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The history behind the ‘other’ flag patch on Navy uniforms

Some Navy Working Uniforms feature an American flag patch on the right shoulder. However, there's another for the left shoulder.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
flag patch

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class (SW) Nolan O. Kahn/Released

The Army Combat Uniform in the Operational Camouflage Pattern, worn by the U.S. Army, Air Force and Space Force, features an American flag patch. While airmen and guardians wear the Stars and Stripes on their left shoulders, soldiers wear it on their right. The Type II and Type III Navy Working Uniforms also feature an American flag patch on the right shoulder. However, there’s another flag that sailors wear on their left shoulder.

don't tread on me
The First Navy Jack is historically significant for the Navy and the nation (U.S. Navy)

A jack is a flag flown from the front of a ship when it is moored or at anchor. This differs from the ensign, or national flag, that flies at the ship’s rear. In late 1775, following the formation of the Continental Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins ordered his vessels to fly a striped jack and ensign. Although the exact design of the jack is unknown, a 1777 letter from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin describes U.S. warships flying the flag “of South Carolina a rattlesnake, in the middle of the thirteen stripes.” This refers to the Gadsden flag.

continental ship
Continental Ship Alfred (Nowland Van Powell/Naval History and Heritage Command)

Designed in 1775 by South Carolina delegate and Continental Army Brigadier General Christopher Gadsden, the Gadsden flag features a coiled rattlesnake against a yellow field with the words “DONT TREAD ON ME.” The rattlesnake was commonly used to symbolize resistance against the British Crown, like in Franklin’s famous “Join, or Die” political cartoon. Gadsden gifted his flag to Hopkins, who first flew it from the mainmast of his flagship, Alfred, on December 20, 1775.

don't tread on me flag patch
The First Navy Jack is lowered on the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) prior to getting underway, c. 2015 (U.S. Navy)

Despite the historical uncertainty of its design, the First Navy Jack is officially recognized as a flag with 13 red and white stripes, an uncoiled rattlesnake and the words “DONT TREAD ON ME.” The modern Navy Jack is the Union Jack, featuring 50 white stars against a blue flag. However, from 1975 to 1976, the Navy flew the First Navy Jack in honor of the nation’s bicentennial. In 1980, Secretary of the Navy Edward Hidalgo directed that the oldest United States Ship in active service would fly the First Navy Jack until decommissioned or inactivated.

navy flag patch
Although some commands wear their own patches, the standard left-shoulder patch is the First Navy Jack (U.S. Navy)

On May 31, 2002, in response to the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of the Navy Gordon England directed Navy ships to fly the First Navy Jack instead of the Union Jack. This was a symbolic switch, representing America’s wartime status, which most ships made on September 11, 2002. On February 21, 2019, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson ordered the return of the Union Jack and the reservation of the First Navy Jack for the oldest active warship. This directive excludes the USS Constitution. The First Navy Jack is flown by the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) as of 2023. However, American sailors still wear the striped flag with the rattlesnake on the left shoulder of their working uniform.