Mast = a flagpole on a ship at sea or on a Marine Corps, Navy, or Coast Guard installation or other maritime location.
Halyard = the rope used to raise and lower the flag.
Never fly a fringed flag on a stationary or mounted (on a wall or post) flagpole. These flags are only for the color guard flagstaff. See this article for information.
This article is reworked and republished. It originally was published July 16, 2012.
The Order to Fly at Half-Staff
Most often the President will order all flags to half-staff for a national tragedy. Governors also have the ability to order flags to half-staff for their state. In the case of the governor, he/she can order state flags only to half, but this would be specified in the order. Most often, when a governor gives the order it is for the American flags in the state.
Many countries fly their flag at half-staff as a sign of mourning. Here are the established times for the American flag.
For thirty days after the death of a current or former president or president-elect.
For ten days after the death of a current vice president, current or retired chief justice, or current speaker of the House of Representatives.
From the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a secretary of an executive or military department, a former vice president, or the governor of a state, territory, or possession.
On the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.
On Memorial Day until noon.
Upon presidential proclamation.
Peace Officers Memorial Day (May 15), unless that day is also Armed Forces Day.
Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (December 7).
Patriot Day (September 11).
The first Sunday in October for National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day
4 U.S.C. § 7(m) was modified by President Bush in 2007 requiring any federal facility within a region to honor a member of the U.S. Armed Forces who died on active duty.
Raise the flag as normal, quickly to the top with smooth, continuous motion of pulling the halyard or turning the crank and then slowly lower to half-staff with the same smooth motion. To be as accurate as possible, count the number of pulls of the halyard or turns of the crank it takes to raise the flag to full truck. Then, lower it by half of that number.
When the flag is ready to come down, raise it smoothly and quickly to the top from half-staff and then lower it smoothly and slowly all the way down.
Only The American at Half
What you find in the Flag Code is that the American flag is brought to half staff. No other flag, on the same halyard, is mentioned. The center of the American flag should be at the center of the pole. If another flag was underneath, a state flag, for example, it would be too low. So, the information about another flag on the same halyard in this instance isn’t missing from the Code, as we might think (I once did), it’s just that only the American flag is brought to half-staff.
This doe not mean that flags on another halyard on the same pole or on a different pole are not brought to half-staff. This is only about the American flag and another flag on the same halyard.
The Nautical Flag Mast
Nautical displays have looked complicated to me since I served 20 years in the USAF and had no need to learn about the mast and it’s various displays. However, that has changed.
When flown from the gaff, the Ensign is lowered so that the center of the hoist (center stripe) of the flag is aligned with the yardarm. The national ensign here with the pennant at the top is not flown in a disrespectful manner, please see the bottom of this article to help understand nautical flag display.
When the National Ensign is flown from the topmast at full truck, it is lowered just like on any other flagpole when it’s a single halyard mast. On a double-halyard mast, the Ensign is flown from the right (starboard) side and lowered just the same.
Though technically, half-mast is any point lower then full truck, the standard for half-mast is half-way between full truck and the cleat. In all of my research Yardarm = Crosstree. It’s possible that an argument could be made for a separation of identifying the Yardarm and Crosstree like the image below.
For more information on the nautical display, the website, United States Power Squadrons, has created an exemplary resource here. There is also Sailing Issues with some great nautical flag etiquette here. Be familiar with MCO 5060.2, Drill and Ceremonies, Chapter 7; and [US Navy] NTP 13(B), Flags Pennants, and Customs, both available for download on the Resources page.
The Mourning Ribbon
Flags flying on a pole (without a halyard) attached to a structure, are not lowered to half-staff. Instead, a black ribbon that is attached to the top of the flagstaff- yes, above the American flag- for occasions of mourning. See the picture at left and right.
The mourning ribbon is for flags that cannot be lowered to half staff as shown here.
All of the Flags at Half-staff?
