The “loss” of a unit or army’s colors refers to the capture of a flag in battle or it being taken away as a form of disciplinary action. For all those who serve in the military, the flag is a great source of pride. This was especially true during the American Civil War, when Confederate and Union flags were used to “rally” men around the cause. In fact, many Medals of Honor were awarded for the capture of enemy flags and the defense of a soldier’s own.
Today, the US military doesn’t carry the flag into battle, instead, flying it during ceremonies. Not that it would matter to US forces, which have had plenty of success on the battlefield. According to the US Army Center for Military History, “Official Army records contain no mention of any unit in the United States Army having lost its colors to the enemy during World War II, the Korean War, or the war in Vietnam.”
While there were rumors that units did, in fact, lose their flags, these have generally been proven false.
American forces have, on the other hand, taken another country’s colors numerous times, posing for photographs with the flags. The following images show US troops celebrating their victories with what many view to be a military tradition.
US Expedition of Korea
This image features US Marine Cpl. Charles Brown, Pvt. Hugh Purvis and who’s believed to be US Navy sailor Cyrus Hayden onboard the USS Colorado (1856) during the US Expedition to Korea. Behind them is a captured Korean flag, known as the Sujagi, which was used to denote a commanding general.
The US Expedition to Korea was a conflict solely between American and Korean forces. It later appeared to have been a futile operation, with US troops leaving the country in much the same state as it had been in prior to their arrival.
Spanish-American War – Battle of Manila
During the Spanish-American War, the US took on the Spanish Empire in the Battle of Manila… Well, they sort of did. The battle is often referred to as the “Mock Battle of Manila” because commanders on both sides came together and secretly planned the battle to transfer control of the city center from the Spanish to the Americans, while keeping the Philippine Revolutionary Army out.
In this photo, a US soldier with the First Colorado lowers the Spanish flag at Fort San Antonio de Abad, with plans to replace it with the American flag.
World War II – New Guinea Campaign
Taken in July 1943 during the midst of the New Guinea Campaign, this photo shows members of the 41st Infantry Division with captured Japanese flags. The World War II campaign was fought between 1942 and 1945, and resulted in devastating losses for the Japanese.
According to Australian military history John Laffin, the campaign “was arguably the most arduous fought by any Allied troops during World War II.”
World War II – Battle of Saipan
The Battle of Saipan was fought by the 2nd Marine Division, 4th Marine Division and the US Army’s 27th Infantry Division. After almost a month of fighting, the US forces were able to defeat the Imperial Japanese Army’s 43rd Infantry Division, inflicting an estimated 29,000 casualties.
In this photo, we see a group of US Coast Guardsmen posing onboard their attack transport ship with a captured Japanese flag.
World War II – Battle of Iwo Jima
This photo shows members of the Marine 5th Division holding up Japanese flags that were captured during the Battle of Iwo Jima. The battle was a major victory for the Navy and Marine Corps, and allowed them access to an emergency air base for aircraft returning from missions to Japan.
The battle is responsible for arguably the most iconic photo from the war (if not ever), in which US Marines plant the American flag atop Mount Suribachi.
Korean War – Battle of Masan
Here we have troops with the 35th Infantry holding a captured North Korean flag following the Battle of Masan. The Korean War battle took place over August and September 1950, and ended with a UN forces victory and a North Korean retreat. It was part of the larger Battle of Pusan Perimeter, which saw numerous battles being fought simultaneously.
This photo shows US troops holding up a captured Communist flag after clashes with North Korean and Chinese prisoners of Block 76on at Koje-do prison camp. Those detained at the camp during the Korean War were detained on Koje Island until a riot in May 1952 forced them to be moved to other facilities.
This photo, taken during the Vietnam War, shows First Cavalry soldier Michael Marrone with a joker card attached to his helmet. He’s also holding a captured Viet Cong flag. Arguably one of the most controversial wars the US was ever involved in, Vietnam saw the combat deaths of over 47,000 soldiers.
The country’s involvement in the conflict resulted in numerous nationwide protests during the 1960s and ’70s, with attendees protesting not only the drafting of the male population but the actions of US troops on the ground in Vietnam.
Vietnam War – Iron Triangle
Another photo of US troops posing with a captured flag, this time belonging to the People’s Labor Party. The soldiers, members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, were fighting in the Iron Triangle, an area of Vietnam known for its hold by the Việt Minh.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
This photo, taken in March 2003, shows US Army 3rd Infantry Division 3-7 infantry Corporal Charles Johnson holding up the Iraqi flag his squad captured during a raid on an Iraqi border post. This was in the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, better known as the Iraq War, a conflict that raged until December 2011.
The primary objective of the Iraq War was to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government, and its objectives were spurred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, despite there being no connection between them and Iraq.