Every sailor has the opportunity to participate in a ceremony when a ship crosses the equator. Normally complete debauchery ensues the night before and the day of. I found a website that recounts a few stories from back in the day.
The Crossing of the Line Ceremony:
In the U.S. Navy, when a ship crosses the equator a crossing the line ceremony takes place. This is a Navy tradition and an event no sailor ever forgets. With few exceptions, those who have been inducted into the “mysteries of the deep” by Neptunus Rex and his Royal court, count the experience as a highlight of their naval career.
Members of Neptunus Rex’s party usually include Davy Jones, Neptune’s first assistant, Her Highness Amphitrite, the Royal Scribe, the Royal Doctor, the Royal Dentist, the Royal Baby, the Royal Navigator, the Royal Chaplain, the Royal Judge, Attorneys, Barbers and other names that suit the party.
Officially recognized by service record entries indicating date, time, latitude and longitude, the crossing of the equator involves elaborate preparation by the “shellbacks” (those who have crossed the equator before) to ensure the “pollywogs” (those who are about to cross the equator for the first time) are properly indoctrinated. All pollywogs, even the Commanding Officer if he has not crossed before, must participate.
1. The first story is recounted by John Muldowney USS J.R.Y. Blakely DE 140. It is a reprint from DESA News, Vol 26/Num 5.
“Ninety percent of our crew were Pollywogs, (that is a person who has not crossed the equator). We knew that we were all in for a good hazing. All of our Chief and First Class Petty Officers were Shellback. Most of them had served on the battleships that went down at Pearl Harbor. Tradition was a big thing with them.
The day before we were to go over, the Shellbacks constructed the ‘Royal Bath.’ This was a pool about four feet deep and about seven by seven feet square. A handy billy was then rigged and sea water was pumped into the ‘Royal Bath’ and mixed with diesel oil. Word was passed that Davie Jones was to come aboard that evening and we were to entertain him on the fantail. Some had to dance for him, others told stories or recited poetry. I was lucky in being in a singing group. After the entertainment we were presented with a summons to King Neptune’s Court the next day.
Breakfast was piped at eight bells for all Shellbacks the next morning. Our Ensign had been lowered and the ‘Jolly Roger’ was hoisted. This meant that the hazing was underway. Steak and eggs was the meal for the Shellbacks. We had hard tack and coffee made with salt water.
Various charges were levied against the Pollywogs. Officers were dealt with more harshly than enlisted men. We had a lieutenant who had been in the First World War. He was a Mustang with 25 years of service, but had never crossed the line. Accused of painting the town when we were in New York, he was made to climb the rigging with a bucket of paint. Another officer was ordered to the forecastle with two coke bottles for binoculars to keep a look out of the mail buoy. I was accused of impersonating an Irishman, and had to eat an Irish apple, (which was a raw onion).
As you knelt before the Judge in King Neptune’s Court, you were ordered to kiss the Royal Baby. He was the ugliest guy on the ship. A bucket of mustard was hidden behind him and when you went to kiss him, he reached back to the bucket and hit you with a handful of mustard. The royal barber was next. He had electric clippers that kept shocking you as he cut your hair. After that came the ‘Royal Bath.’ You had to say Shellback three times as they were dunking you.
Running the gauntlet was the final stage of the exercise. A tarp was spread out on deck and greased with graphite, over it about a foot was strung a cargo net. You had to crawl along the tarp for about ten yards with Shellbacks paddling you and another at the end with a fire hose to drive you back just when you thought you were through. When it was all over you could take a deep breath and with great pride say: Now I am a Shellback.”
2. Richard Plunkett, USS Lamons DE 743, fire controller 3/c, provides an account and of his Pollywog to Shellback experience:
The tradition is that any person crossing for the first time is considered a Pollywog. After going through the ceremony they are a Shellback. This included Officers as well as enlisted men and was the practice in all the armed forces.
A few days prior to arrival at the Equator, the Shellbacks would have a meeting to think up all kinds of things they could do to the Pollywogs. One of the worst of them was the “Tube”. The Shellbacks took a long (50 feet or so) piece of canvas, sewed it into a tube and filled it with garbage for a few days prior to the event. Then, they made a club of a tube of canvas sewn up at one end, filed it with rice, sewed up the other end and soaked it in water. The Pollywogs were required to crawl through the garbage tube. The Shellbacks would hit anything that bumped the top. All of us went through it.
The Shellbacks dressed in costumes. The “Royal Family” of Shellback’s costumes were King Neptune, Neptune’s wife and the Royal Baby. Also, there was a Royal Barber who used a hand clipper to cut the Pollywog’s hair. He cut it in several directions and you did not look ready for Liberty when he was finished. The Royal Family sat on a platform on the fantail of the ship. Other Shellbacks dressed as characters such as Pirates.
The Shellbacks made some of the Pollywogs dress in various costumes and do various things, like kiss King Neptune’s stomach. In the photos, you will see one man with a sign saying, “I am a Liberty Hound”. He was required to wear the sign and his dress blues. It was hot at the Equator! I cannot tell you what is going on in each photo, but it was all in fun. Even our Commanding Officer, Lt. Commander, an Annapolis graduate and ten years in the Navy, was required to whistle Yankee Doodle over the PA system. I was required to push a peanut around number three-gun tube, but they could not find a peanut.
At the time we crossed the Equator, USS Lamons DE 743 was going to Manus Island in the Admiralty group, just a bit north of the Solomon’s, about three degrees below the Equator. We returned north for a while, then back again. On the return trip, we had some Pollywog replacements, so we put them through the “Tube”. One of them said he was not going to do it, so we put him through twice!
Wish I could be clearer as to what is going on in each photo, but I did not see everything that occurred that day. The ceremony lasted 2-3 days and it is a real honor to have done it.
1943 Crossing the Line Ceremony. Picture found here.
King Neptune and his Royal bride, followed by the royal court.
And this here is the prize. The certificate and card saying you are a trusted shellback so you don’t have to go through the ceremony as a wog again!
Years later in 2013, the tradition still continues and we’re about to be put through the ringer. I’m all the way to the left and Krista is standing right next to me. We are both second tours who did not cross the line on our first ship. Neha (top right) and Teresa (bottom right) are first tours that were lucky enough to cross the line.
We woke up to a superb breakfast of bread cakes made with pepper, lots of pepper, green slimy bacon, brown scrambled eggs, crispy overcooked potatoes, and warm apple juice. It wasn’t the breakfast of champions, I’ll tell you that. We did a warm up of some pitch perfect songs for the beginning and from there I will not disclose the rest. Trusted Shellbacks are dependable and don’t transform and tell. But I will say that it is true what it says above, this is definitely a top five best moments of my Naval Career.
To become a Golden Shellback you have to cross the equator at the 180th meridian.
To become a Emerald Shellback you have to cross the equator and the prime meridian at 0’0”.
If you do all three, shellback, golden shellback, emerald shellback, then you get the diamond award.
Do you have that?