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Navy - Submarine Flags (U.S.)

Boat Flags

Last modified: 2016-03-25 by rick wyatt
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As part of the U.S. Navy's Centennial of the Submarine Service they are reproducing the Battle Flags of some W.W.II era boats for a commemorative ceremony to be held on 1 April in Washington DC. As the result, I acquired some interesting images of them. Some are photographs of the original W.W.II era flags, others are post war manufactured nylon reproductions, presumably copies of the original and still others take the form of embroidered patched, also presumable copied from the original flags. Note how the different boats tallied their service records and accomplishments.
James J. Ferrigan III, 22 January 2000

Flags To Mark Victories

The Navy Museum in Washington has several of these flags hanging in the submarine exhibit, including one new one for the USS Louisville. The victory emblem on that one is a Tomahawk missile emblazoned across the Iraqi flag, representing Louisville's firing of the first submarine-launched Tomahawk during Operation Desert Storm.

The little Japanese flags sewed to the cloth stand for naval victories. The difference between the national flag and the war ensign is to distinguish between merchant vessels and warships sunk by the submarine.
Joe McMillan and Antonio Martins, 24 January 2000

Every US sub that saw action had such a flag, usually with some icon representing the ship and small flags for "kills" made. Those flags were all unofficial. Beside adding those flag patches to the battle flag, and following the aerial costume, a flag was also painted on the bridge of the sub.

Such example can be seen in a photo of SS-234 "Cod" at and its battle flag at

A naval ensign represents a Japanese navy ship, while a regular flag represent a merchant ship ("Maru"). Naturally, there is quite a difference between the "kills" on the flag and the officially confirmed kills. A sub usually couldn't see the sinking of the target as it was submerged immediately to avoid attack by escort ships so the flags represent the "probable" or alleged" kills.

Such an example is SS-310 "Batfish" with alleged 15 kills (and 14 flags on its battle flag) but only 9 confirmed kills. See:

Examples for other battle flags:
SS 304 Seahorse -
SS 220 Barb -
SS 392 Sterlet -

Dov Gutterman, 29 June 2005

by Ron "Warshot" Smith

The origin of the submarine battle flag in World War II is a matter of some speculation, because before 1942, U.S. submarines did not own or display them. During late 1942 or early 1943, however, it became customary for a broom to be tied to the shears of a submarine returning from a successful patrol, indicating that it had made a "clean sweep" or sunk everything possible. In 1944, pennants were added to the brooms to indicate the number of kills. A Japanese flag denoted each ship sunk, with a solid orange circle on a white background for merchant ships and a rising sun for warships. Occasionally, these flags were also painted on the conning tower. This spontaneous and informal practice soon evolved into the creation of larger, more elaborate pennants, which included the submarine's particular insignia, often borrowed from a crewmember's "Submarine Jacket." This emblem was sewn into the pennant, along with symbols denoting additional kills and distinctive accomplishments, as sort of a "living history" of the sub's career. During 1944, Disney Studios, already involved in designing military insignia for both the United States and its allies (as these two websites show: and ), also designed submarine insignia. In all, the studio designed more than 30 fish insignia, which were assigned to submarines. Thus, on the Submarine Battle Flag - of which (USS) Barb's is such a great example - was born."

The German submarines used a similar practice during World War II as well, displaying the U-boat's insignia, and sometimes even the Flotilla's insignia as well. Source:
Esteban Rivera, 19 September 2010

A search for the USS Spadefish flag gave me, where the general topic of submarine flags is described in more detail. Collectively, the forum contributors tell us:

These flags are called "House Flags"; they have a long tradition in the Navy. They are also called "Patrol Flags" or "Kill Flags", though the last also refers to those small flags that were rigged on a span wire that ran from the bow over the conning tower to the stern.

Each sub had a house flag and flew it returning to port after a patrol. They represent the ship to the crew. They often incorporate specific things that the ship has done, or is known for. A crew might have a new house flags made when the older ones no longer held any significance to any one in the crew, old one given to the CO.

During the war, they would add marks to signify victories. A rising sun flag represented a Japanese Navy ship, and the red ball flag was for Japanese merchant ships. The blue stars were for combat patrols and then there is a Presidential Unit Commendation pennant.

At the end of the war, there were five or six made, usually slightly smaller: one for the CO, one for the XO, One for the Med off, and the last two for the two Chief's. Those were the sewn ones. A couple of years later some subs had deals to make them for the crews if anyone wanted one; those were silk screened that could be ordered. The larger flag, the subs flag might be raffled off at the end of the war, with each crewman and officer tossing a dog tag into a hat, that the winner was then drawn from, who got the flag.

On the subs where the flag was kept, it was known in the sixties as the boats "Battle Flag". When the boat met its end and was decommissioned it was usually up to the C.O.B. as to what happened to Flag. He and the skipper got together and figured it out.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 3 November 2012