Yes, and no. State flags are given the same consideration in each state as the American flag. Our Founding Fathers gave the term “United ‘States'” to all of the territories which was shocking back then since “state” means a nation. Each American state has its own laws concerning their flag. Here is information concerning Maryland’s flag laws as an example. The picture here of the DC police (from washingtonpost.com) with all three flags lowered to the same level, which is how all flags are to be displayed – at the same level.
But the American flag is lower than the other flags in this picture!
Take some deep breaths, you’re missing the point here. Not all countries have to lower their flags and not all flags must be at the same height all of the time. This 1968 photo, by John Wright on Smugmug, is from the Viet Nam war. The picture is from when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was not necessary for another country to lower their flag. This situation is proper.
When the President orders flags to half-staff, overseas military installations must lower the American flag as a sign of mourning. The host nation’s flag is not automatically brought to half-staff unless the host nation liaison says otherwise. The point here is not stop getting worked up over something that is relatively trivial. Don’t just think you know the rules, read them and have them ready as a reference.
Other flags Lower and the American Flag at Full Truck
This isn’t how a flag is supposed to be flown. There is no reason for the state flag here to be at half staff unless the governor specifically said that state flags will be flown at half-staff.
Otherwise, all flags must be flown at full truck (the flat piece at the top of the pole).
Flag Position on the Nautical Mast
The following is from here. The gaff-rigged pole had its origins at sea. Because of all the sail carried by the rigging of these vessels, the flag of a nation could not be clearly viewed if it was placed at the top of the mast. The stern of the vessel was the position of command and the captain’s quarters were located aft. Early boats also had the nobleman’s banner, king’s banner, or English ensign staff fixed to the stern rail. As sails changed, long booms sweep across the stern rail every time the ship tacked, so the ensign staff had to be removed when the ship was under way. Since the captain and other officers were still aft, the nearest position from which they found it practical to fly the ensign was the gaff. Over time, this became the place of honor to display the national flag. When the ship was moored, the ensign staff was set up again on the stern rail.
This was the practice in the eighteenth century, when the U.S. Navy was created. Now that warships are made of steel and the signal mast no longer carries a boom, our navy still flies the ensign at the gaff peak when under way and at the ensign staff when not underway. There is no law specifying how a flag should fly on a gaff-rigged pole, instead it is based on long standing nautical tradition.
The usual argument given by those that think it is wrong to fly the national ensign from the gaff is that the national ensign is flying below a club burgee or other flag contrary to the Flag Code. Notice that even when the national ensign is flown from the stern of a ship, it is lower in height than other flags flying on the ship. When the ensign is flown from a gaff-rigged pole, a flag flown at the top of the mast is not considered above the ensign because it is not being flown directly above the ensign on the same halyard.
Move over Sheldon Cooper* – Here is DeVaughn Simper. aka “Professor Flag”.
DeVaughn is an award winning vexilologist – someone who studies all aspects of flags, including history, design, manufacturing, etiquette, and protocol. DeVaughn grew up as an “Army Brat” with both biological parents serving in the United States Army. His love of flags started in cub scouts. One of the requirements for his Wolf badge was to start a collection. Thirty years later that collection has grown to over 500 flags of all sizes. In his defense – the requirement never said when you were supposed to stop.
His passion for US History and flags got him through some tough childhood experiences and was eventually adopted at the age of 16. He participated in the JROTC program in high school, and was a member of the color guard competing in multiple competitions. He played the trumpet and was on call for funeral details with his ultimate goal being to join the Army and play in “Perishing’s Own”.
When he tried to enlist, it was discovered that he was medically unable to serve in all five branches. This was rather devastating, but he looked for and found other ways to serve.
He has served as the state and regional director for Bugles Across America. Whose mission is to provide live Taps at all veteran’s funerals.
As a member of Civil Air Patrol, he has served as deputy squadron commander, squadron commander, wing recruiting and retention officer, wing director of professional development, wing conference chairman, wing deputy chief of staff, and has trained and advised several color guards. He currently holds the rank of Major.
He worked with the Boy Scouts of America in the Cub Scout, Boy Scout, Venturing, and Sea Scout programs and is currently working on a program for youth to earn the BSA Honor Guard patch.
