US Nuclear Sub Returns to Base Flying Pirate Flag for Successful Attack. Nobody Knows What That Mission Was.

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There’s a tradition in some of the world’s submarine fleets. The Jolly Roger, the skull-and-crossbones flag most commonly associated with 18th century pirate cliches, is flown on the return to port after a successful attack mission. And the USS Jimmy Carter is flying the flag, only no one is saying why.

The USS Jimmy Carter, a Seawolf-class nuclear-powered submarine, was photographed in April passing through the Hood Canal. The American flag is clearly visible, but the black flag behind it is the one that has captured the imagination.

The 450-foot-long Carter is one of three in its class. While the name might suggest diplomacy, the USS Jimmy Carter is one of the nation’s most advanced and capable attack subs.

Fox re-posted Scottish journalist Ian Keddie tweet and noted that this use of the Jolly Roger has British origins. “The tradition of flying it dates to 1914, during World War I, when a British submarine sank the German battle cruiser Hela, according to the historical book Submarines at War 1939-45.”

“When the HMS E-9 returned to port, Lt. Cmdr Max Horton raised the iconic pirate flag to signal that its crew had sunk an enemy warship. British naval fleets have honored the tradition sporadically ever since.”

So why is the Carter flying the flag? No one is commenting.

The submariners’ Jolly Roger tradition has produced some stunning examples of folk-art, too. Here are some of the images through the 20th century.

Most of the symbols are code for the types of missions and kills recorded by the submarine.

Here’s one that has explanations for all of the coded images.

Apart from the Carter, the Jolly Roger has made few appearances lately. While some speculate that this is becasue there are fewer attacks from submarines, others believe it is becasue their missions are conducted under very tight secrecy.