Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
Thousands of anxious Jamaicans waited with bated breath for the flag of the new nation to flutter in the midnight breeze when the lights went out at the National Stadium on Independence Day, August 6, 1962.
The Union Jack, which had been flying in Jamaica since 1655, was lowered for the last time and the Jamaican flag with the striking black, green, and gold colours raised, and, with it, the hopes of a nation.
But little did the more-than 20,000 pairs of eyes glued to the flagpole know that the flag-raising part of the ceremony nearly flopped. It was saved by a Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) warrant officer who used his teeth to avert a major disaster.
Frantic scenes in the dark
British warrant officer, 81-year-old Tony Head who lowered the Union Jack in Jamaica for the last time, recalled the frantic scenes in the darkness, as the JDF soldier tried desperately to loosen the knot, swollen by heavy showers earlier in the day.
"The flag pole in front of the VIP stand had two halyards, one from which the Union Jack was flying and one which would be used to raise the new Jamaican flag.
"The plan was that a few minutes before midnight the lights would go out, and when they came on again at midnight the Union Jack would have been replaced by the new Jamaican flag," the then 31-year-old warrant officer recounted in an interview with The Sunday Gleaner.
"So there I stood at the flagpole facing my opposite number, a warrant officer in the JDF. The lights went out, and I promptly lowered the Union Jack and folded it under my arm as planned," recollected Head.
"I was perturbed to see that the Jamaican warrant officer was struggling to untie the knot in his halyard. At one time he was tugging at it with his teeth. Eventually, he managed to free the knot, attach the flag and raise it.
"I am not sure if the flag had reached the top or was approaching it when the lights went on, but I do know that the hundreds of cheering spectators were unaware of the drama that had taken place in the darkness. Imagine the reaction to the lights coming on to a new Jamaica and no flag flying," said Head.
Speaking with The Sunday Gleaner from his home in the United Kingdom last Friday, Head recalled the thunderous applause from the crowd as the Jamaica flag flew high, fluttering like the hearts of many who witnessed its rise, none the wiser to the near fiasco.
So what was the cause of the near humiliation?
"Both of us had rehearsed and checked our halyards regularly. On the early evening of the ceremony, I checked mine before changing into my ceremonial uniform. I assume my Jamaican opposite did the same, and he would not have noticed any change in his halyard since the last time he saw it. But mother mature was to intervene.
"As is common at that time of year, at about 4 p.m. a shower of rain had occurred. As every sailor will know, a wet rope expands, and so will a knot in the rope. Who could have anticipated that? But all's well that ends well."
According to Head, in June 1962 the garrison infantry was the Royal Hampshire Regiment. Leading up to Jamaica's Independence, members were being sent back to the United Kingdom. Serving in the Royal electrical and mechanical engineer unit, he remained behind as part of the logistical rear party.
"One day, my commanding officer sent for me and said, 'Mr Head, how would you like to lower the Union Jack on Jamaica's Independence?' What he really meant was the order, 'Mr Head, you will lower the Union Jack on Jamaica's Independence'. But he being a major and me being a warrant officer, the niceties had to be observed."
According to Head, the reason he was selected was threefold:
"First, being reasonably presentable at age 31 and 6 feet 2 inches tall; second, because I happened to possess a white tropical uniform and third, because I was available."
One question that he would like answered, however, is what has happened to the Union Jack that was ceremoniously lowered in the national stadium.
Head said the flag was collected by a sergeant major, accompanied by two other members of the JDF. "I would really like to know where it is."