In addition to the CAP and BSA, DeVaughn also works with the US Naval Sea Cadet Corps and held the positions of division officer, executive officer and Commanding Officer of the NLCC training ship. He currently holds the rank of Lieutenant Jr. Grade and has recently been assigned to the new Maj. Brent Taylor Battalion in Utah County.
For the last 10 years he has written and produced the annual Wreaths Across America ceremony for the Fort Douglas Cemetery. Wreaths Across America is a national program that raises funds to place holiday wreaths on the graves of veterans all over the United States.
An entertaining public speaker, he shares his flag collection and knowledge of our nation’s history and her flags.
Flagstaffs can become weathered and lose their original look like the one pictured. That is easily remedied! Well, not easy-easy, but it’s not really all that difficult. Here are the steps:
Remove the ferrules and middle screw joints.
Sand the staffs down completely to the wood.
Stain the the staffs.
Coat the staffs with at least five coats of urethane.
Use 80-grit sandpaper to remove the finish, then step it down to 120, 180, 220, 240 for a smooth finish. You may want to use a sheet of printer paper between coats of polyurethane to give it a smooth and glossy finish. Three coats of polyurethane will work great for heavy use protection.
The stain to use is Minwax Wood Finish Penatrating Stain, Natural 209.
The photo at the top of the page was the start and this is the final product!
I want to give a huge THANK YOU to Matthew Benoit-LaFleur and his Civil Air Patrol Unit in Idaho for providing these instructions that can help many, many others!
Here is the suggested topcoat. Minwax Indoor/Outdoor Helmsman Spar Urethane.
For the National Ensign/Color/American Flag, military and other color guards will always hold its staff vertical (Marine Corps, Navy, & Coast Guard and US Certified Ceremonial Guardsmen) or slightly incline it forward (Army & Air Force), depending on the service drill and ceremonies manual for regulation or ceremonial drill. The minimum color guard compliment requirement is the American flag and two guards armed with rifles, shotguns, or ceremonial fire axes. Sword, sabers, and fixed bayonets are not authorized for American color guards.
Fringe on the American flag is mandatory for all Army and Air Force color guards. Fringe is not authorized for Marine Corps, Navy, & Coast Guard color guards. No fringe is highly recommended for US Certified Ceremonial Guardsmen
Service Departmental Colors
When it comes to the service departmental flag (the flag with the coat of arms or seal of the service), it is only dipped in salute for the Star Spangled Banner, foreign national anthem of a friendly nation, to the Secretary and Chief of Staff/Commandant of that service, to individuals of equal or higher rank, and at military funerals. At no other time is the service departmental color dipped. On the commands of Present Arms or Eyes Right, if the above requirements are not met, the departmental flag remains vertical (slightly inclined), no exceptions. Departmental colors are always carried with the American flag and never carried on their own or in the second rank of a massed color guard. Click here for information on Joint Service Order.
All service departmental colors are required to have fringe. This also extends to JROTC, Sea Cadets, Civil Air Patrol, and Young Marine organizational flags.
Only a member of the military (Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve), a member of a service Auxiliary, State Guard, or a US military veteran in a military or veteran service uniform should carry the departmental color.
Cadet and Other Youth Programs
The service departmental flag protocol presents an interesting dilemma for service cadet programs authorized to carry the flag since cadet color guards compete and part of the competition sequence is to execute Present Arms and Eyes Right to include a flag dip. But the head judge for the drill deck does not warrant a salute.
JROTC and other cadet programs are authorized to carry the service departmental flag and to facilitate the competition’s commands and not break protocol, many teams have carried their state flag as the second flag. However, this also breaks protocol since the color guard is required, by service regulation, to carry the departmental flag. My suggestion is to carry the service JROTC, Young Marine, Sea Cadet, or Civil Air Patrol organizational flag, respectively, any time, but especially for competition. These flags and the flags of other youth programs (Pathfinders, Scouts, etc.) would also fall into this category and be dipped any time Present Arms or Eyes Right is given unless specific guidance is provided for that flag.
