Why The Navy’s Top Spy Submarine Flew A Pirate Flag While Pulling Into Port

The ominous Jolly Roger is an important part of submariner lore and conveys a clear message when it is flown atop a submarine’s conning tower.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


I have been barraged with messages asking for an explanation as to why an American nuclear submarine would be flying a big black pirate flag as it pulled into its home port. The black flag with a skull embossed on it is commonly known as the Jolly Roger. It has been made famous by countless stories of swashbuckling pirates who used it to strike fear in the hearts of sailors aboard ships that were about to be commandeer. The Jolly Roger plays to an even greater symbology in which a monotoned skull and crossbones serves as a warning for impending danger and death. But when it comes to America's most capable and versatile nuclear submarine—a vessel used for espionage and spying of the grandest order—the Jolly Roger holds a very different meaning.

On September 11th, 2017 the Navy released images of the USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23)—the Navy's one-off, heavily modified Seawolf class nuclear fast attack submarine—as it made its way through the Hood Canal on its way back to its home port at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington State. Flying from the boat's conning tower was a big Jolly Roger flag. Its peculiar presence set off a round of inquiries as to its meaning. 

USS Jimmy Carter as she heads toward her home port at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. , USN

The Jimmy Carter is the last of only three Seawolf class submarines ever built, but its hullform is different than its sister ships. During construction, it had a large plug placed in the center of its hull, making the boat substantially longer than the other two Seawolf class boats. 

This plug accommodates room for lockout chambers, underwater remotely operated vehicles, and cargo bays for delivering and retrieving outsized cargo. A slew of other modifications were also made to the vessel. You can read all about them, as well as about the Jimmy Carter in general, in this prior feature profile I wrote about the submarine. Suffice it to say that the USS Jimmy Carter's primary mission is espionage and spying. It can manipulate communications cables deep under the surface of the ocean and even locate and retrieve sensitive material sitting on the sea floor. It truly is America's ultimate spying tool, and it can still hunt and fight like a normal Seawolf class fast attack submarine if it has to.

USS Jimmy Carter plowing through Washington waters. You can see the large missionized extension plug placed in the center of the boat's hull. , USN

The use of the Jolly Roger on submarines originated from British maritime heritage. The whole concept is said to have been the result of a statement made by Admiral Arthur Wilson, the First Sea Lord of the British Royal Navy, in the year 1901—just as submarines started to proliferate in numbers among some of the world's most powerful navies. 

The Admiral stated in disgust that submarines were "underhanded, unfair and damned un-English!" He continued to proclaim that he would persuade the Royal Navy brass to have crews of hostile submarines captured and hanged just as they would do to pirates. 

Nearly a decade and a half later, during World War I, the British submarine HMS E9 sunk a German cruiser while on patrol. Commander Max Horton of the E9 ordered his crew to whip up a Jolly Roger—basically a pirate flag—and flew the ominous pennant proudly atop the E9's sail as it triumphantly pulled back into port. It was a play on the admiral's famous statement regarding the unique "spirit" and mission of military submariners. They embraced the pirate mascot wholeheartedly as it wasn't their job to be noble, it was to be effective and deadly. 

This became a high-profile tradition for the crew, and after every successful patrol they would make and hang an additional Jolly Roger until there was no room left to fly any more. As a result of the lack of space on the submarine's mast, a far larger flag was crafted, and not only did it feature the skull and crossbones, but it also would have a bar for each enemy vessel E9 sent to a watery grave. 

HMS E9., Public Domain

HMS E9's seemingly strange but intriguing tradition caught on fast with other submarine crews as well. British submarines started adding their own colors and modifications to their Jolly Rogers. Command after command was given from on high to cease the non-standard practice but those demands went unacknowledged and the Jolly Roger become a symbol of a submarine crew's more independent spirit and capacity for guile compared to their surface fleet counterparts. 

