and ranking above the sovereign state governments.
In addition to the words “United States Coast Guard,” the Coast Guard’s motto, Semper Paratus also appears on the flag. The motto means “always ready.” The motto is also the title of the Coast Guard’s marching song. The song was composed by USCG officer Francis Saltus Von Boskerck. He wrote the lyrics in 1922, and then set them to music in 1927. It has been modified slightly, over the years, but the bulk of the words and sentiment remain unaltered.
Coast Guard Ensign
The Coast Guard is unique in the branches of the American military in that it has two official flags – the white standard and the ensign. The Coast Guard’s ensign flag is used only as a symbol of law enforcement authority to uphold the laws of the United States, such as when they must board and examine a foreign ship or seize a vessel. It is never used in parades or during ceremonies. The ensign looks almost exactly like the flag of the Revenue Cutter Service that was authorized in 1799.
With a long tradition of protecting America’s waters, the Coast Guard remains an integral part of America’s military. Though the flag may not be well known, it is flown proudly by United States Coast Guard members, veterans, and their families. It carries some of the best parts of America’s proud symbolism and is a fitting banner for the backbone of America’s waters.