A side note:
Army and Air Force color guards may carry one foreign national, state, and territory flag in the formation along with a unit flag. (TC 3-21.5 & AR 840-10 – AFMAN 36-2203, AFI 34-1201, & AFPAM 34-1202)
State and territory flags are carried immediately to the left of the American flag, and to the right of the departmental flag.
Massed formations may have only unit flags beginning in the second rank.
Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard color guards are not authorized to carry a state or territory flag at all, the second flag must be the departmental/unit flag. (MCO 5060.2 & MCO 10520.3)
Only the National Ensign and Departmental flag are authorized in these service color guard formations.
The only time these service color guards may carry a foreign national flag, is in a separate three-man (one flag, two rifle guards) formation.
Massed formations may have only unit flags beginning in the second rank.
All military color guards will not carry any non-military flag, no exceptions. See POW/MIA flag information below. (AR 840-10, MCO 1052.3, & AFI 34-1201)
Non-military flags are not authorized in any military color guard, no matter who carries the flag.
Joint Service color guards may only carry the American flag and two or more departmental service flags. No other flags are authorized in partial or full joint service color guards. (Service flag and protocol manuals)
First Responder Department Flags
It’s quite possible that this has not necessarily been considered before, but the police or fire department or sheriff’s office flag should only be dipped for the Star Spangled Banner, foreign national anthem, police/fire chief or sheriff, those of equal or higher rank, and at the funeral for a first responder. Click here for First Responder Joint Service Order information.
First responders should not carry military departmental colors.
Check with your state, territory, tribal nation to see if the local regulations require flags to be dipped to the state, territory, tribal anthem, if there is one.
State, Territory, & Tribal Flags
Each state and territory creates it’s own laws and standards for their flag. Interestingly, when the Founding Fathers of the USA decided to call each Colony a State, other countries were a bit angered. A state = a country, which is a community under one government (yes, our state governments were supposed to have much more control).
With that knowledge, and short of reaching out to all 50 states and 16 territories to find their specific requirements, we can begin to understand that state and territory flags probably should not be dipped just any old time.
The State, Territory, and Tribal flag should be dipped for the Star Spangled Banner, foreign national anthem, and for the funeral of a member of the state, territory, or tribal government, and anyone ranked higher and a member of the US military. The following are in order of presadence:
There are 50 United States (listed below). I really hope you knew that.
There is one district: District of Columbia.
There are five major territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Northern Mariana Islands. A U.S. territory is a partially self-governing piece of land under the authority of the U.S. government. U.S. territories are not states, but have representation in Congress.
There are nine minor territories: Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, Navassa Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island.
When carrying all state (and territory) flags are carried as a separate formation, referred to as “S&Ts”, these flags have their own commander who is outside the formation. Guards are not necessary. The commands should be separate from the color guard, but executed at the same time. The preparatory command for the color guard is, “Colors!”, for the S&Ts, its “Flags!” as in “Flags, Carry, Flags!” It may sound strange, but it helps to create the separation.
Use these guidelines, but I highly encourage you to research your state, territory, and/or tribal requirements. Begin with the Attorney General and National Guard Adjutant General.
The POW/MIA Flag
The POW/MIA flag is not authorized to be carried in ANY military color guard formation nor paraded on it’s own. It is only carried as a personal color for the funeral of a former prisoner of war or military member who was missing in action.
Any civilian organization carrying flags may use any staff they choose with the flying eagle as the finial. The spread eagle is exclusively for the President of the United States. Note: NTP 13B, Flags Pennants, and Customs, states the spread eagle is for civilian officials and flag officers whose official salute is 19 or more guns.
OK, we know that Mark Time has you marching in place and Half Step has you marching forward at half the size as a normal step. But, there is confusion out there and I see it constantly.
Mark Time Service Differences
The Army tells us that the foot is brought straight up off the marching surface two inches.
The Marine Corps tells us that the toe comes up two inches and the heel comes up four inches off the deck. This also applies to the Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Mariners.
The Air Force tells us that the foot comes up four inches from the marching surface.
