The Navy defines the jack as a flag corresponding in appearance to the union or canton of the national ensign. In the United States Navy, it is a blue flag containing a star for each state - we generally refer to this as the union jack.
Many believe that ships of the Continental Navy flew a jack consisting of alternating red and white stripes, having the image of a rattlesnake stretched out across it, with the motto "Don't Tread on Me." However that belief, according to the US Navy, is not supported by firm evidence.
The United States Navy originated as the Continental Navy, established early in the American Revolution by the Continental Congress by a resolution of 13 October 1775.
The Naval History and Heritage Command points out that it is well documented that the rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me" were used together on several flags during the War of Independence. The only question in doubt is whether the Continental Navy actually used a red and white striped flag with a rattlesnake and the motto "Don't Tread on Me" as its jack. The evidence is inconclusive. There is reason to believe that the Continental Navy jack was simply a red and white striped flag with no other adornment.
The rattlesnake image frequently used in conjunction with the motto "Don't Tread on Me," was a common symbol for the United States, its independent spirit, and its resistance to tyranny.
The Rattlesnake Jack and the Modern Navy
As part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of the American Revolution, by an instruction dated 1 August 1975, the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack during the period 13 October 1975 (the bicentennial of the legislation that created the Continental Navy, which the Navy recognizes as the Navy's birthday), and 31 December 1976.
By an instruction dated 18 August 1980, the Secretary of the Navy directed that the commissioned ship in active status having the longest total period in active status to display the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive status.
The following is a list of those ships:
- 1981–82: USS Dixie (AD-14), commissioned in 1940
- 1982–93: USS Prairie (AD-15), commissioned in 1940
- 1993–93: USS Orion (AS-18), commissioned in 1943 (six months)
- 1993–94: USS Yosemite (AD-19), commissioned in 1944
- 1994–95: USS Jason (AR-8), commissioned in 1944
- 1995–95: USS Mauna Kea (AE-22), commissioned in 1957 (one week)
- 1995–98: USS Independence (CV-62), commissioned in 1959
- 1998–2009: USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), commissioned in 1961
In May 2002, the Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack for all ships for the duration of the Global War on Terrorism.
The Rattlesnake Jack Is Back
In February 2019, the Rattlesnake Jack made yet another comeback. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson directed the fleet, to return to the previous practice of flying the union jack effective 4 June 2019 - this date was selected to commemorate the greatest naval battle in history: the Battle of Midway, which began on that same date in 1942.
In keeping with the previous practice, the Navy will re-establish the custom in which the commissioned ship in active status having the longest total period in active status (other than USS Constitution) will display the rattlesnake jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive status. As of 4 June 2019, the only warship authorized to fly the rattlesnake jack is USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19).
It should be noted that during the period in which all Navy ships flew the rattlesnake jack, USS Enterprise (CVN-65), commissioned in 1961, and USS Denver (LPD-9), commissioned in 1968, were the ships with the longest total period of active status. That honor became Blue Ridge’s when Denver was decommissioned 18 September 2014. Next in line will be USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20).
Learn more about the history of the US Navy Union Jack and Rattlesnake Jack flags on the official Navy History and Heritage Command page.
Haze Gray Apparel is proud to put the Navy Rattlesnake Jack on a some t-shirts in recognition of the long proud history of the U.S. Navy.