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Coast Guard (U.S.)

Last modified: 2022-06-18 by rick wyatt
Keywords: united states | coast guard | commissioning pennant |
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[U.S. Coast Guard Indoor/Parade flag]   
[U.S. Coast Guard ensign]
image by Tom Gregg, 19 September 1998
image by Michael P. Smuda, 22 September 1998

See also:

In 1915 the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (formed in 1790) and the U.S. Life-Saving Service (formed in 1848), which had been operating under the administrative control of the Revenue Cutter Service since it was formed, merged to form the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1939 the U.S. Lighthouse Service (originally the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment, formed in 1789) was merged with the Coast Guard.
Dan of Pennsylvania, 2 January 2002


The recent discussion of U.S. military colors reminded me of the fact that the Coast Guard is somewhat unusual among the U.S. armed forces in that it has *two* distinctive flags. One is an ensign for use by Coast Guard ships (or cutters, as the service terms its vessels) and shore establishments; the other is a military standard for use on ceremonial occasions.

The ensign is white with vertical red stripes and a white canton. In the canton is a dark blue U.S. Coat of Arms; in the fly is the Coast Guard badge. (The same flag, without the Coast Guard badge, is used by the U.S. Customs Service.) The Coast Guard Ensign is always flown together with the National Ensign, never on its own.

The Coast Guard Standard is white with yellow fringe and a dark blue U.S. Coat of Arms overall. The shield on the eagle's breast has a blue chief over vertical red and white stripes. Inscribed in an arc above the eagle is "UNITED STATES COAST GUARD"; below the eagle is the U.S.C.G. motto, "SEMPER PARATUS" ("Always Ready") and beneath that the numerals "1790" -- this being the year in which the service's ancestor, the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, was founded. All inscriptions are dark blue.

The Coast Guard Standard is 4' 4" at the hoist by 5' 6" at the fly and is always carried or displayed with campaign streamers attached. Like other U.S. military colors, it is always carried or displayed with the National Color, never on its own.
Tom Gregg, 19 December 1996

Why Two Flags?

The Coast Guard Ensign is flown by cutters and shore units and the Standard is used at ceremonies. There is a little more to it however. While the Standard is the flag that is used to represent the service, the ensign is another matter altogether.

The Coast Guard is the only United States armed service that has general law enforcement authority. In 1790 Alexander Hamilton formed the Revenue Cutter Service (our ancestor) for the express purpose of enforcing the customs laws. In contrast, the other armed services are prohibited by law from conducting law enforcement activities, except as authorized by Congress on a limited basis. (Posse Comitatus Act)

Law enforcement is one of the Coast Guard's core missions. The Coast Guard is and always has been, a federal law enforcement agency, with authority to enforce or assist in the enforcement of all federal laws on the high seas and waters over which the Unites States has jurisdiction. Coast Guard officers and petty officers are authorized to make arrests for any offense against the United States, carry firearms, and board, examine, inspect, search and seize any vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. They are also officers of the customs; hence the close resemblance of the flags of the two organizations. The authority to do all of this comes from Title 14, U.S. Code, Sections 2, 89, and 143 and Title 19, U.S. Code, Section 1589a.

The Coast Guard ensign is the visible symbol of that law enforcement authority and is recognized all over the world as such. It is required by law to be flown by Coast Guard vessels engaged in law enforcement as a symbol of their law enforcement authority. That's why the ensign exists. Since law enforcement is one of the Coast Guard's core missions, all CG vessels are always ready to conduct that mission and are required to fly the ensign. The Coast Guard's law enforcement authority and mission is also the reason it was an agency within the Department of Transportation, while the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force are all within the Defense Department.
BMCS Herbert R. Mann, 11 October 1999

Number of Stripes

The number of stripes on the Coast Guard flag represents the number of states existing at the time the Coast Guard was organized as the Revenue Cutter Service.
Phil Abbey, 23 September 1998

