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Stars and Stripes Story

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'


The story of the origin of our National flag parallels the story of the origin of our country. As our country received its birthright from the peoples of many lands who were gathered on these shores to found a new nation, so did the patterns of the Stars and Stripes rise from several origins back in the mists of antiquity to become emblazoned on the standards of our infant Republic.

The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun. Both themes have long been represented on the standards of nations, from banners of astral worshippers of ancient Egypt and Babylon to the 12-starred flag of the Spanish Conquistadors under Cortez. Continuing in favor, they spread to the striped standards of Holland and the West India Company in the 17th century and to the present patterns of stars and stripes on the flags of several nations on Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americans.

The first flags adopted by our colonial forefathers were symbolic of their struggles with the wilderness of a new land. Beavers, pine trees, rattlesnakes, anchors, and various like insignia with mottoes such as "Hope," "Liberty," "Appeal to Heaven," or "Don't Tread on Me" were affixed to the different banners of Colonial America.

The first flag of the colonists to have any resemblance to the present Stars and Stripes was the Grand Union Flag, sometimes referred to as the "Congress Colors." It consisted of thirteen stripes, alternately red and white, representing the Thirteen Colonies, with a blue field in the upper left-hand corner bearing the crosses of St George and St Andrew, signifying union with the mother country. This banner was first flown by the ships of the Colonial Fleet in the Delaware River in December 1775.

In January 1776, the Grand Union flag became the standard of the Continental Army which had come into being some months before -- in June 1775. it was also carried by American Marines and Bluejackets comprising an expeditionary force to the West Indies in 1776.

During the previous year, a canton (section) of thirteen stripes appeared on the yellow silk standard of the Philadelphia troop of Light Horse when the latter served as an escort to General Washington who was journeying to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to assume command of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire volunteers.

Some Americans still believe that Betsy Ross made the first flag, although historians dispute this story. Another disputed story is that the first Stars and Stripes was displayed in the face of an armed enemy at Fort Schuyler, 3 August 1777. The flag was improvised. The white part came from a soldier's shirt; a captain's cloak supplied the blue of the union; and the red stripes came from the flannel petticoat of a soldier's wife, who gladly donated it for the purpose. However, this was probably a Grand Union flag.

Continental Congress passed a resolution that established the Stars and Stripes on 17 June 1777, but did not specify the arrangement of the thirteen stars on the blue union, except to say that they should represent a new constellation. Consequently, some had stars in a circle, some in rows, some scattered on the blue field without any apparent design. The flag popularly known as the Betsy Ross flag hangs the stars in a circle.

The first Navy Stars and Stripes had the stars arranged in staggered formation in alternate lines and rows of threes and twos on a blue field. A close inspection of this arrangement of the stars shows a distinct outline of the x-shaped cross of St Andrew and the cross of St George of the English flag. This indicates how difficult it was for the colonists, even at that late date, to break away entirely from the British flag under which they had been born and had lived all the years of their lives.

The Resolution of 14 June 1777 establishing the Stars and Stripes has an interesting history. After the Declaration of Independence, colonial vessels were putting to sea to hamper enemy communications and prey on British commerce. Many of them flew the flags of the particular colonies to which they belonged. It was necessary to provide an authorized national flag under which they could sail, for England considered armed vessels without such a flag as pirate ships and hanged their crews when they captured them. So the Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress presented the Resolution, which was on the subject of the Navy.

General Washington, when the Star-Spangled Banner was first flown by the Continental Army, is reputed to have described its symbolism as follows: "We take the stars from heaven, the red from our mother country, separating it by white stripes, thus showing that we have separated from her, and the white shall go down to posterity representing liberty." After the admission of Kentucky and Vermont, a resolution was adopted in January 1794 making the flag one of fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.

Realizing that the flag would become unwieldy with a stripe for each new State, Captain Samuel C. Reid, USN, suggested to Congress that the stripes remain thirteen in number to represent the Thirteen Colonies, and that a star be added to the blue field for each new State coming into the Union. A law of 4 April 1818 that resulted requires that a star be added for each new State on the 4th of July after its admission but that the thirteen stripes remain unchanged.

A 48-star flag came with admissions of Arizona and New Mexico in 1912. Alaska added a 49th star in 1959, and Hawaii a 50th star in 1960.