In order to accomplish marching in place properly, the ankle of the rising leg must remain in line with the leg that remains in place. The toe leaves the marching surface last and strikes first. We do not Mark Time with the whole foot lifting and striking as one and the ankle does not come in front of or go behind the opposite leg. We also do not stomp. Use your gluteal and thigh muscles to lift AND lower both legs to keep everything above the waist from excessive movement (except arm swing, which is the same as marching forward). You should only have slight movement from side-to-side.
While some who attempt Mark Time have difficulties, Half Step is where we can see all kinds of problems.
Half Step Differences
All step measurements below are made from heel-to-heel.
The Army tells us Half Step, 15″, is half of a full step, 30″. When we march at a full 30″ step, the heel strikes the ground first. Half Step should be the exact same, only shorter: the heel must strike first.
The Marine Corps tells us that Half Step is executed with a 15″ toe-first strike. The heels must end up 15″ apart as the toe strikes the deck and the foot rolls back to flat (heel on the deck). This also applies to the Navy, Coast Guard, and Merchant Mariners. The interesting thing here is that the toe must strike far enough away from the trail foot to have the lead foot heel land 15″ away from the heel of the trail foot.
The Air Force tells us Half Step, 12″, is half of a full step, 24″. When we march at a full 24″ step, the heel strikes the ground first, the same as the Army, only shorter. Half Step should be the exact same, again, only shorter: the heel must strike first.
There is one more thing to address; foot height. Half Step is not an adjusted Mark Time step, you do not raise your foot any higher than necessary. Your steps are only supposed to be high enough to clear the ground/deck.
The following slides are provided for educating my fellow Americans. Please download and share. If you would like to have the whole set emailed to you, please use the contact form on the front page of the website.
“Practice makes perfect” is the usual phrase, or you may hear the modified “perfect practice makes perfect”, which doesn’t even make sense. What exactly is “perfect practice”? I really do not like either of those phrases at all because they are quite meaningless.
Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence. Vince Lombardi
The learning process starts with education. Training is the next step, but sometimes both education and training are combined. After training comes practice, practice, practice. Then, for a performance, military drill being one, a rehearsal or dress rehearsal or two is in order. Finally, the actual performance.
My Agua Fria (AZ) senior AFJROTC instructor, Lt Col Bernard Lorenz, always told us “Practice makes permanent”. He was an Air Force fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam. His math skills were amazing and he used those skills to write drill for my unit’s drill team (see my book, Exhibition Drill for the Military Drill team for everything Lt Col Lorenz taught us and much more). His (correct) version of the statement about practice is true in everything we do. Everything.
For the JROTC competitive regulation drill performance, we march a long sequence of commands in a 100′ x 100′ box. The head judge is centered on one side and the team enters to his right, departing (in the southwest) to his left. As soon as the first team member crosses the boundary line, judging begins. Judging ends when the last team member steps over the boundary line.
While I was in school, Tolleson High School MCJROTC was our greatest rival. Hands-down one of the best teams in Arizona and probably the south western states. While our practice drill pad was a big, obstruction-free parking lot at the Agua Fria North campus (now Millennium High School) outside of Litchfield Park, Tolleson’s practice drill pad had one side up against a building and no one realized it was a disaster waiting to happen.
At a drill meet in Phoenix my team watched as the Tolleson unarmed female team went through a perfect regulation drill performance. It was perfect until just before the team exited the drill pad. The team was made up of four squads of four members. Just before leaving the boundary, squads 1 and 2 executed a modified column left and, you guessed it, squads 3 and 4 executed a modified column right. Their practices had cemented their muscle and visual memory so they did not have to think of what they were doing, they just did it. My team was thrilled because it was inside the boundary line and an enormous mistake- the pressure was off of us a bit and yet, we were so disappointed for the team. The Tolleson girls were devastated and never let it happen again.
We later found out through our instructors who spoke with the Tolleson instructors all about the one side of the practice pad being up against the building.
We won that day. Actually, the Agua Fria Union High School Air Force Jr ROTC Drill Team won every AZ drill meet and parade we entered from school year 79/80 to 82/83, except for one parade. The 1982 Billy Moore Days Parade. We lost to… Tolleson. It was my first experience as team commander and it was right at the beginning of the school year. I did not have enough practice and misjudged our entrance to the reviewing stand. Needless to say, enough practice was not an issue after that.
