When These U.S. Navy Memorial Flags Get Run Up The Pole, Not Everyone Salutes

Banners Can Be Read Two Ways; Alphabet Letters or ‘Vomiting Is Present’?

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 25 JUL 13) … Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON—When the National Park Service wanted to dress up the U.S. Navy Memorial here, officials decided to fly signal flags, a colorful but archaic form of ship-to-ship communication.

Visitors to the site today encounter two flagpoles designed to look like ships’ masts, on which 14 signal flags are arrayed in four groups. Each flag represents a letter. Together, they are supposed to spell: U-S-N-A-V-Y-M-E-M-O-R-I-A-L.

Robert Royer is a lawyer and a yachtsman, a terrible combination as far as memorial officials are concerned. He says the flags represent a classic example of low seafaring standards. Mr. Royer, picking a fight with the Navy memorial officials, says at sea the flags would be read as codes, not letters.

Indeed, there are several different ways to read signal flags. “Vomiting is present. Man overboard,” the flags on one yardarm would read. M-E-M is the signal for vomiting. O means someone has fallen into the sea.

Last year, officials from the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, which helps run the park, set up a meeting between Mr. Royer and park-service employees. Mr. Royer recalled officials nervously reviewing the codes, fearing that even if they weren’t intentionally warning of regurgitation, they might be sending other strange messages to passersby.

The pole featuring the flags US-NA-VY carries a particularly depressing hidden message. “Nothing can be done! Navigation is closed! Icebergs have been reported!”

Other possibilities: ME: Set the course! MO: I have struck a shoal! RI: There is a good holding ground in my area! AL: I have a doctor on board! (who presumably could help with the vomiting).

Carol Johnson, the spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said officials took Mr. Royer’s concerns seriously but decided to make no change.

“It is a memorial, it is not a ship,” she said. “It’s meant to be symbolic.”

Originally the main form of oceangoing communication, signal flag use by the Navy is limited, so limited in fact that in 2003 the job of signalman was eliminated. Nevertheless, in the tradition-bound service, mastery of antiquated communications is prized and signal flags revered.

There are 51 standard signal flags, one for every letter of the alphabet and numbers from zero to nine, plus a handful of specialized flags. The M, or Mike, for example, is a white cross on a blue field.

The International Code of Signals (1969 Edition, revised 2003) has codes ranging from A (“I have a diver down, steer clear”) to ZZ (“Proceed to anchorage for health clearance.”) Most of the three-letter codes are medical—18 relate to childbirth and six to venereal diseases. Others include: MCX (“Patient is delirious”), MOC (“Patient is suffering from seasickness”) and MJD (“Patient has flatulence.”)

Navy officials said the medical signals are rarely used on warships. They are designed instead to allow a doctor aboard any oceangoing vessel to communicate a full diagnostic work-up.

For a year and a half, Mr. Royer has been pressing the memorial to change the flags. “I go by all the time,” Mr. Royer said. “I look and I see they are still vomiting.”

It is possible that the memorial’s signal flags have hidden meanings unknown even to Mr. Royer. While the International Code of Signals is public, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization code book isn’t. While a few NATO codes, such as BZ, or Bravo Zulu, meaning “well done,” have entered everyday Navy jargon, the full array remains classified.

Pressed to reveal what the memorial flags reveal in NATO code, a Navy officer demurred. “If I looked up the codes for you,” the officer said, “I would be like [NSA leaker] Edward Snowden and have to escape to Russia.”

Today, the most important use of signal flags is when two ships of separate navies pass each other. In recent years, the U.S. Navy has conducted impromptu signal flag exercises with their Chinese and Iranian counterparts.

Lt. Courtney Hillson, a Navy spokeswoman who dedicated hours to memorizing the signal flags as a surface warfare officer, takes exception to the idea that the flags are obsolete.

“If you go to any Navy ship right now, they have signal flags hoisted and they are communicating a message,” said Lt. Hillson, who added that she reads the Navy Memorial flags only as letters.

The U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, which helps run the park, said that of the one million people who pass by every year only Mr. Royer has raised the issue of icebergs and illness.

Mr. Royer, 63 years old, has loved flags since earning the now-discontinued merit badge for signaling as a Boy Scout. As it happens, he has another flag-related complaint. The memorial flagpoles feature a gaff, a metal spar that juts out at an angle. At sea, that is where the American flag is flown, and Mr. Royer thinks the same should be true at the memorial, instead of at the top.

“It just grinds me because it is wrong,” he said.

Retired Vice Adm. John Totushek, president of the memorial foundation, said flying American flags from the gaff would make the memorial different from other park service flagpoles and prompt complaints.

He defends the memorial’s signal flag display, too, but in this instance is ready to concede that Mr. Royer is correct about the struck shoals, icebergs, vomiting and all. Adm. Totushek came to that conclusion after looking up the codes in the manual.

“I knew a fair amount of them when I was a midshipman because we had to,” said Adm. Totushek. “I don’t know them anymore.”

Rachel Emma Silverman contributed to this article.

Back to Top