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IMPERIVM NEPTVNI REGIS
Domain of Neptunus Rex
Naval traditions have passed down the ages into the modern Navy. Even traditions that were born from superstitions are observed today. Certificates are awarded those who participate in some traditions. The acquisition of certificates to commemorate participation in those traditions, both official and unofficial, are a worthy Badge of Honor to display in picture frames on walls. Such certificate as the Order of the Ditch, Decommissioning, Blue Nose, and Shellback certificates, have long been a source of pride to the holder of such. I personally hold three certificates; the Order of the Ditch, Decommissioning, and Shellback certificates. This page is about the 'crossing the line' ceremony where I became a 'shellback'. You can click on the pictures to the left for a larger view or to peruse the entire photo album.
I was stationed aboard the USS Oklahoma City CLG-5 in 1973 when the ship first crossed the equator but I had injured my back and missed that cruise while undergoing surgery at the Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan. The ship had visited Singapore and dropped south to cross the equator on its way to Keelung, Taiwan. I remained a lowly slimy 'pollywog' (sailors who have never crossed the Equator) while lying up in my hospital bed dreading the day when I would cross the equator when my fellow pollywogs were now Shellbacks. I could see the thoughts of vindication peering through their squinty eyes. "Boy, you're in a world of hurt".
I served aboard the USS Oklahoma City CLG-5 (reclassified as CG-5 on July 1, 1975) from February 1973 to May 1976.
It wasn't until January of 1975 that I crossed the equator at longitude 108° 30' 0" E which is off the west coast of Borneo as indicated on the Google Map to the left. Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia's Malay Archipelago, is shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei. The ship departed Subic Bay, Philippines heading to Jakarta, Indonesia and crossed the equator on January 25, 1975.
Unfortunately none of my pictures taken aboard the USS Oklahoma City survived the flooding of the compartment where they were kept. The pictures of the ceremony on this site were taken aboard the the USS Elliot DD-967 on the 9th of April 1979. I have blurred the faces of the crew members because I am unable to obtain permission to use them in a public media such as this. If you recognize yourself in a picture and wish to have your face revealed and/or your name mentioned in the article then please feel free to contact me via the link above and I will comply with your wishes. I have the names of crew members in the pictures written in my scrapbook. I crossed the equator for the second time in the Indian Ocean at 85° 4' 4" E, south of Sri Lanka.
I served aboard the USS Elliot DD-967 from March 1977 to May 1981.
The day before crossing the equator the ship was visited by King Neptune and his royal court to sit in review of the pollywogs. From among the ranks of the lowly pollywogs were selected a handmaiden and a royal pet (dog) to serve the court. An almost impossible task was to pick the prettiest pollywog to serve as handmaiden. One had to look beyond the slim and disgusting aroma in order to select one who came close to being pretty. The review of handmaiden hopefuls shown here are hoping to be selected so that they can forego purification rituals and sit on the court instead.
The chosen handmaiden was the second pollywog from the left, in white. It was reasoned that being picked as making a pretty girl was enough to cleanse the pollywog sufficiently to warrant their progression to become a shellback.,
Choosing the pollywog to serve as the Royal dog was an easier task as one only had to choose the ugliest one among the lowly ranks of bottom feeders. Here we see the chosen pollywog, circled in yellow, that served the royal court at the feet of King Neptune himself. I am not sure what the horrible deformity is on its chest. I do not believe the dog suffered much from it.
I did not participate in the pollywog review and therefore was not a handmaiden or dog. Had I participated I am sure I would have been selected as a handmaiden despite having a beard. Had I been able to post my picture as a pollywog I think the reader would agree I was the fairest of them all.
Although the purification process may vary between commands there are certain traditional steps that are followed by all. King Neptune and his Royal Court, which includes Davy Jones, come aboard to subpoena the lowly pollywogs to stand before the court. Davy Jones hears the charges brought against them by the Shellbacks and they are commanded to perform purification rituals to cleanse them of their infractions. It is up to the Shellbacks, such as the fine specimen to the left, to carry out the purification process.
The Oklahoma City (Okie Boat) had around a thousand crew whereas the USS Elliot had around 285. The ratio of shellbacks to pollywogs was in the pollywogs favor on the USS Elliot. Also the Elliot held the purification on the fantail whereas the Okie Boat used the entire weather deck.
The uniform of the day for pollywogs was working dungarees with white skivvies (underwear) worn on the outside. The pollywogs were herded to the weather deck for muster prior to the purification process. Here we see the crew from R-Division (Hull Maintenance Technicians from the Repair Division) mustering for inspection on the fantail (stern). The pollywogs, being bottom feeders, had to crawl on their hands and knees.
As a pollywog on the Okie Boat I mustered outside the carpenter shop, where I worked, port side amidships. I had to crawl 300 feet to the bow where I was herded around the ship's 6" triple gun turret (three times) and then aft down the starboard side, 600 feet to the fantail.