Practice truly does make permanent. What you do in practice, you will do in a performance because of muscle and/or visual memory. That’s why “JITT”, Just-in-Time Training rarely, if ever, works. You aren’t able to build up the muscle memory enough to be able to perform properly. So, train as you would fight – practice as you would perform and let practice make permanent in a good way.
When I was in high school (Agua Fria in Avondale, AZ) I was on the drill team for our Air Force JROTC unit. During my sophomore year, at a competition in Phoenix, one of my teammates performed an incredible feat.
We were always up against Tolleson High School Marine Corps JROTC and we would practice every day after school and on Saturdays just to beat them because they were SO GOOD! Other teams were good, but we were amazed watching Tolleson perform. Any kind of mistake would knock us out of the running for first place, we had to be perfect.
It was our turn to perform our exhibition drill routine. Our team commander, Thom Bushman (kneeling at the front in the above picture), went to report-in, returned to the team, and gave, “Forward, HARCH!” We entered at our signature spot, the upper right corner (from the head judge) at an angle and began our routine. Everything was going perfectly and as we got out of Wagon Wheel into flight formation to have the team now march squared off to the box, the team took off to the right, away from the judge, and Orlando (the dapper cadet with a mustache in the above picture) went to the left! We, in the team proper, went on to continue our performance without Orlando who, centered on the head judge, marched directly toward him. Orlando stopped a couple of steps away from the judge, popped a perfect salute, executed an About Face, and marched straight toward the rest of the team.
Amazingly, without any major adjustment, Orlando and the rest of the team perfectly merged and continued the performance without a single flaw, well, not a single detectable flaw to anyone outside of the team. As the team was dismissed, mouths were wide open in disbelief and everyone was cheering wildly.
Without missing a beat, Orlando was able to hold his military bearing (composure), and create something on the fly that absolutely no one would ever think was a mistake.
No matter what you are doing and no matter happens, never let anyone in the audience know that you made a mistake by rolling your eyes, making a sound, or any kind of gesture. Because no one in the audience really knows if that was mistake or not.
“You cannot display more than one flag at a ceremony!” That’s one of several urban legends I’ve heard over the years related to me or told directly to me by well meaning people. Well meaning people who don’t know what they are talking about. Apparently, one set already posted and another set formally presented is “too many”.
I know, you are a patriotic American and you know what you know because at some point you were in an armed service, a Scout, or on the school bike patrol. Standards remain the same, but our memories are poor at best. This is why we need to constantly go back to the Flag Code and our military manuals to recheck our facts. Below is a quote from the Flag Code:
TITLE 36, CHAPTER 10, PATRIOTIC CUSTOMS §175. Position and manner of display (k) When used on a speaker’s platform, the flag, if displayed flat, should be displayed above and behind the speaker. When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.
Nothing in the Flag Code states that more than two flags is inappropriate or unauthorized. So let’s look at when and why two or more flags make an appearance in a ceremony.
The Massing of the Colors Event
This could also be known as the “Way Too Many Flags Event” for some. If you have not been to one, this can be a wonderful sight to see: dozens of color guards, all with their flags from all kinds of different organizations gathering together to honor the flag. Read here for more information.
Presenting – Posting – Retrieving
Presenting the Colors. The standard. The “Show-n-Go”. There is nothing wrong with having a set of flags already pre-positioned on the stage (for instance) and, at the cue, having the color guard enter, formally present a second set of colors, and leave with that second set. As a matter of fact, this should be the usual setup. It’s a formal presentation but can be used at an informal situation and still allows everyone to get on with the business of the event.
Posting the Colors. Presenting and then posting the colors should be reserved for a more special occasion and should not be the every-day or possibly even the monthly standard.
Retrieving the Colors. having the color guard come back into the room to retrieve the colors is a black tie affair and should happen maybe once a year. It need to be reserved for a very special occasion.