The Great American Flag

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Continuing the conversation…..

We are grateful to the Great American Flag Preservation Group‘s Josh Dorfman and AJ Rehberg for their patriotism, positivity and dedication to the Great American Flag. Thank you for your continued friendship.

John Mikhael: Our last segment focused on the physical history of the Great American Flag; the inspiration, characters and construction of the flag. But, this flag actually has its own place in American history. What can you tell us about the Great American American Flag’s role in US history?

Josh (Co-Founder: Great American Flag Preservation Group): That’s actually what excites us the most.  Everyone is impressed by the flag’s size, but it’s the history of the flag that is truly amazing.  I think one of the most interesting stories is the role it played in the Iran Hostage Crisis. 

The flag’s construction overlapped with the early months of the Iran Hostage Crisis.  As the employees of Anchor Industries worked in shifts to assemble the flag, a renewed sense of patriotism gripped the country.  Understanding the flag needed a special purpose, it was dedicated to the 52 hostages during its inaugural unfurling in March 1980 at Anchor Industries in Evansville, Indiana. 

Ten months later, when the hostages were finally released, organizers from the Great American Flag Committee contacted the federal government and requested permission to unfurl the flag at Andrews Air Force Base to welcome them home.  After overcoming a series of bureaucratic and security hurdles, the plan was approved.  With the help of the local chapter of Ironworkers and other volunteers, the flag was unfurled to greet the hostages upon their safe arrival at Andrews Air Force Base near DC.  Having heard about the flag, pilots of the planes carrying the hostages requested permission to conduct “fly-bys” before landing so that everyone aboard could view it.  So, after 444 days of captivity, the Great American Flag was there to welcome the hostages home.

John: Wow! What an amazing visual. Their first glimpse of American soil and the Great Flag to welcome them home. I am getting goosebumps thinking about it!  What were some of the other notable displays of the flag?

AJ Rehberg (Co-Founder: Great American Flag Preservation Group):  After being dedicated in Evansville, the next unfurling was on the National Mall in Washington, DC where it was laid at the base of the Washington Monument.  This was actually when the Guinness Book of World Records measured it and awarded it the title of largest flag in the world and largest textile ever produced. 

Another interesting display was when it was unfurled in New York City’s Central Park.  It was initially planned to honor the crew members of NASA’s first orbital spaceflight aboard the Columbia.  Astronauts John Young and Bruce Crippen were supposed to be the guests of honor, but due to weather, the date of the unfurling had to be changed and they were not able to attend.  Instead, Len called in a few favors and Elizabeth Taylor stood in as the guest of honor. 

Credit: Photo by G Paul Burnett/AP/Shutterstock (6549451a) Actress Elizabeth Taylor is seen on in New York’s Central Park during unfurling of “The Great American Flag,” a giant flag which is hoped will be flown from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on July 4th. The occasion was used to spur contributions to pay the estimated $650,000 it will take to hang the flag from the bridge which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York Elizabeth Taylor, New York, USA

After that, the flag remained in storage for the next couple years as Len continued to work tirelessly to raise the funds necessary to affix the flag to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  When those efforts failed, he switched gears and turned to finding the flag a permanent home, which leads to my favorite display on the lawn of the White House.  

When it became clear the fundraising efforts were out of reach, Len donated the flag to the federal government with the provision that it be displayed on the National Lawn every Flag Day.   And on June 14th, 1983, Flag Day, Ronald Reagan accepted Great American Flag as a gift to the American people on the White House lawn.

Read the text of President Regan’s Speech here.

John: Those are major historical milestones of the 1980s for sure. But why don’t I recall seeing the flag on the National Mall?

AJ:  The problem was that despite committing to its annual unfurling in his speech, the necessary Executive Order was never issued to make it a permanent tradition.  It was displayed the following Flag Day, but it would unfortunately succumb to bureaucracy and spend years tucked away in a government storage facility.  There were attempts to honor the commitment and commemorate various events, but these never garnered sufficient support. Opera singer Mary Jo Jansson dreamt of a permanent display and monument along the Potomac River and led several unfurlings. Her nonprofit lobbied Congressman Claude Pepper to introduce bill H.R.810 in February 1989, meant to establish a permanent monument near DC. The bill never passed and energy around the flag faded.

John: It seems like we were so close to seeing permanent action taken. But if the flag lost attention after the 1980s, how did it regain momentum?

Josh: My parents’ purchase was timely. The auction occurred on July 4th, 2001 and the flag arrived at their home in southwestern Pennsylvania a few weeks before 9/11. After the tragic events of 9/11, my parents teamed with the local community to unfurl the flag and host a memorial service on September 23rd in Jennerstown, PA, a few miles from the Flight 93 crash site.  The tragedy sparked such a wave of patriotic energy that equipment companies, crane operators, helicopter pilots, and an army of volunteers donated their time and efforts alongside a security force of military veterans. So many people wanted to be involved and through that collective effort, we were able to accomplish in just 12 days what had been stalled over 12 years.

New York Stock Exchange – September 11th, 2015. Photo By JM

John: That last point seems critical. The attacks brought all Americans closer together.  We saw and felt that firsthand here in the NYC and NJ area in the immediate aftermath.  It was national wave of patriotism. That patriotism fueled the collaboration that your parents and the greater community were able harness. Impressive.

Josh: You’re exactly right. I was only 8 years old, so I didn’t understand everything happening around me. But I distinctly recall the energy and collaboration and pride on display. We are seeking to channel those positive feelings toward fulfilling our nonprofit’s mission to restore the Great American Flag to is original condition and find it a permanent home.

John: And we will do our best share the Great American Flag Preservation Group‘s mission.  That seems like a great stopping point for today.  Promise I won’t make our readers wait as long for our 3rd installment of the interview. I am excited to learn more about your mission and vision for the Great American Flag’s future.