Things You Should Know: How to fly a flag at half-staff

youshouldknowPart of doing your duty to country is knowing how to respect and honor the American flag.

And sometimes honoring the American flag means flying it at half-staff.

As leaders of Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Sea Scouts and Venturers, it’s important for us to know the proper way to fly the American flag during times of mourning, such as Patriot Day, on which we remember the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Learn how to fly a flag at half-staff in the latest edition of Things You Should Know.

Step 1: Know when to fly the flag at half-staff

Half-Staff-3

Halfstaff.org is my go-to site for learning whether a flag should be flown at half-staff, why it’s being flown at half-staff and for how long it should be kept at that reverential height.

The call to lower the flag will come from the president or a state governor.

Also, there are several days where it’s always flown at half-staff out of respect for those we have lost:

  • Peace Officers Memorial Day, May 15 (sunrise to sunset)
  • Memorial Day, last Monday in May (sunrise to noon)
  • Patriot Day, Sept. 11 (sunrise to sunset)
  • Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (sunrise to sunset)
  • National Firefighters Memorial Day (sunrise to sunset)
  • Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Dec. 7 (sunrise to sunset)

Step 2: Hoist the flag briskly to the top of the pole

Half-Staff-1

The flag ceremony will begin as usual.

When it’s time to hoist the flag, it should be hoisted briskly to the peak for an instant.

Step 3: Lower the flag slowly to the half-staff position

Half-Staff-2

Next, lower the flag slowly — and ceremoniously — to the half-staff position.

The half-staff position is half the distance from the top to the bottom of the staff.

Step 4: At the end of the day, raise it before lowering it

Half-Staff-4

When it is time to lower the flag for the day at sunset, it should again be raised briskly to the top for a moment before being lowered slowly.

Half-staff or half-mast?

Half-Mast-flag

Is a flag flown at half-staff or half-mast? Both are true, depending on where the flag is flown.

If it’s flown on a ship or at naval stations ashore, it’s flown at half-mast. (Ships have masts, after all.)

Everywhere else ashore, it’s flown at half-staff.

About this series

Things You Should Know (previously called Things Guys Should Know) is an ongoing series about those essential life skills all young people should have in their arsenal.

Cool thing is, everything in the series is a skill a guy or girl could learn in Scouting. Maybe he or she picks it up while spending time outdoors with his or her troop, team or crew. Or maybe he or she learned it in a merit badge pamphlet or while reading the Boy Scout Handbook, Fieldbook or Boys’ Life magazine. Either way, one thing’s clear: Scouting helps teach skills that help young people become better Prepared. For Life.

See all of the Things You Should Know here. And leave a comment if you think of a skill guys and girls should know (and learn in Scouting) that I should cover in a future edition.


Hat tip: That awesome Things You Should Know illustration is by Kevin Hurley.

Photos from iStock and from Flickr by Grant GolightlyDave Thomas, Terry Robinson

34 Comments

  1. An excellent summary of rules and regulations related to the flag is at : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Flag_Code. The U.S. Flag Code is at http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RL30243.pdf and also at http://www.military.com/flag-day/us-flag-code.html among others.

    When you are teaching scouts, from Tigers on up, emphasize to them that attention means heels together, feet at 45dec to each other, legs straight (but knees not locked) back and posture straight, eyes forward, no talking, hands at side except when saluting, salute rendered with upper arm parallel to ground, not a slouched posture, etc. The key is to show respect – the leaders, both scouts and scouter, should set the

    • The proper body stance is interesting to know. Where do we find that in our scouter materials so I can share this with our unit?

        • Carey,

          Direct quote from the first line of your first reference: “The position of at attention, or standing at attention, is a military posture which involves the following general postures:…”

          Scouting is neither a military nor a quasi-military organization and is in no way obligated to follow any military traditions or practices Scouting actually has a lot of it’s own traditions that are complimentary but different than the military.

          Many adult leaders who have served, myself included, may tend to instinctively come to the military attention posture but that is not required in scouting and a less rigid posture can also be just as respectful to the flag.

          I personally have never read any reference in an official BSA publication that defines a scouting position of attention. If someone does have a BSA reference I think many would be interested in reading it… : )

        • Point well taken, B & P. Remember, however BP was first and foremost military, and many things he instituted were military. However, when we are honoring the flag and the country for which it stands, we should do so with the respect that it deserves,

          I unfortunately have seen some scouts with one hand in a pocket, shirt half tucked in, slouching, limply saluting the flag…basically showing no respect at all…While I would not suggest that we have a DI’s response to a new military recruit (i.e., chewing out) someone who does that, I would suggest that to emulate that posture which the military deems as respect would result in all coming to an acceptable standard for when “Attention” is called.