There is no fixed order for numbering the stars in the flag, nor are stars assigned to particular States. The stars represent the States collectively, not individually, and no particular star may be designated as representative of any particular State.

Following the War of 1812, a great wave of nationalistic spirit spread throughout the country; the infant Republic had successfully defied the might of an empire. As this spirit spread, the Stars and Stripes began to take on the characteristics of a mighty symbol of sovereignty. The homage paid that banner is best expressed by what the gifted men of later generations wrote concerning it.

The brilliant Henry Ward Beecher said: "A thoughtful mind when it sees a nation's flag, sees not the flag, but the nation itself. And whatever may be its symbols, its insignia, he reads chiefly in the flag, the government, the principles, the truths, the history that belong to the nation that sets it forth. The American flag has been a symbol of Liberty and men rejoiced in it.

The stars upon it were like the bright morning stars of God, and the stripes upon it were beams of morning light. As at early dawn the stars shine forth even while it grows light, and then as the sun advances that light breaks into banks and streaming lines of color, the glowing red and intense white striving together, and ribbing the horizon with bars effulgent, so, on the American flag, stars and beams of many-colored lights shine out together..."

In a 1917 Flag Day message, President Wilson said: "This flag, which we honor and under which we serve, is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought and purpose as a nation. It has no other character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choices are ours. It floats in majestic silence above the hosts that execute those choices, whether in peace or in war. And yet, though silent, it speaks to us -- speaks to us of the past, or the men and women who went before us, and of the records they wrote upon it."

"We celebrate the day of its birth; and from its birth until now it has witnessed a great history, has floated on high the symbol of great events, of a great plan of life worked out by a great people."

"Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution when every principle we hold dearest is to be vindicated and made secure for the salvation of the nation. We are ready to plead at the bar of history, and our flag shall wear a new luster. Once more we shall make good with our lives and fortunes the great faith to which we were born, and a new glory shall shine in the face of our people."

Thus the Stars and Stripes came into being; born amid the strife of battle, it became the standard around which a free people struggled to found a great Nation. Its spirit is fervently expressed in the words of Thomas Jefferson:

"I swear, before the altar of God, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Traditionally a symbol of liberty, the American flag has carried the message of freedom to many parts of the world. Sometimes the identical flag that was flying at a crucial moment in our history has been flown again in another place to symbolize continuity in our struggles in the cause of liberty.

One of our most memorable is the flag that flew over the Capitol in Washington on 7 December 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. This same flag was raised again 8 December when war was declared on Japan, and three days later at the time of the declaration of war against Germany and Italy. President Roosevelt called it the "flag of liberation" and carried it with him to the Casablanca Conference and on other historic occasions. It flew from the mast of the USS "Missouri" during the formal Japanese surrender on 2 September 1945.

Another historic flag is the one that flew over Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. It also rippled above the United Nations Charter meeting at San Francisco and over the Big Three Conference at Potsdam. This same flag flew over the White House on 14 August 1945, when the Japanese accepted surrender terms.

Origin of "The Colors"

From the times of the Roman legions, various standards were carried within the military units to identify them to the on-scene commander. A Roman company-sized unit called a "maniple" ("handful") carried a handful of straw on the end of a pole and used it as a rallying point in battle. Over the years the unit standard became sacred, and it was singular honor to carry it. The tradition held throughout the ages, and at the beginning of the seventeenth century when armies adopted the regimental system, someone decided to assign color (using the word in it conventional sense) to each regiment. Thus, there were "red" and "blue" regiments. Surprisingly, the practice was not limited to western armies. In about 1650 the first of the Manchus experimented with new concepts of military organization, and assigned color banners to his various groups of troops.

After 1813 the colors were carried by the Color Sergeant, a rank specifically introduced into the British Army first, then the American, to bestow special recognition for the NCO honored to carry the unit's identifier. In battle, a dubious honor this became. Writing of Waterloo, a British sergeant said:

"About 4 o'clock I was ordered to the Colours; this, although I was used to warfare as much as anyone, was a job I did not at all like. But still I went as boldly to work as I could. There had been before me that day 14 sergeants already killed or wounded and the staff and the Colours almost cut to pieces."

The practice of carrying colors into battle continued throughout the American Civil War; often success was measured in terms of the numbers of enemy colors captured. The last Medals of Honor awarded during the war were for capturing Confederate colors.