When bright and beautiful, they were proud symbols of sacrifice.

But faded and frayed, they were forgotten. Flags that evoked images of Bunker Hill, Bataan and Baghdad ended their days in garages and Goodwill stores.

Hundreds of these forlorn flags rescued by Bay Area veterans with the American Legion are honored every year in a dignified military ceremony that delivers them to a pyre.

Such ceremonies await thousands of other flags around the country during "Flag Week," as proclaimed by President Obama, at places as varied as Boy Scout campouts, Legion halls, Masonic centers and NASCAR racetracks.

Thursday, June 14, is the traditional Flag Day, memorializing the day in 1777 when the Continental Congress adopted an American flag to replace the British Union Jack.

The furnace at the scenic Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Los Altos is where many of this year's old flags have gone to die.

At a farewell ceremony there Saturday, they received a tribute of a somber march, many salutes and a bugler's plaintive coda: "To the Colors."

A commander recited lines from the American Legion's Ceremony for the Disposal of Unserviceable Flags -- "A flag may be a flimsy bit of printed gauze, or a beautiful banner of finest silk," he said. "Its intrinsic value may be trifling or great ... but it is a precious symbol of all that we and our comrades have worked for and lived for, and died for."

A Legionnaire dropped a small flag into an inverted helmet, doused it with kerosene, and set it aflame.


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"To a clean and purging flame we commit these flags, worn out in worthy service," a chaplain recited.

It's a fitting end to flags that represent so much, the veterans said.

"It tells you about pride," said Harry Willeder, 79, who brought a dozen of old flags to the American Legion ceremony, some solicited from neighbors on his daily walk through his East Estates neighborhood in Cupertino.

"It should never be destroyed or desecrated or anything like that without a proper ritual," the Korean War veteran said.

It's getting more complicated to give the Stars and Stripes a ritual send-off.

Back in 1923, the National Flag Conference created the Flag Code, which stated that when a flag "is no longer a fitting emblem for display, it should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning."

That was easy in the days of cotton and wool, before the Clean Air Act and wildfire phobia.

Now, burning synthetics like nylon and polyester releases unpatriotic fumes of formaldehyde, ammonia, carbon monoxide, cyclopentanone, oxides of nitrogen and even traces of hydrogen cyanide.

Firefighters fear flag-fueled infernos. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District's official burn season for everything, including flags, closed last month.

San Jose's Bay Area Mortuary accepts flags to be cremated with veterans. All year long, it collects flags in a big box.

"Through our program, these retired flags are destined for a final resting place with those who fought to defend those ideals," said KC Crawford of Bay Area Mortuary.

In the East Bay, the Hayward-based American Legion holds flag retirement ceremonies throughout the year when sufficient flags are collected. The ceremonies, shared with local troops of the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, are held at Hayward's Chapel Of The Chimes, according to organizer Jack D. White Jr., 65, a Vietnam War veteran.

Years back, local American Legions sent their flags to an East Bay crematorium.

When that ceased, flags were piled into a trailer and taken to the Lake County town of Clearlake outside the Bay Area's pollution controls. That stopped when Clearlake found itself overwhelmed by flags.

The San Jose Fire Department offered to dispose of the flags in a "practice burn" training.

But American Legion member Walter Waite of San Jose, who served in the Navy from 1945 to 1958, couldn't tolerate the image of high-pressure fire hoses pelting Old Glory.

"I said 'No way ... You're going to go in there and hose them all down with water,' " he said.

A temporary solution was conceived last year: burial. A big crypt at Gate of Heaven was filled with flags dosed with lye to dissolve the fabric, and then they were buried alongside veterans.

This year, Santa Clara County has promised the cemetery that it will allow small, supervised burns on designated days. Until then, they'll wait in a cabinet at the county corporation yard.

Other counties are still seeking solutions. San Francisco, in particular, is stymied since fires at its traditional site, Ocean Beach, have been banned.

Waite, who lost a son to combat, brought to Saturday's ceremony a burial flag that he found at Goodwill. "It always upsets me to find them there," he said.

He was startled, and saddened, to find another flag at a weekend garage sale.

'itused to belong to our dad,' they said. 'We don't need it anymore.' "

He paid 50 cents.

Then he retired it in honor of its service, something far beyond price.

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 408-920-5565.

Top Flag Myths

Myth: A flag that has been used to cover a casket cannot be used for any other proper display purpose.

Fact: It can be used for any display purpose including on a flagpole.

Myth: The Flag Code prohibits the display of a U.S. flag of less than 50 stars.

Fact: According to the Army Institute of Heraldry, the U.S. flag never becomes obsolete. Any official U.S. flag, irrespective of the number or arrangement of the stars and/or stripes, may be displayed until no longer serviceable.

Myth: The Flag Code has penalties for violations of its provisions.

Fact: The Flag Code is a guideline for proper flag etiquette. There are no legal penalties for ignoring it.

Myth: You must destroy the flag when it touches the ground.

Fact: As long as the flag remains suitable for display, the flag may continue to be displayed.

Myth: The Flag Code prohibits the washing or dry-cleaning of the flag.

Fact: People may wash or dry-clean flags as needed.

Myth: The mayor, a town official, or the post commander can order the flag to be displayed at half-staff.

Fact: The gesture of placing the flag at half-staff means that the nation or the state mourns the death of a highly regarded national or state figure, hence only the president of the United States or the governor of the state may order the flag to be displayed at half-staff.

  • Where to dispose of flags: You may dispose of worn-out flags at any American Legion office. Some have drop-off booths.

  • In the East Bay, flags are accepted at the Hayward Veterans Memorial Building, 22737 Main St., Hayward. Appointments are necessary and can be made by calling 510-582-9757.
  • Also in the East Bay, flags may be mailed or dropped off at Mt. Diablo Silverado Boy Scouts Council, 800 Ellinwood Way, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523. Call 925-674-6100
  • On the Peninsula, a drop-off box is outside the American Legion Post 558 at 347 1st Street, Los Altos.
  • In the South Bay, flags are accepted at Bay Area Mortuary, 1701 Little Orchard St., San Jose. Call 408-998-2202
  • To find a nearby Legion office, go to www.legion.org.

    Source: www.legion.org/flag/flagmyths