          When you have a multiplicity of standards you have no standards at all. As attention, I am not suggesting the posture that is often required of a person in boot camp, but that we have a uniform standard. Otherwise everything looks sloppy, and conveys a lackadaisical attitude toward everything, certainly not in line with an organization that promotes “Do your best”!

        • The Wikipedia link is not a BSA publication. I was looking for BSA materials.Is the proper attention posture in the “Your Flag Book”? I’d hate to spend our unit’s money on just another flag book.

        • I don’t see the specifications for standing at attention in the Flag Book…I don’t see it in a lot of publications, so that the conclusion that I am forced to draw is that it is fairly well universally defined – one would look up “at attention” to see the specs on that.

          I am not sure I understand the thumbs down on some of the comments I have been receiving on my attempt to simply provide information. It may be that most feel that telling the scouts “attention” is as easily understood as many other words (we don’t try to provide a definition of “up” or “down” when we use it, as those are understood) – that it is not necessary to include it in the literature…no we aren’t a military organization, but the word “attention” in context of a command has come from the military,

          One of the comments was that

          “Scouting is neither a military nor a quasi-military organization and is in no way obligated to follow any military traditions or practices Scouting actually has a lot of it’s own traditions that are complimentary but different than the military.

          Many adult leaders who have served, myself included, may tend to instinctively come to the military attention posture but that is not required in scouting and a less rigid posture can also be just as respectful to the flag.”

          I would suggest that Baden and Powell might give a sampling of the “less rigid postures” so we can understand what he means.

          My comments were to make sure when we put flag respect into practice, that those observing who are not scouts might see our actions as respectful.

          As leades we should set the example – perhaps a program covering the history of the flag and the flag code, along with behavior by the adults supporting these practices would be beneficial in inculcating into the scouts the resperct that is due a symbol that many fought and died for to preserve.

        • Cary Snyder is correct about the Position of Attention, as every Marine recruit learned within seconds of his or her arrival at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. There is a Scouting counterpoint to this, however. In the early days, when the BSA was fighting for its very existence among competing “Boy Scout” organizations, many of those organizations paid a great deal of attention to military drill and discipline. To differentiate itself from those organizations, BSA made a deliberate decision not to include such things in the Boy Scout program. That concept has worked for a hundred years. Maybe we should take that aspect of Scouting history out of the closet every couple decades or so, just to remind people.

        • Comments have been made re military drill, etc. my suggestion relates to ONLY the position of attention, no drills…I agree, that instituting a requirement of a military precision would turn many off…but expecting the boys(and adults) to assume a position of respect (I.e., not slouching) for a short time while respecting the flag and saying the oath, law, and outdoor code is not going to kill them, and I would contend those that are bothered by this respect are not showing scout spirit.

        • It is probably good to remember just what the US Flag Code actually is, before everyone get wrapped around the axle about it. The US Flag Code is a part of the United States Code (USC). It is advisory in nature. There are no civil or criminal penalties involved for any violation of the Code. It merely serves as a common reference of “best practices” as it relates to the United State Flag. “United States Flag” being the correct name for our national flag.

          The US Flag Code is not the implementing instruction for either the US Flag nor the Church Pennant for the US Navy, however. That is NTP-13(B), “Flags, Pennants and Customs”. The US Navy interprets “at sea” to mean “aboard a ship of the Navy”. The US Fag is also our national naval ensign. The church pennant is displayed immediately above the ensign where the ensign is displayed, at the gaff when underway or at the flagstaff when not underway.

          It may also be displayed on what the Navy calls a “fixed pole-mast” during services ashore. But it may not be displayed superior to the national ensign ashore.

          Since the Navy provides the chaplains for the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard, these practices may assume to be standard for all the naval services. The military services have no official Church pennant, although there have been local adaptations.

          The church pennant has never be called the “Chaplain’s flag”. First, it is not a flag but a pennant. Second, chaplains do not rate a flag, a right reserved to flag officers.

          The church pennant originated during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the late 17th Century. It was a long pennant combining the English flag at the hoist and the Dutch flag in the fly. It indicated that a cease fire existed between the warring nations while religious services were conducted. The US Navy took its church pennant tradition from the Royal Navy, and the cease fire implication is why the church pennant is flown over the naval ensign. Flying the church pennant above the ensign is an indication that the vessel is not a combatant while that pennant is flying. It is an indication recognized by the Law of War. The large red crosses on the side of a hospital ship falls into the same category.

