USS Jimmy Carter returning home to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington with commanding officer Commander Melvyn Smith looking on.
Flying above Smith, fluttering in the Puget Sound sea breeze, is the skull and crossbones of the Jolly Roger. On the flag is at least one unidentified symbol. The Jimmy Carter also flew the Jolly Roger in April 2017 returning from another patrol.
In Navy tradition, the flying of the flag typically signifies a successful mission of some sort. As the Washington Post points out, the practice for subs began in World War II, when Royal Navy submarines flew the flags as a means of signaling a successful mission. Legend has it the flag, traditionally considered the flag of pirates, was adopted after a British admiral in World War I compared submarine warfare to piracy.
The black flag adorned with a skull and crossed bones, often features additional signals when it’s used in this modern content. Look at this flag from HMS Seraph, a Royal Navy submarine that served in World War II. The flag was created after Operation Mincemeat, a secret mission that involved dropping a cadaver carrying top-secret plans off the Spanish coast as part of a ruse to deceive the Axis. The six daggers on the flag allegedly represent individual clandestine missions. Signalmen on the submarines were responsible for updating the flags with the latest new symbols to reflect newly completed missions.
The use of the Jolly Roger on a submarine can be traced back to the submarines of the Royal Navy, who first used the flag in 1914 during World War I. Lieutenant Commander Max Horton commanded HMS E9 and sank a German vessel in the North Sea off Heligoland. It was the Royal Navy’s first kill by a submarine. Remembering a derogatory comment from the officer in charge of the Navy who viewed submarines and their crews as nothing but “pirates” Horton ordered a Jolly Roger flag to be stitched together so that it could be flown upon return to homeport. Thus, a naval tradition was created.
The mystery continues regarding what that sub has been doing, apparently successfully.
Another possibility: the Jimmy Carter could be tapping North Korea’s fiber optic cable that links it with the outside world. A fiber-optic cable runs from Sinuiji, North Korea to Dandong, China, right where the Yalu River empties into the West Sea. During the Cold War, the United States Navy performed several cable-tapping missions against the Soviet Union in the Sea of Okhotsk during Operation Ivy Bells. While the 453-foot long Jimmy Carter is not going to sail upstream into the Yalu River a UUV could, settling down on the cable and installing a tap that could collect the country’s outgoing phone calls and Internet traffic. And those strange symbols on the submarine’s flag do sort of look like word bubbles or telephones.