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When the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman returned to its home port of Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia on Monday after a nine-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea, it unfurled a scarlet battle flag that bears much in common with an Army artillery unit. 

Considering the Navy’s long-standing rivalry with the Army, it may be surprising to hear that a Navy ship would fly an Army-inspired banner, but there is an interesting reason why: the aircraft carrier’s namesake, President Harry S. Truman.

Before he became the country’s 33rd head of state, Truman commanded Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery Regiment, 35th Division, which served in Europe during World War I. In early September, 1918, the 129th Field Artillery marched with heavy equipment over 100 miles “of crowded, muddy back roads” to get from the Vosges Mountains to the Argonne forest, which were followed by five days of intense combat that together made up “the ultimate test for Battery D,” according to the National Park Service. 

‘Give ‘em hell!’ — Why a Navy aircraft carrier sports an Army-inspired battle flag
Postcard photo of Harry S. Truman taken in France during World War I. (Photo via Wikipedia)

By the time the war ended that November, Battery D had fired more than 10,000 shells but not lost a single man in combat, a lucky trait which Truman’s men attributed to the leadership of “Captain Harry,” the National Park Service wrote.

The Missouri farmer who spent only a semester in college went on to have a long career in public service, and his legacy continues in the battle flag flown by the aircraft carrier which bears his name. For special occasions, Navy ships sport battle flags that often feature cool symbols like the Jolly Roger, a Captain America shield, or a phoenix wreathed in flames. 

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The Harry S. Truman’s flag is rich with symbolism inspired by its namesake. According to the USS Harry S. Truman Foundation, the scarlet background represents “the price Americans have paid for freedom” throughout the country’s history. The flag also bears a “129” and the letter “D” to symbolize Truman’s unit, the 129th Field Artillery Regiment, Battery D. The whole thing is superimposed over the number 75, which represents the aircraft carrier’s hull number.

The flag also features the words “give ‘em hell,” which did not come from Truman’s World War I campaign across France. Instead, it came from Truman’s 1948 re-election campaign across the U.S., where at a campaign rally one enthusiastic citizen yelled “Give ‘em hell, Harry,” according to the USS Harry S. Truman Foundation. 

‘Give ‘em hell!’ — Why a Navy aircraft carrier sports an Army-inspired battle flag
Seaman Danielle Overstreet stitches a USS Harry S. Truman “Give ‘Em Hell” battle flag patch on a set of coveralls aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), November 10, 2009 (Kilho Park/U.S. Navy)

It’s a great phrase for a ship of war, especially one like the USS Harry S. Truman, whose air wing flew 60 to 90 sorties a day as part of a NATO presence and air policing mission in the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to U.S. Naval Institute News. 

“The ship sailed more than 65,000 nautical miles, all while conducting multiple operations in the region to include enhanced air policing missions, dual and tri-carrier operations, and the NATO- led vigilance activities Neptune Shield 22 and Neptune Strike 22,” the U.S. 2nd Fleet told USNI News.

After so many months deployed, hopefully the crew of the Truman can now enjoy some much-deserved rest before going back to doing what their flag calls for: giving ‘em hell.

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