          The US Navy currently maintains two categories of church pennants. Until 1975 there was only the Christian pennant. In 1975, the Secretary of the Navy authorized a Jewish pennant. With the recruitment of Muslim chaplains to the Navy and the crescent of Islam added to the crest of the Navy Chaplain Corps, a Muslim pennant will undoubtedly be added as Muslim chaplains go to sea.

          Interestingly, the church pennant is only flown on a US Navy vessel if the services are being conducted by a Navy chaplain. Army or air force chaplains, don’t count. Rather cheeky, actually.

      • My pack/troop exercises similar practices but not to such a degree. It is simply stand up straight, do the proper salute, remain quiet. Such things as having the shirt tucked in are standards of uniform wear no matter what the activity. Our district participated in putting out a flag display yesterday representing all of those killed in battle in Ohio since 9/11. The flags on the permanent poles at the sight were taken down in preparation for the ceremonies today. Every boy that helped had on their Class A, tucked in, and was quiet and respectful. We followed the procedure that the veterans in charge were following.

  2. The backward flying or “reverse” flag actually has it’s military roots in moving ships and vehicles where the flag is affixed to the right side of the vehicle and the canton oriented to the front of the vehicle thus the field flows backwards as the vehicle moves forward. Some, not all, military uniforms decided to copy this effect and wear the “reverse” flag. Mostly it depends upon which shoulder is selected to display the flag patch. Flight suits worn by pilots and astronauts more commonly have the flag patch on the left shoulder. Flag patches on police and fire uniforms can be found on either shoulder and sometimes located above a front pocket, most commonly where scouts and scouters would wear the world crest.

    Half- mast / half-staff. Anymore it seems like the local janitor makes these decisions on when and how the flag is displayed rather than the President or Governor as provided by the US Flag Code. No disrespect to whatever local group is trying to honor someone for whatever reason, just that it really isn’t proper and part of scouting is learning and doing what is right. Having said that, the following errors relate to the list of dates when the US flag is flown at half-staff:

    Patriot Day and National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day; the requirement to fly flags at half-staff only applies to federal buildings.

    Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is by Presidential proclamation, not an Act of Congress. A Presidential proclamation only “urges” flags to be flown at half-staff. It is not a requirement.

    Flags were previously flown at half-staff on National Korean War Veteran Armistice Day until the original Act expired in 2003. When reenacted in 2009 parts were reworded and it now clearly states that July 27th is a full-staff remembrance day.

  3. Thanks for the great article on how to properly display the flag at half-staff. Since a lot of us have stationary poles on our homes (ie. can’t be adjusted to half-staff), I thought this info on displaying the U.S. flag at half-staff on a stationary pole might help. It’s from the “Flag Rules and Regulations: Flag FAQs” section of the Betsy Ross Homepage on the UShistory.org Web site (http://www.ushistory.org/betsy/faq.htm). It says: “The flag rules make no provisions for this. You can affix a streamer of black crepe to the staff immediately below the spearhead of the U.S. flag. It should be no wider than 1 foot, but may be less wide to match the proportionality of the flag. It should be about 1-1/2 times the hoist of the fly (the shorter dimension; the height of the flag). Attach a black streamer with a bow-knot to the spearhead (top) of the pole, allowing the streamer to fall naturally. Alternately, you can affix black bow-knots, with or without streamers, placed at the fastening points.” Various Web sites that sell flags also suggest using a black bow.

  4. Traditionally, the only flag, pennant, or device that is placed above the United States Flag is the Church Pennant, while services are being conducted.

    • Lord Sutton,

      Taken out of context this statement might potentially be misinterpreted by some. The full sentence of this allowance in the US Flag Code states:

      “No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, except during church services conducted by naval chaplains at sea, when the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for the personnel of the Navy.”

  5. , Am displaying my flag today, 9/11, at full staff…my pole isn’t tall enough for half-staff anyway. Lord Sutton: the “church” or Chaplain’s Flag is flown above the US Flag only while services are being conducted on seagoing vessels.

  6. Good article. Doing it right is important for the Flag of the United States. It can pay off as well. When I was a senior in high school, we would stand outside of the school each morning waiting for the doors to be opened. The scouts would gather together as usual. We noticed the janitor coming out of the school with a wadded up flag. We ripped it out of his hands and told him that it was no way to treat a flag. We folded it, then unfolded it, ran it up the pole and did the pledge to the flag. The guy set us up for the next week and we did colors each morning. He then told us that we were “not to swift” to pick up that the flag needed to be taken down after school each day. So we we did that too.

