The U.S. Navy inherited this tradition from the British Royal Navy. Historically British crews returning from long voyages would fly long streamers to celebrate that they were heading for their “paying off,” meaning that were headed home, at which time they would receive their wages.
The practice of flying these pennants continued among American ships unofficially through World War II, after which the Navy formally added it to the service’s regulations and defined rules for when and how the streamers could be displayed. An online copy of one Navy manual lays out these stipulations:
“The homeward-bound pennant is flown by ships returning from extended overseas tours. The pennant is authorized for display by a ship that has been on duty outside the limits of the United States continuously for at least 9 months. It is hoisted on getting under way for the United States and may be flown until sunset on the day of arrival in a port of destination. The pennant is similar to the commission pennant, but instead of the usual seven stars, there is one star for the first 9 months of overseas duty and one star for each additional 6 months. Total length of the pennant customarily is 1 foot for each officer and enlisted crew member who served overseas for a period in excess of 9 months. When the number of personnel produces an unwieldy pennant, the length of the pennant is restricted to the length of the ship.”
“Upon arrival in a port of the United States, the blue portion containing the stars is presented to the commanding officer. The remainder of the pennant is divided equally among the officers and enlisted crew.”
This is actually not the first time Paul Hamilton has flown the Homeward-Bound Pennant. The ship’s crew has raised it at least twice before, in 2003 and in 2013, after deployments lasting 10 months and a little over nine months, respectively.
But when the Paul Hamilton entered the Port of San Diego this time, she was also flying the previously-mentioned large blue flag with crescent moon containing the word “LIBERTY.” This is known as the Moultrie Flag or Liberty flag and traces its roots to the American Revolutionary War. Colonel William Moultrie, a South Carolinian and head of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army, had the banner made up in 1775.
His troops prominently flew the flag during the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776, where revolutionary forces held their ground against the Royal Navy’s attempt to dislodge them, an action that is credited with saving the state’s nearby capital, Charleston, from being captured by British Forces. Moultrie went on to lead continental troops in other successful engagements with the British until his capture in 1780.
While in captivity, he rejected attempts by the British to turn him to their side and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange in 1782. After the revolutionary war, he became a notable politician in South Carolina’s early history. His flag became the basis for the official South Carolina state flag.
The Paul Hamilton‘s namesake was another South Carolinian who served in the Revolutionary War and went on to become the third Secretary of the Navy, as well as a notable politician in his own right. Three destroyers have been named after him, beginning with the Clemson class USS Paul Hamilton, which was commissioned in 1919 and served in the inter-war period before it was scrapped in 1931. In 1943, the Navy commissioned a Fletcher class destroyer bearing his name. There was also a Liberty Ship named after him during World War II.
The Navy decommissioned the Fletcher class USS Paul Hamilton in 1968. A quarter of a century later, the service brought the name back when it commissioned DDG-60 in Charleston, South Carolina. Based on the heritage of its namesake, this Arleigh Burke class destroyer is authorized to fly the Moultrie Flag as its battle flag.
“The Navy values its heritage and traditions, and this is ever-reflected in our ship and crew,” Navy Lieutenant J.G. Tyler Kesthely, a surface warfare officer serving on the Paul Hamilton, said in an interview for an official news piece earlier this year. “Paul Hamilton and previous ships with the same namesake help shape our identity. Our battle flag, the Moultrie Flag, dates back to the very beginning of the Revolutionary War. It’s a fierce tradition that Paul Hamilton sailors still identify with.”
As with USS Kidd‘s formal approval to fly its pirate flag, Paul Hamilton’s official sanction to fly the Moultrie flag is now additionally notable as it comes after Pentagon declared new policies for the display of flags and other symbols for the entire U.S. military in July. Though intended primarily to ban service members from displaying flags and other items with the stars-and-bars battle flag of the Confederacy, as well as other divisive symbols, there were fears that ships’ crews could be prevented from hoisting the Jolly Roger and other morale-boosting banners.
Though concerns certainly remain about how the Pentagon will apply and enforce those regulations, it does not appear to have had any impact on the Paul Hamilton‘s ability to continue flying the Moultrie flag or that of Kidd‘s crew to raise their skull-and-crossbones banner. These instances seem to be good indications that the Navy, at least, is perfectly able to preserve its traditions within the parameters of the new flag rules.
After nine months away from home, the sailors of the Paul Hamilton certainly earned the right to show off the Moultrie Flag, as well as hoist the Homeward-Bound Pennant, in our minds.
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