Local author, museum curator uncovers the history behind the President’s Flag in upcoming book

Published 8:00 am Friday, August 10, 2018

In 2013, the curator at House of Flags Museum in Columbus, Robert Williamson, began the journey of discovering every detail about the President’s Flag for his book, “Hail to the Chief: The Evolution of the Flag of the President of the United States of America”.

“My interest of the President’s Flag was sparked at the Eisenhower exhibit back in 2012,” Williamson said. “After visiting two museums and holding the President’s Flag exhibit here at House of Flags, I had the 300-page first draft done in nine months. I set it down for a year, picked it back up, did it again, and now I’m on the home stretch after picking it back up for the third time.”

The writing process has not been a simple one. With over 300 different references, several interviews and digging through archives, the book is over 500 pages with the potential of more.

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“Part of it [the research] is collecting books, part of it is pulling threads and the mysteries,” Williamson said. “Because the book has never been written before, trying to capture information for it is a lot of work.”

Not only has Williamson looked through books and photographs, he has also held interviews with people such as George Elsie, a retired man that worked for presidents from the 1940s to 1950s.

“I knew that Elsie was someone I wanted to talk to because of his experience with the presidents,” Williamson said. “On the phone I asked him one simple question — what happened to the lightning bolts?”

This question came from the request President Harry Truman put in to add lightning bolts onto the President’s Flag as a symbol for the power the United States had with atomic bombs. Williamson’s discovery of this request came about after reading memos and documents in several museums, including the Truman library and the Pentagon. After talking to Elsie, Williamson was able to confirm that the lightning bolts never made it onto the flag after Truman’s Press Secretary and childhood friend made it clear to him what a bad idea it was.

Important details such as this would otherwise go unknown, but Williamson is dedicated to including the entire history behind the flag in his book.

“I’ve gotten to talk to and meet amazing people that have really helped me out,” Williamson said. “The museum curators have been phenomenal and to be able to pull all these pieces together into a book is pretty interesting.”

While the task at hand is a difficult one, the history and mystery-like process is one that is exciting and hopefully rewarding for Williamson.

“Once you start looking at this stuff you get more and more excited,” Williamson said. “It’s like a treasure hunt — the more you dig into it, the more you find and the more excitement that comes along with it.”

“Hail to the Chief: The Evolution of the Flag of the President of the United States of America” isn’t finished yet, but Williamson plans to have it done by the end of the year. It will first go to museums and presidential libraries, and then be available for purchase through the House of Flags museum store.