Here we see a slimy pollywog slither up to the judgement podium with Davy Jones (not shown) presiding. Davy Jones reads the charges brought forth by trust worthy shellbacks against the lowly creature. With its pitiful pleading ignored he then proceeds to the next step.
On the Okie Boat it was customary to place a black hand (black ink imprint from Davy Jones hand) on the back to show the seriousness of the pollywog's crimes. When I appeared before the court I had missed the first crossing and two years had passed. I had garnered endless charges and was given so many black hands that it was impossible to count them. In hindsight I realized I should have kept a low profile. My job took me all over the ship and therefore I was widely known. I knew then that I was in a world of hurt.
The next step was to appear before King Neptune himself. King Neptune passed sentencing on the guilty as hell pollywog. The outcome was always the same; "Purify this pitiful creature" he would bellow, "Make him worthy to remain in my realm". The king here is portrayed by a Senior Chief from GS Division.
I don't recall who portrayed King Neptune on the Okie Boat. I do remember that he was an officer (the XO?) and ordered two more black hands to be placed on my buttocks due to unavailable space on my back, port and starboard. I wondered then, what comes after a world of hurt? I knew I had passed from that world into the next.
The purification process is a delicate one. The pollywog must shed its slim and soft outer layer to become a shellback. To this end the purification tool was created. The Shillelagh. By applying this tool to the buttock of a pollywog repeatedly the slim would fall off and the soft skin would harden into a tough shell. This was manufactured from an old firehose cut to two or three foot length. The hose had twine binding one end for an easy grip handle. As a member of the division that maintained firefighting equipment (on both ships) I can neither confirm nor deny any use of other than damaged hose to construct this tool. The rule was one swat only when the buttock was presented. I presented my buttock three times each lap around that turret.
Of course the pollywog's health was foremost in every shellback's mind. That is why there was a Royal Dentist present. A through checkup was given to each pollywog after he was released from the stocks. The Royal Dentist is shown here administering 'medicine' to an ailing pollywog. I don't recall what was in the medicine on the Elliot but on the Okie Boat it was a mixture of Balut (a boiled developing duck embryo) juice and hot sauce or peppers. It definitely did not taste like chicken.
On the Okie Boat we had a Royal Barber as well. I had half my beard and mustache shaved on one side. Balut juice was applied to the remaining beard beard so I had the pleasure of smelling it all through the initiation.
Special privileges were granted to the pollywogs such as being able to kiss the Royal Baby's belly. If the Royal Baby was feeling playful the eagerly waiting pollywog would be seized by the head and have his face rubbed into the belly. The Royal Baby did have a tendency to have tabasco sauce and other nutrients smeared on his belly. Many a grateful pollywog could be seen to shed a tear for being given such a generous gift.
So as not to offend the Royal Baby's generosity the pollywog was forbidden to leave any 'goodies' on his face and had to wipe it off and then lick his fingers. Gives you a whole new slant on the phrase "finger licking good" doesn't it?
Then we come to the refreshing change of the Tunnel of Wonder. Refreshing because once inside no shellback had access to your buttock with their shillelagh. The tunnel had been stuffed with garbage and it was the task of the pollywog to push his way through the tunnel without moving any garbage out the exit. If I recall correctly it was simply shredded paper and flour colored to resemble rotting garbage. There were consequences for failure to perform said task properly despite it being almost impossible to crawl through and not inadvertently pushing some garbage out. The trick was to pause at the end before exiting and push any garbage in front of you to the rear.
Rumor has it that some pollywogs mistaken the garbage tunnel for a buffet table.
And the consequences for spilling the garbage out of the tunnel was to gather it up and push it back to the beginning of the tunnel. If it looked like the pollywog was enjoying the reprieve from the sting of the shillelagh then he was not made to travel through the tunnel again. He was herded to the next step of purification with gentle persuasion from the shellback with his shillelagh.
As I was assigned to the carpenter shop on the Okie Boat I was employed by the shellback in my division to build many tools used in the ceremony. I vaguely recall building a plywood structure that may have been the Royal Tunnel. It had a firehose fixed to one end at the bottom to allow water to rush through. The hose was removed after it was deemed to be unsafe. Pollywogs being bottom feeders would not know to keep their heads above the water while inside.
The transformation of pollywog to shellback is a marvel of nature. After traversing through the steps of purification the slim and soft tissue of the pollywog began to loosen and underneath that was hardening tissue beginning to form a shell. The final purification process was baptism in the waters blessed by King Neptune. To the left we see the results of this transformation. The newly baptized shellback gleaming with pride of having been washed of slim and basking in the sun, no longer a bottom dweller.
In my research for doing this article I learned that the Navy has gone the way of the world and abandoned many of the traditions, replacing them with entertainment versions rather than the purification process of old. It is cited that this was done for health and safety reasons. As a special case when I crossed the line in 1975 I can testify that my health and safety remained intact after the ceremony. My beard grew back, the redness on my buttock and knees went away with no lasting marks, pride replaced the humiliation of being a pollywog. I am a proud owner of a Shellback certificate that hangs on my wall today.
Posted by HT1 Roberts 06.01.2017