Admiral Yamamoto's rank flag, which flew above his head as he gave the fateful order to attack Pearl Harbor. Bids will open at $10,000 and it's likely to sell for much more and set new world auction records.

Update: The Admiral Yamamoto rank flag sold for $40,000.

What you see: Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag, flown on the Japanese naval vessel, the Nagato. Heritage Auctions does not generally give ranged estimates, but is opening bidding for the flag at $10,000.

The expert: James Ferrigan, consulting vexillologist [flag expert] for Heritage Auctions.

Who was Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, and what role did he play in World War II? Isoroku Yamamoto was a Japanese admiral of the Imperial Japanese navy and the Commander in Chief (CIC) of the Combined Fleet during World War II. He was responsible for much of the IJN’s pre-war modernization, especially in the area of naval aviation. He planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though he personally opposed war with the United States due to his years at Harvard University and his service as naval attaché in Washington. He remained the commander of the Combined Fleet until his death in 1943.

What is a rank flag, and how were rank flags used during WWII? A rank flag signifies the rank of a military officer, ashore or afloat. During WWII rank flags were used as they have been since the age of sail–to indicate the physical presence of the officer in command. Rank flags are still used today in the same way. 

Do rank flags mark a vessel as a flagship? If so, did this rank flag serve that purpose when it flew on the Nagato? Yes, when a vessel wears a rank flag, that makes it, by definition, a flagship. And, yes, that was this flag’s purpose on the Nagato.

Did a vessel typically have a single rank flag, or would it have or need more than one? A capital ship [a significant vessel in a naval fleet] would have a complete suite of flags for all the flag officers who might hoist “his flag” on the flagship. There would likely be large and small flags for both routine and ceremonial use. 

Do we know how many rank flags the Nagato had? I know of six: two for rear admirals, two for vice admirals, and two for full admirals. I would guess there were more. Admirals are like peacocks–they like to show off.

I understand this flag was flown on the Nagato. Why is the Nagato important? What role did the vessel play in WWII? The Japanese battleship Nagato was the lead ship of her class. She was sleek, with rakish lines, powerful engines, and eight 16-inch guns mounted in four turrets. The Nagato spent much of her service as a flagship for the Imperial Japanese navy and, for that reason, did not engage in ship-to-ship combat. She was the only Japanese battleship to survive the war. 

How did the Nagato manage to escape and survive the war? It’s not so much a question of escape, but how she was being used. The Nagato was modestly damaged on a sortie, and the Japanese realized they didn’t have the fuel to keep her operating. They turned the Nagato into a coastal defense ship. When U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz made it his goal to take out the last Japanese capital ships, the Nagato was damaged, but she did not sink. She could have had sorties, and one was proposed for August 1945, before the Japanese emperor surrendered. Then nuclear weapons were dropped, ending the war. That’s how she survived.

Japanese characters on the flag translate to "Big Six", which likely references its size and importance. It's unusually large for an Imperial Japanese navy rank flag, which points to it having been assigned to Admiral Yamamoto.

This Admiral Yamamoto rank flag measures 99 inches by 152 inches, and the lot notes indicate that it’s bigger than similar Japanese rank flags. Do we know why this flag is bigger? Is it fair to assume it’s deliberately bigger than other Japanese rank flags? And how might the term “Big Six,” which appears on the flag in Japanese characters, relate to its larger-than-average size? It is likely that Yamamoto’s flag was the largest because a full admiral was the highest ranking officer in the Imperial Japanese navy, as in all navies. It’s fair to assume this is why it was larger. The term “Big Six” was likely a field expedient nickname created by the signalmen on the Nagato, as in, “The admiral’s coming aboard, hoist the Big Six.”

The lot notes say the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag “was likely shipboard made”. Does that mean that it was stitched by Japanese sailors aboard the Nagato? Flags made at a navy yard were often all machine-sewn. This flag had hand stitching that was very likely done by sailors aboard the Nagato, so it “was likely shipboard made.”

The Admiral Yamamoto rank flag has eight unequal rays projecting from the red sun at the center. Does the number or the position of the rays have any particular meaning? The number of rays differentiates the rank flag from the Japanese national ensign, which has 16 rays. 

Wait, I thought an ensign was the same thing as a flag. How are they different? “Flag” is a generic term. An ensign is a flag of national character flown at sea.

The lot notes say the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag “likely represented Admiral Yamamoto in 1941-1942”. What evidence supports this idea? Deductive reasoning. This is a rank flag for a full admiral, and Yamamoto was the only full admiral to use the Nagato as his flagship. 

Where, exactly, on the Nagato would the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag have been flown? It was a universal custom among both Allied and Axis navies during WWII to indicate the status of a commissioned warship with a pennant worn at the maintop [a platform on the ship’s mainmast] or other conspicuous hoist [position on the ship]. Whenever a warship was designated as a flagship, the flag-officer’s rank flag replaced that pennant. 

Was this Admiral Yamamoto rank flag flying on the Nagato during the attack on Pearl Harbor? Did the vessel take part in the attack? Yes, it is thought that this was the flag used by Yamamoto while serving as CIC aboard the Nagato during the Pearl Harbor attack. It was on Nagato‘s flag bridge that he issued the now infamous command, “Niitaka yama nobore” (Climb Mount Niitaka), a coded signal to proceed with the Pearl Harbor attack.

The reverse side of Admiral Yamamoto's rank flag. It might look surprisingly unscathed for a flag that flew in battle, but expert James Ferrigan says such flags rarely take direct fire.

