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Morning and Evening Colors - A Military Tradition
by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Oliver Serna
November 26, 2022

For civilians and military personnel living and working on a military base, starting and finishing their day with morning and evening colors has always been the norm. This daily routine is deeply steeped in history, and Naval Support Activity (NSA) Washington has been keeping with this time-honored military tradition.

Across NSA Washington’s bases, which include the Washington Navy Yard, and Naval Support Facilities Arlington, Suitland, Carderock and Naval Observatory, colors is observed daily at 8 a.m. The national ensign is hoisted smartly up a flagpole, flown throughout the day, then lowered gently at sunset. Morning colors is accompanied by the national anthem, while evening colors is accompanied by the playing of Retreat. Morning and Evening colors are observed every day without exception.

The U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band performs the national anthem as the American flag is raised during morning colors at Leutze Park at the Washington Navy Yard. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Stephen Hassay - June 14, 2011.)
The U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band performs the national anthem as the American flag is raised during morning colors at Leutze Park at the Washington Navy Yard. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Stephen Hassay - June 14, 2011.)

According to Naval District Washington’s Director of Ceremonies and Special Events, Stuart McLean, Colors was first initiated by the Royal Navy in 1797, and then adopted by the United States Navy in 1843.

“Royal Navy Archives state the practice of Morning Colors began in 1797, when Admiral Lord St. Vincent, Admiral of the Fleet, Royal Navy, started the tradition of raising and lowering the ensign and jack following a mutiny at Spithead, a Royal Navy anchorage near Plymouth, England,” said Mclean. “In 1843, the U.S. Navy adopted the British tradition of both Morning and Evening Colors. The 1843 Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Navy provided these requirements: If sunset were after 6:00 p.m, morning colors would be at 8:00 a.m; otherwise, the colors would start at 9:00 a.m. This was updated in the 1870s when the time for morning colors were definitively moved to 8:00 a.m."

Service members and civilians take part in this long-standing tradition to reflect on the sacrifices of the women and men who devoted their lives to protect our nation's shores from foes. To many, this custom is rooted in a sense of deep pride and is a symbol of admiration.

Cmdr. Terry McNamara, NSA Washington executive officer, appreciates the tradition and what it represents.

““I will never get tired of observing colors,” said McNamara. “It gives me a tremendous amount of pride knowing what the flag represents. It stands for what we fight for, why we serve and show up every day.”

Across NSA Washington, the “First Call” to colors is played over the installation’s public address system at 7:55 a.m., followed by “attention” and the national anthem at 8 a.m., concluding with “carry on” when the national anthem is over. This is over the same system used for emergency announcements, which are broadcast at a louder volume; colors is played at the lowest setting, which is more than adequate for people to hear it throughout the base.

During colors, service members are required to stop all activities, face the flag, come to attention, and salute until the “carry on” signal is given. In some cases when the flag is not visible, they are to face the direction of the music and perform those actions. Similarly, civilians are expected to stop, face the flag and stand at attention with the right hand over the heart. Vehicles within sight or hearing of the ceremony are also required to stop and pull safely on the side of the road until the carry-on signal is given.

“As a former service member and veteran, I am always moved by morning and evening colors,” said McLean. “For some reason, I find evening colors to be a little more poignant.”

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