The practice became widespread once again during World War II after HMS Osiris ventured deep into the highly guarded waters of the Adriatic and sunk the Italian destroyer Palestro. When the Osiris returned victorious to Alexandria from what seemed like a suicide mission she was ordered to wait outside submarine nets for a special package that would be delivered from the 1st Submarine Group commander's tender. The box was brought to the waiting sub and in it was a black pirate flag. The gift was a "recognition signal" to denote the crew's brave and highly successful mission. The Osiris's crew hoisted the Jolly Roger high above their conning tower and gallantly strode into her berth. 

HMS Safari's Jolly Roger as seen during World War II. , AP

Soon after, British submarines would be assigned a Jolly Roger flag after their first successful patrol. These flags would also act as an unofficial record of sorts of their achievements via the sowing on of various symbols representing different actions. The flag was only allowed to flown if the submarine returned from a successful sortie. In essence they became something akin to nose art and kill markings for Britain's wartime undersea service. 

Left to right: 1.) Polish submarine ORP Sokół returning to base in 1944 with their Jolly Roger and Nazi flags from ships they sunk risen high. 2.) Sailor from HMS Taku adds mission markings to the ship's Jolly Roger. 3.) Officers of HMS Ursula stand in front of their Jolly Roger., Republic of Poland/Imperial War Museum/Wikicommons

The tradition was carried forward through the decades, with boats like HMS Conqueror flying the Jolly Roger upon a triumphant return to port following the Falklands War. The flag was adorned with the shape of a cruiser to denote her successful torpedo attack on the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano

Jolly Rogers were flown from British submarines following Desert Storm and the second Gulf War as well. Silhouettes of tomahawk axes on the Jolly Rogers of Royal Navy submarines that fired BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles in anger during patrols have become staples following coalition operations abroad. 

Britain's Royal Navy Commander Rob Dunn holds a Jolly Roger flag on HMS Triumph as she sails back into Davenport, Plymouth, Devon, England, Saturday, April 2, 2011 after taking part in operations in the Libya where she fired sea to land Tomahawk cruise missiles. , AP

Foreign submarine services have also adopted the lore and meaning of the Jolly Roger dating as far back as World War II—largely a product of working alongside their British counterparts. Even some surface vessels had flown the iconic flag for similar purposes. 

Fast forward to today and the Jolly Roger remains somewhat of an inside symbol among submarine crews, and some American submarines have been known to fly it in the past. Although, the USS Jimmy Carter, whose missions are among the most highly classified in the entire "Silent Service" seems to have a special affinity for the tradition. The boat was seen flying the Jolly Roger following another patrol last April.

Some of the symbols that can adorn a submarine's Jolly Roger and what they mean. , navynews.co.uk

The Jimmy Carter's iteration of the flag uses the crossed swords instead of the crossed bones. This could reflect the vessel's "cloak and dagger" secret mission set or it could be just what was available when the flag was procured. It's unclear if any other symbology appears on the Jimmy

Carter's Jolly Roger, but we are looking into it.

Also it's worth noting that other unique naval symbology is used by vessels in a similar fashion from time to time, such as raising a broom up high on a ship or submarine's mast. This indicates the crew and the vessel made a "clean sweep" of their mission or task. This may include executing a perfect patrol, successfully completing sea trials without issue, or even launching all of a ship's armament in combat. 


As for what the enhanced Seawolf class submarine was up to that garnered the adornment of the Jolly Roger, we will probably never know. It could have been splicing into a communications cable inside unfriendly territory or recovering pieces of a North Korean ballistic missile off the sea floor—it's up to your own imagination to think of the possibilities. Regardless, it's safe to say that whatever it was actually up to, it was likely very important, highly sensitive, and dangerous work. 

Considering the reputation of the USS Jimmy Carter, a boat that is supposed to have a crew made up of some of the best submariners ever assembled, this likely won't be the last we will see of its big pirate flag.

HMS Triumph arrives home after launching Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Libya., AP

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com