The First Navy Jack’s Significance

Two weeks ago, I was privileged to attend the “change of command” ceremony, whereby the command of all Pacific submarines, Commander, Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) transitioned from one naval officer to the next. All such naval ceremonies are steeped in tradition, but this one – held on the deck of the submarine USS Jacksonville – in which one rear admiral replaces another, is especially so.

Because the transition of such great responsibility as a naval command is so significant, the change is marked by one specific moment of “relief.” After reading his/her orders from the Washington Bureau of Naval Personnel, the incoming officer smartly salutes the outgoing officer and says in a strong, clear voice, “I relieve you, Sir,” whereby the outgoing officer returns the salute and says, “I stand relieved” (and instantly a 10-ton weight of responsibility shifts from the shoulders of one to the other).

Of course, there were congratulatory speeches by three- and four-star officers, introductions of families – several from afar – and praise for the enlisted COMSUBPAC staff and the crew of the USS Jacksonville.

There was, however, a new element on the scene, at least one I had not seen before. Fixed to the Jacksonville’s deck only a few feet from the dais where the ceremony was taking place was a sturdy flagpole only 10 feet or so high, from which flew the “First Navy Jack” – the red-and-white striped flag superimposed upon a straight rattlesnake in a crawling position, beneath which was the bold phrase, “Don’t Tread On Me.”

This battle flag was used in 1775 by Commodore Esek Hopkins as his fleet gathered in the Delaware River before engaging the British Navy. This Navy Jack signaled that the entire fleet was to attack the enemy. In May of 2002, the Secretary of the Navy decreed that this flag would be flown by all U.S. Navy ships for the duration of the war on global terrorism “as an historic reminder of the nation’s and the Navy’s origin, and will to persevere and triumph.”

Indeed, over the decades prior to and during World War II, just the thought of treading on a rattlesnake in the American wild was enough to strike fear into the hearts of America’s enemies, and America always has been ready to strike back hard when “tread” upon – from the Bay of Biscay, to the Spanish Main to the Barbary Coast. From the American Revolution to the War of 1812 to the Spanish American War, the warning remained clear; then, after Pearl Harbor, from Midway Island to the skies over the Coral Sea and ultimately to the two ill-fated Japanese cities hit by the first two atom bombs.

Then, in the early 1950s, came the United Nations’ “police action” in Korea, which resulted in a standoff, but we did preserve freedom for the South Korean people. Then, after winning the Vietnam War militarily, we surrendered politically, literally inviting Communist North Vietnam to “tread” upon us and our Vietnamese allies. Now we have been in and out of Iraq and almost out of Afghanistan with no one even uttering the word victory. So, of the four wars America has fought since WWII, none has resulted in clear-cut victories except for the one “decreed” over al-Qaida by President Barack Obama.

How many times has our president threatened accountability and punishment for various terrorist crimes against American lives and property? Except for bin Laden, they all have been empty threats. Not in my lifetime has our foreign policy been so ineffectual, has our world leadership been so weak, has our influence been so low.

Our commander in chief should bone up on the origin of the First Navy Jack and the actual meaning of “Don’t Tread On Me.”