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News | Nov. 9, 2020

Flag Precedence: Why the Marine Corps is senior to the Navy

By U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Joshua Sperling DLA Land and Maritime Land Customer Operations

Anyone who has attended a military event or sat in a briefing where the Service flags are displayed should know that the order of precedence goes from left to right. The National Ensign followed by the Army, Marine Corps, Navy…wait. What? The Marine Corps is senior to the Navy in order of precedence even though it is an underling to the Department of the Navy? Is it because we can do more pull-ups? Run farther? Carry more weight? Have better looking uniforms? No. It’s a little debatable but seems to stem from a litany of historical events.

When I was a young lieutenant, I was told that it was because the Navy had broken time and the Marine Corps did not. Meaning after the Revolutionary War, the Navy was disbanded due to lack of appropriations. That didn’t change until the Barbary pirate threat (a tale for another day). But the Marine Corps was disbanded too! So that’s not it.

Lineage. The Marine Corps has claimed its colors since 1881 and our current flag has been in existence since 1939. The Navy didn’t have an official flag until twenty years later. The order of precedence was set before that. It seems kind of harsh and squishy as a reason to put the Navy behind the Marines. So let’s keep going.

Some scholars argue that the Marine Corps has been more staunch in claiming Nov. 10, 1775, as its birthday since 1921. All the while the Navy kind of waffled between March 27, 1794 – the date of the Naval Act – and April 30, 1798 – the date the Department of the Navy was established. Both of which were younger dates than the Marine Corps until Adm. Elmo Zumwalt one-upped us in 1972 with an Oct. 10, 1775 birthday claim – the date of Continental Congress approval.

The one I like the most comes from the Navy landing force manuals of the 1890s which also stipulated parade protocols for some reason. I suppose we defeated the enemy during an amphibious assault and then conducted a parade? Sounds very American old school. These manuals instructed that a Marine formation, when marching with a Navy formation, would always take its place to the right (more senior position) in order to keep the Sailors marching in a straight line. Ok, I made up the “straight line” bit. But the rest is true.

The Marine Corps is a very special organization with a storied history full of legend and lore. Small wars, expeditions and ensuring American freedom of movement on the seas has been our mission for 245 years. It is fitting that we sit between the Army and the Navy when the flags are displayed because we have elements of both. We cannot bring the firepower of the Army. We cannot conduct raids without the sea legs of the Navy. We cannot sustain aviation combat operations without the Air Force flying in the “stack.” But we insert ourselves into harm’s way faster than anyone on earth. And we can deliver a devastating right hook that enables our sister services to follow through with a finishing blow. Semper Fidelis. Happy Birthday Marines.