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Only one ship of the U.S. Navy is authorized to fly the Jolly Roger

There are plenty of ships in the U.S. Navy (291 of them, to be precise), but only one has the curious distinction of flying the Jolly Roger — the ominous flag typically associated with pirates. Although a skull and crossbones is the most common adornment, lawless seamen during the golden age of piracy (1650-1720) flew many grisly symbols, including skeletons but also bleeding hearts and sharp weapons. After closing in on a ship, pirates hoisted the Jolly Roger at the last minute, and though designs varied from ship to ship, the message was clear — surrender or die. 

But for the U.S. destroyer USS Kidd, flying the Jolly Roger is less about striking fear into the hearts of its enemies than it is an 80-year-long tradition. The ship honors Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, who earned the nickname “Cap” while attending the U.S. Naval Academy due to his name’s similarity to the infamous 17th-century pirate Captain Kidd. During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Kidd was killed aboard the USS Arizona. Within two years, a Fletcher-class destroyer bearing his name sailed the Pacific. The ship’s crew kept the nickname alive by adopting the Jolly Roger and calling themselves “the Pirates of the Pacific,” though their “booty” often involved retrieving downed Allied fighter pilots. Today’s USS Kidd, commissioned in 2007, is actually the third ship to bear the name and the third to hoist the fearful flag of a bygone era.

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