How do we know this was Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag? It was not his in a personal property sense, but rather his by use. He was the only full admiral to use the Nagato as a flagship, therefore the flag became “his.”

How often do Japanese rank flags of any type come to market? Japanese naval rank flags occasionally come to market, generally without provenance. Since all but one of the Japanese battleships were sunk during WWII, documented rank flags from those ships are exceedingly rare. Rank flags are far less common than ensigns or national flags. 

Does this auction mark the first time this Admiral Yamamoto rank flag has come up for sale? Yes, this flag is fresh to the market, having been in private hands since 1945.

How, exactly, did the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag leave the Nagato?This flag was acquired a trophy of war on August 30, 1945, taken by a member of a prize crew: Prince “Ted” Duncan, a 37-year-old chief boatswain’s mate and the Iowa’s master-at-arms. He left the Nagato with this huge Admiral’s rank flag of the Imperial Japanese navy, a piece of halyard, and 20 small Japanese silk stick flags and ensigns. 

The lot notes say the rank flag was “hauled down” on August 30, 1945, but Admiral Yamamoto died in April of 1943. Why was the flag still able to function as a rank flag after the admiral’s death? It’s unclear why the Nagato may have been wearing a full admiral’s flag. A review of the Nagato’s WWII service record reveals that she served as a flagship for a full admiral only from December 7, 1941 until February 12, 1942–for Admiral Yamamoto. At all other times, she was the flagship of either a vice admiral or a rear admiral. Perhaps the Nagato wore this flag one last time in homage to Yamamoto, or the term “hauled down” was a sailor’s tale. Either way, this was the only Admiral’s flag taken as a trophy on August 30, 1945.

What is the provenance of this rank flag? How did it go from the Nagato to this auction? And how did it manage to survive in this condition for the better part of a century? It went from the Nagato to Prince “Ted” Duncan as a trophy of war on August 30, 1945. It stayed with him until the 1960s, when he gave it to Richard Brundo, a former mayor of Culver City, California. Brundo died in 2016. A descendant consigned the flag.

What is the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag like in person? Are there aspects or details that the camera doesn’t capture? For example, what is it like to touch the fabric? Is it substantial? The flag is a good quality wool bunting. It has a soft hand–it is not a roughly woven fabric. The stitching is well executed and substantial. 

What condition is the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag in? And what role does condition play when we’re talking about WWII-era Japanese rank flags–are they so rare that collectors have to be more forgiving of stains and rips and other injuries? Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag from the Nagato is in good condition–used, worn, and soiled, but otherwise intact. That would be expected in that there is a certain prestige in being a flagship, let alone that of the Combined Fleet. The signalmen would have taken care of such a rank flag. 

With game-worn sports uniforms, collectors want to see enough wear to show that the garments were used in a real game, but not so much that they look as if they were dragged under a bus. Is that the case with battle-flown flag collectors? They want to see some wear, but not too much? Condition is everything. Most damage to flags occurs from use, the weather, or the environment. We rarely see documentable damage from ship-to-ship combat. Rank flags are in good condition, probably for that reason–they were probably not exposed to direct enemy fire. We don’t expect to see that kind of damage. Looking at this flag, you can see it was used. You can tell by the nap of the wool if it was exposed to the elements. This one was. The spotting on the fly edges [the edge opposite the edge that attaches to the flagpole] is not egregious and gives the flag a little character. It doesn’t detract from its appearance.

The period photos shown here appear to document the United States Navy Prize Crew's boarding of the Nagato on August 30, 1945. A member of the crew obtained Admiral Yamamoto's rank flag during that operation.

Among the photos sent over by Heritage Auctions is a quartet of period black-and-white images showing a ship and its crew from various angles. Could you explain what I see here? Those appear to be images of the Nagato taken on August 30, 1945 by the United States Navy’s Prize Crew. They are views of different aspects of the Nagato at anchor in Tokyo Bay. One depicts the prize crew with the Nagato’s ensign, which was conveyed to the US Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis, MD. 

Were any other Japanese flags recovered from the Nagato? Have any of those flags gone to auction? How have they performed? The entire contents of the Nagato’s flag locker [the space on the vessel dedicated to flag storage] was captured intact, so there are at least 13 known Nagato flags, and probably more. Some of the other Nagato trophy flags have come to auction. A Nagato ensign sold at Mark Lawson Antiques in 2013 for a hammer price [the price without buyer’s premium and related fees] of $18,000. Bonhams sold a Nagato flag in 2018 for $13,750. Heritage handled at least one other ensign from the Nagato on December 14, 2019 for $47,500. That was the highest known price paid for a Nagato flag.

What is the world auction record for a World War II-era rank flag? What are the odds that the Admiral Yamamoto rank flag will meet or exceed it? The highest price of which I am aware is $6,000. I have no crystal ball, but I would expect this flag to meet and exceed this. It’s got the Nagato cachet, but it’s even rarer. It was only displayed in the presence of a full admiral, and the only full admiral present was Yamamoto.

Why will this rank flag stick in your memory? It has the triple crown of historic importance. It’s from a distinguished individual, Admiral Yamamoto. It’s from a distinguished vessel, the Nagato. And it’s associated with a historic event, the attack on Pearl Harbor. For me, personally, as a flag scholar, I’d love to see it go to a museum.

How to bid: Admiral Yamamoto’s rank flag is lot 43037 in the Historic Flags of WWII and Other Historic Flags sale taking place at Heritage Auctions on June 6, 2020.

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