The act of placing a ship in commission marks her entry into active Navy
service. At the moment when the commissioning
pennant is broken at the masthead, a ship becomes a Navy command in her
own right, and takes her place alongside the
other active ships of the Fleet.
This ceremony continues a tradition some three centuries old, observed by
navies around the world, and by our own Navy
since December 1775, when Alfred, the first ship of the Continental Navy,
was commissioned at Philadelphia. Once in
commission, the commanding officer and crew are
entrusted with the privilege, and the responsibility, of maintaining their
ship’s readiness in peace, and of conducting successful operations
at sea in time of war.
The commissioning pennant is the distinguishing mark of a commissioned
Navy ship. A commissioning pennant is a
long streamer in some version of the national colors of the Navy
that flies it. The American pennant is blue at the hoist, bearing
seven white stars; the rest of the pennant consists of single
longitudinal stripes of red and white. The pennant is flown at all
times as long as a ship is in commissioned status, except when a
flag officer or civilian official is embarked and flies his
personal flag in its place."
""No written procedure for commissioning was
laid down in our Navy’s early days, but the act of commissioning was
familiar, derived from established British naval custom. Commissionings
were simple military ceremonies. The prospective commanding officer came
on board, called the crew to quarters, and formally read the orders
appointing him to command. He then ordered the ensign and the
commissioning pennant hoisted; at that moment the ship went into
commission, and the first entry in the ship’s deck log recorded this.
First logs from a sizable number of early Navy ships did not survive and,
since commissionings were not surrounded by any public fanfare, they were
not written up in the press. We thus cannot know exactly when many of the
Navy’s first ships were first commissioned; all that can sometimes be
known is when a particular ship first put to sea.
Narrow pennants of this kind go back
several thousand years. They appear in ancient Egyptian art, and were
flown from ships' mastheads and yardarms from, at least, the Middle Ages;
they appear in medieval manuscript illustrations and Renaissance
paintings. Professional national navies began to take form late in the
17th Century. All ships at that time were sailing ships, and it was often
difficult to tell a naval ship from a merchantman at any distance. Navies
began to adopt long, narrow pennants, to be flown by their ships at the
mainmast head to distinguish themselves from merchant ships. This became
standard naval practice.
Earlier American commissioning pennants
bore 13 white stars in their blue hoist. A smaller 7-star pennant was
later introduced for use in the bows of captains' gigs, and was flown by
the first small submarines and destroyers. This principle even carried
over into the national ensign (national flag); bigger ships flew the
conventional flag of their time, while small boats used a 13-star "boat
flag" which was also flown by early submarines and destroyers since the
standard Navy ensigns of that day were too big for them. The 13 stars in
boat flags and in earlier pennants doubtless commemorated the original 13
states of the Union. The reason behind the use of 7 stars is less obvious,
and was not recorded, though the number 7 has positive connotations in
Jewish and Christian symbology. On the other hand, it may simply have been
an aesthetic choice on the part of those who specified the smaller number.
Until the early years of this century
flags and pennants were quite large, as is seen in period pictures of
naval ships. By 1870, for example, the largest Navy pennant had an
0.52-foot hoist (the maximum width) and a 70-foot length, called the fly;
the biggest ensign at that time measured 19 by 36 feet.
As warships took on distinctive forms and
could no longer be easily mistaken for merchantmen, flags and pennants
continued to be flown, but began to shrink to a fraction of their earlier
size. This process was accelerated by the proliferation of electronic
antennas through the 20th Century. The biggest commissioning pennant now
has a 2.5-inch hoist and a 6-foot fly, while the largest shipboard ensign
for daily service use is 5 feet by 9 feet 6 inches (larger "holiday
ensigns" are flown on special occasions)""