Edit and research by Martha Jette
Story by Mike Dirkson
Does everyone remember their shellback initiation? Mine was one of the best days on the USS Ranger ‘83-’84 cruise. This was after a worrisome extended deployment, which included quite a destructive and fatal fire. It was a much needed day of frivolity, which signaled the beginning of much better times ahead and a trip to Subic Bay for an extended stay and some overdue repairs.
The shellback initiation is a traditional rite in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps –And even the Royal Navy, that is also known as the ‘equator-crossing ceremony. Sailors who have already crossed the equator are called “Trusty/Honorable Shellbacks” sometimes referred to as “Sons of Neptune.” Those that are about to cross for the first time are called “Slimy Pollywogs.”
Sailors aboard such amphibious assault ships as the USS Ranger 83-84 take part in this two-day event, which begins on the eve of Wog Day with an event that turns the ship from an orderly place to one of “controlled chaos.” Sailors that have not been initiated (Wogs) take part in a “Pollywog Revolt.” They are let loose to capture as many Shellbacks as they can find. Once one is captured, a Wog proceeds to interrogate the sailor with everything from dousing his or her head with shaving lotion, cracking eggs on them and tying them up.
But initiated sailors get their revenge on the day of the equator crossing. All of the Pollywogs are issued subpoenas to appear before King Neptune. He is usually accompanied by a variety of dignitaries, all of whom represent the “highest ranking seamen.” But before court goes into session, many equator-crossing ceremonies begin with each department on the ship choosing one sailor to don a swimsuit and take part in a beauty contest.
When the court goes into session, King Neptune uses a “truth serum” comprised of aftershave, hot sauce and uncooked eggs that is put in each Pollywogs’ mouth. They then suffer such embarrassing situations such as crawling across a non-skid deck on hands and knees, being swatted with a firehose, being put into a stock and pelted with over-ripe fruit, being put into a locked “coffin” of salt water and fluorescent sodium salt, which the sailors call “bright green sea dye,” or making their way through tubs filled with rotten garbage. Of course, the Shellbacks get a real kick out of watching this humiliating show.
I didn’t like it, but I don’t remember getting hit too hard in my initiation. I enjoyed all the funny mayhem that was the Shellback initiation. It was kind of like a Three Stooges movie, in a way, and one of my fondest memories at sea. I was glad that when King Neptune asked, I could reply “I am now a Shellback!”
All Pollywogs who complete their tasks are given a certificate as an official Shellback. If the sailors crossed the Equator at the 180th meridian (International Date Line), they become Golden Shellbacks. There is also a very rare Emerald Shellback received by sailors who cross the Equator at the Prime Meridian (Greenwich) .
One might well wonder why this type of rite is seen as essential in the life of a sailor, and why they are trying to end it by decree of “political correctness.” Basically, it began as somewhat of an endurance test to see if a sailor was ready for a long stint at sea. Due to current health and safety rules, today’s sailors do not go through the rough and even painful challenges experienced by their predecessors. During the 19th century, this ceremony included such things as severe beatings with wet ropes and boards. Some were flung overboard and dragged along from the stern, a.k.a. “keelhauled” As you might have guessed, some sailors were even killed, accidentally of course. Ooops!
Excerpt from an account of the ceremony held aboard the HMS Blossom in 1825:
“On this man then the barber had to perform his first functions; a bucket was filled with all the cleanings of the hen coops, pig-stys, &c. and with it a due proportion of tar had been mixed; with a large paint brush dipped in this villainous compound, and his razor, close to him the barber stood waiting the signal. My first question was, ‘What is your name my man?’ ‘John Sh*t, your honour.’ At the instant of his opening his mouth the brush went across it, when the face the poor creature made it is impossible to describe, ‘phoo, what do you call that?’