Use and Display

The Coast Guard ensign is flown from a side halyard and never replaces the U.S. flag at the stern on a ship. The Coast Guard flag is also used ashore at Coast Guard facilities. The Customs flag is sometimes flown on a Coast Guard ship carrying customs officers but is more typically flown from Customs patrol/pilot boats used to transport Customs officers. It is also flown at every American customs house on land and at port of entries between the U.S. and Canada or Mexico. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (I&NS) pennant is used much the same as the Customs flag but is less frequently seen in practice. The Coast Guard, Customs, and I&NS flags never replace the U.S. flag and are always flown in a subordinate position on a pole. In many cases the pole arrangement at a customs house is a cross-treed affair with the U.S. flag flying in the higher center position with the customs and I&NS flags on either side. Federal installations seldom, if ever, fly a local or state flag in addition to the U.S. flag. For a time locally the main port of entry between San Diego, California and Tijuana, BC, Mexico sported the federal buildings with their three or four flags. Located on the same property was a state office building housing agricultural and highway safety inspectors. Only the state's building had a California flag. It flew below the U.S. flag on a pole erected in front of its building. The City's police station a couple of kilos up the road flew only the U.S. and California flags although the City has a perfectly acceptable flag that has been in limited use for over 50 years.
Phil Abbey, 23 September 1998

Chronology of the Ensign

Revenue ensign adopted 1799: "sixteen perpendicular stripes, alternate red and white, the Union of the Ensign to be the Arms of the United States, in dark blue, on a white field."

Revenue Cutter Service badge added to fly 1910, to differentiate flag used by RCS from that flown on customhouses.

US Coast Guard established 1915, merging RCS and other maritime services. Badge stays the same.

Badge changed to USCG badge 1927.

Numerous alterations in artistic treatment of coat of arms since 1799, minor changes in design of USCG badge since 1927, most recently in 1966.

Summary: despite minor changes, the flag is immediately recognizable whether in 1799, 1899, and 1999.
Joe McMillan, 28 February 2002

Commission Pennant

[Coast Guard Commissioning Pennant] image by Joe McMillan, 24 August 1999

The hoisting of the commission pennant is considered the key moment in the commissioning of a ship. Once hoisted, it flies continuously, night and day, except when displaced by an admiral's flag, a command pennant, or the flag of a senior civilian official as directed by U.S. Coast Guard Regulations.

The Coast Guard has its own commission pennant. It has a white hoist with 13 blue stars in a horizontal line. Then come 16 red and white vertical stripes and finally a red swallowtailed fly, roughly 1/5 the length of the overall pennant.

Commissioned vessels of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also have a distinctive commission pennant. It was flown by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, one of NOAA's predecessor organizations: White hoist with seven red equilateral triangles; blue swallowtailed fly.
Joe McMillan, 24 August 1999

Display of Homeland Security Flag

I just noticed that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security flag is now flying in front of the headquarters building of the Coast Guard on the mast where the Department of Transportation flag was displayed before the USCG was transferred to the new department last year. From a distance, the DHS flag appears to be 10:19 (i.e., same ratio as the U.S. flag on the other flag-mast) and the departmental seal about 60% of the hoist.

Other flags displayed remain as in the past. Both flag-masts are equipped with cross-trees. The mast with the S&S has the Coast Guard ensign at the right-hand yardarm and the POW-MIA flag at the left; that with the DHS flag flies the personal flag of the Commandant of the Coast Guard (or, in his absence, the senior officer present) at the right-hard yardarm.
Joe McMillan, 30 April 2004

Formerly Under Department of Transportation

It used to be under the Secretary of the Treasury, since its primary mission was revenue enforcement. Over the years it took on enforcement of maritime safety regulations, environmental laws, fishery protection, etc., so that when the Transportation Department was established, it was put there instead of Treasury.

Having a military force not under a defense ministry is hardly unique. Russian border guards and interior troops come to mind as a parallel. French gendarmerie and Italian carabinieri are sort of the same thing in reverse--forces with a mainly law enforcement mission that are formally part of the Army.
Joe McMillan, 22 September 1999