Messages Aloft: Sending Signals from the Ship


     A U.S. Navy ship sits docked at a pier. Her Sailors take a well-earned break from the rigors of duty and hard work. On the ship, two Sailors rapidly pull on ropes to hoist the Papa flag up the mast. The Sailors on the pier see this and immediately start boarding the ship, knowing this flag is the universal naval sign for an all-hands return.

     The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt’s (CVN 71) signal flags are a standardized set of easily recognizable nautical codes, symbols and colors used to communicate a message from ship to ship or from ship to shore.

     “It is so important that we have and use flags,” said Quartermaster 1st Class Efrain Torres, Navigation Department’s leading petty officer. “You never know when the situation could arise when all of our technology fails and we would still have to have the ability to clearly communicate a message to another ship.”

     According to the Navy Department Library, the use of signals, including flags, dates back as far as ancient Greece and Rome. The British Royal Navy has records indicating the use of flags as early as 1530, which ultimately developed into a complex system later revised by Royal Navy Adm. Lord Howe, in the late 1700’s.

USS Theodore Roosevelt     Today, the Navy uses a specific set of signals to communicate with its allies and the International Code of Signals (ICS) for all other vessels.

     Torres, a former Navy Signalmen now Quartermaster, would receive and transmit messages, maintain visual signal equipment, send and receive visual recognition signals and participate in rendering passing honors to naval vessels.

     “I felt such a sense of pride in my job,” said Efrain, “I enjoyed and love to show others what we could do and it felt good to show people the flags that we had.”

     In 1797 the first American naval signal book “Instructions, Signals and Explanations, Ordered for the Fleet,” was written by Navy Capt. Thomas Truxtun. It was later withdrawn due to inconsistencies found between the original manuscript and the printed copies.

     After the withdrawal of Truxtun’s signal book, Commodore John Barry, and Navy Capt. James Barron, issued a revised edition in 1803 known as the “Barron Signal Book,” which was used by U.S. Naval forces until it was compromised sometime during the War of 1812.

      Hoisting flags to communicate a message is not only a tradition but is essential to TR successfully completing daily evolutions. Sailors can walk out of the hull of the ship today and see the signal flags flying high up in the masts, showing them how far the Navy has come and reminding them that a little simplicity can still go a long way.

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By Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tim Haake USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) Public Affairs