When Hasbro Drove ‘80s Kids Wild With G.I. Joe’s USS ‘Flagg’ Play Set

The 7-foot-long aircraft carrier was a must-have for G.I. Joe fans—and a financial drain on their parents.
The USS 'Flagg' was the grail of '80s toys.
The USS 'Flagg' was the grail of '80s toys. / Mooshuu, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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The Millennium Falcon. Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse. Different kids have different ideas of what could be considered their most coveted toy. But for a period of time in the 1980s, the most awe-inspiring item on holiday wish lists was the USS Flagg from Hasbro’s G.I. Joe line, an aircraft carrier that stretched to an astounding 7 feet, 6 inches long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.

At virtually the same dimensions as a twin bed, it was one of the biggest play sets ever marketed. It wasn’t a question of whether kids would want it—they certainly would—but if they’d have room for it. (And their if parents could afford it.)

Planting a Flagg

First introduced in 1964 as a line of 12-inch action figures, G.I. Joe quickly established itself as an adolescent fever dream of bloodless combat. The Joes were an elite unit with fuzzy beards and real fabric fatigues that were prepared to take on any foreign or domestic threat. (In the 1960s, that often meant Barbie, Mr. Potato Head, or the family dog.)

But by the 1970s, the Joe line was losing steam, and by 1978, it was canceled outright due to flagging sales. It wouldn’t be revived until 1982, when Hasbro committed to two key strategies. First, they reduced the size of the figures to 3.75 inches tall, so they were able to fit inside vehicles and play sets that would never have been practical in the 12-inch line.

They also collaborated with Marvel to create a rich narrative around the characters that would be explored in “file cards” detailing their traits as well as a comic book series. Instead of firing missiles at family pets, the Joes now opposed a fictional terrorist organization, Cobra—a fight that would soon spill over to an animated series, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero.

The result was a massive resurgence of interest in Joe, which earned $50 million in revenue its first year back and went on to become one of the leading toy brands of the 1980s. The success also allowed toy designers Ron Rudat and Greg Bernstein more leeway to get creative with the line. The figures were given more points of articulation; the vehicles and play sets, which were initially made partially of cardboard, grew more elaborate.

All of it was in alignment with the philosophy of Joe creator Stanley Weston, who originally sold Hasbro on the project in 1963 by insisting the business of Joe would revolve around accessories—much like Mattel’s Barbie did a brisk business in outfits.

The true test of that theory would come with the giant aircraft carrier. The Flagg, which was named after original Joe team leader, Brigadier General Lawrence J. Flagg, grew out of a visit to Quonset Naval Base in Rhode Island, where Joe designers were able to observe aircraft carriers up close.

“The base was still operational at the time and I remember that I or [Hasbro marketing executive] Kirk Bozigian had gotten permission from the Naval Base to visit,” Rudat told author Mark Bellomo in The Ultimate Guide to G.I. Joe: 1982 to 1994 (2009). “I don’t remember the name of the ship but I remember going down below on the second deck and it was massive. We also went to the film department and received photos of the ship. We also rode on one of the aircraft elevators to the top deck. This is the kind of reference we liked when creating a vehicle … [today’s] designers don’t do the research like we did.”

The design for the Flagg, which the Ultimate Guide credits to Hasbro designer Gregory Berndtson, was a marvel of detail. In addition to having the necessary tarmac for Joe vehicles like the Skystriker, the Flagg also featured an arrestor cable to “catch” landing aircraft; a public address system that allowed kids to bark orders; a lifeboat that could launch in the event of attack; a number of rooms for crew members to plot their next move; and several cannons and missiles ready to be deployed at the first sign of trouble.

Too Big to Fail

The USS Flagg went on sale in late 1985 for a steep $99.97 to $139.99 (worth about $283 to $396 today), depending on the retailer. It was a considerable ask given that kids could grab Joe figures for as little as $3 and some vehicles for under $4. A Joe Headquarters Command Center was a relative bargain at $28.88.

Almost immediately, the Flagg became a kind of neighborhood status symbol—one that separated the Joe “haves” from the have-nots. The steep price meant a lot of parents crossed it out from their kids’ holiday wish lists. Those who got one were perceived as part of an elite class of toy collector.

“When I post pictures of it in [social media] groups, I get offers, and there are always people that say it is the greatest gift they never got and wish they owned one,” G.I. Joe fan Jason Lopez told Coffee or Die Magazine in 2021. “I consider myself very lucky because I know people that have owned it when they were younger and no longer have it.”

Cost was just one concern: The other was finding the space for the massive platform. “The ship stayed at my grandma’s house because they had the space for it,” Lopez said.

Unlike most action toys of its type, G.I. Joe had incredible stamina: The original 3.75-inch line ran from 1982 to 1994. Still, by 1987, the Flagg was down to $79.99 or even as little as $60, a possible sign that Joe fans (and parents) found the play set a bit too much of a logistical and financial challenge.

Decades later, Hasbro considered reviving the Flagg, showing off a prototype toy during a Joe convention in 2011. It ultimately didn’t proceed, but the prospect continues to come up: In 2022, Hasbro Joe Product Design Director Lenny Panzica said that the current 6-inch Joe line makes a Flagg an untenable prospect.

“Even before this crazy inflation, we ran numbers and it’s [not] 1983 anymore,” Panzica said. Emily Bader, a Joe Associate Brand Manager, added that a carrier scaled to a 6-inch figure would be 20 feet long.

Joe fans seeking their own carrier are therefore relegated to the collector’s community. Today, a USS Flagg in its original box can sell for $5000; a mostly complete set can fetch $2000; and even some random parts are worth hundreds of dollars. Nostalgia rarely comes cheap.