    A few weeks later, the troop got a call from the local American Legion.Commander. The janitor was a Legion member and discussed the scout conduct at the high school. The Legion Post Commander was a Special Education teacher at the school. We were asked to help out with a flag cremation ceremony. We participated with the scouts memorizing their lines and we provided a bugler for Taps. The Legion members read their lines out of a book and thought they were upstaged a little.

    We started doing service projects with the Legion. One Legion member was an Army radio technician, so they worked with the council set up a Ham Radio Explorer Post. The legion also requested that we set up the floor for weddings and Bingo. They then asked us to work in their kitchen providing food for Bingo. The troop would bring in about $600 per month for doing all of this.

    So you never know what will happen when a scout is prepared and shows respect to the American flag. Another note is with regards to fund raising. If a troop focuses on community service projects, they do not have to waste all their time raising money to fund troop activities. It is a “What you sow, you will reap” mentality. If the local community sees scouts doing service projects, they will financially assist the local unit.

  7. Bryan –

    When are Korean War Veterans Armistice Day and National Firefighters Memorial Day? You didn’t include the dates in your post? 🙁

    • Your memory does serve, but you haven’t been reading the bulletin board. In 2007 Congress passed a law allowing governors to order the half-staffing of flags in their state or territory in the event of the death of someone from their state while on active duty. The same power was given the Mayor of D.C. Many governors have gone well beyond the actual congressional intent and some mayors have granted themselves the same right. Ironically, federal facilities within those states or the district are directed to follow what the governor (or D.C. mayor) orders, at least as it relates to a service member’s death.

  8. So Bryan; I went to http://www.usflag.org/flagetiquette.html and I won’t do a comparison here. However, I had a thought. With so much information, with so much “special situation” to understand …so many rules and so few people understanding them, why has B.S.A. not introduced a specific Flag Etiquette merit badge? I know that it is stated in several places that; “as part of… a Scout should know the proper…” but, there is certainly enough material here to make for a separate, specialized badge.

    • As a 60+-year Scouter and a vexillogiist (student of flag culture), I think that this is a tremendous idea and I believe that the vexillogical community would back such a project with all of its resources.

      Awesome suggestion, Mark.

      • When the flag is being flown at half staff, is it lowered b4 it’s raised back to full staff or just raised to full staff?

    • I vae made that suggestion (the establishment of a Respect for the Flag merit badge back on August 12, 2013…apparently you do not get any acknowledgement of your suggestion.
      Perhaps if more made the suggestion, they might take it seriously…

      the email address is merit.badge@scouting.org
      – see http://blog.scoutingmagazine.org/2013/08/12/how-to-suggest-a-new-merit-badge/ for how to submit a suggestion

      1. Write a short report on the history of the American Flag.
      2. Find out where the U.S. Government has codified respect for the flag.
      3. Explain how to conduct a proper flag ceremony.
      1. Conduct a flag ceremony for your troop
      2. Conduct a flag ceremony for a Cub Pack
      4. Demonstrate how to fold a flag.
      5. Explain:
      1. how to raise and lower the flag
      2. how to raise the flag to and lower it from half mast
      3. when the flag may be displayed at half mast
      4. when and how the flag may be displayed
      1. at night
      2. in inclement weather
      5. what are improper ways of displaying the flag
      6. Explain how the flag is to be displayed:
      1. in a parade
      2. attached to a moving vehicle
      3. on a stage
      4. at a campsite
      5. on a coffin
      7. Prepare a flag retirement ceremony and conduct one at a troop meeting, at a campout, or for a Cub Pack.

      • formatting of previous post did not survive the posting – these were the elements of my suggestion for a merit badge 2 years ago.

  9. A very nice article but I would point out that your explanation of a staff versus a mast is incorrect but is also a common misconception. I am certain that the term mast came to us from ships but the definition of a mast is also a slender vertical structure ( http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mast ). A staff is a rod carried as a symbol of office or authority. The reality is a fixed flagpole is a mast but one you can carry is a staff.

  10. Just as useful – how to indicate flag in mourning on a fixed staff. Basically, you affix a black ribbon at the top of the staff.

    There are recommendations regarding width and length, but my interpretation is that it should be in proportion to the size of the flag. We now keep ribbons in the Troop kit, one for every flag we display.

Join the conversation