By Marilyn Alkire, United States Navy
“The sea is eternal and so are the traditions that accompany it. As long as there are imaginary lines by which we travel, we will attach a special significance to crossing over them – a significance which also bonds the crew together in a way few things can.”
Unknown Navy Crewman
Going through some of my father’s old boxes, I found an old rolled-up document, made from parchment paper, brittle and faded with age. I hoped that it wouldn’t tear as I carefully unrolled it. My eyes started to water as I realized what I was holding. It was my father’s Shellback Initiation certificate.
Once colorful, illustrated drawings of bare-breasted mermaids, swordfish, dolphins, crabs, turtles, and other sea creatures adorned the border of the certificate. A scrolled ribbon with the words IMPERIVM NEPTVNI REGIS reached from one end to the other and across the top. Right below, King Neptune held his trident and was being pulled on a giant shell by two seahorses. The center of the certificate read:
To all Sailors wherever ye may be: and to all Mermaids, Whales, Sea Serpents, Porpoises, Sharks, Dolphins, Eels, Skates, Suckers, Crabs, Lobsters and all other living things of the sea, Greetings: Know ye: That on this 29th day of August 1973, in Latitude 00deg00 and Longitude 105deg29’E there appeared within Our Royal Domain the USS Blue Ridge LCC-19 bound for the equator and for White Beach, Okinawa.
Be It Remembered That the said vessel and Officers and Crew thereof, have been inspected and passed on by Ourself and Our Royal Staff. And Be It Known: By all ye Sailors, Marines, Land Lubbers and others who may be honored by his presence that Marcelino A. Cudanin, Jr, United States Navy having been found worthy to be numbered as one of our trusty Shellbacks he has been duly initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep. Be it further understood; That by virtue of the power invested in me I do hereby command all my subjects to show due honor and respect to him wherever he may be.
Disobey this order Under Penalty of Our Royal Displeasure
Given under Our Hand and Seal this 29 August 1973
Ruler of the Raging Main
His Royal Scribe
By his Servant J. Butler, Captain, USN
My father passed away in 2009, and the ache of missing him hits me the hardest when I come across something of his, especially something Navy related, like his Shellback certificate. He was a twenty-two year Navy veteran whose love for the Navy influenced me to join, and no one could have been prouder than he was when I enlisted.
I first heard about the Shellback Ceremony when I was eleven years old and I came across some old black and white Navy photos. One of the photos was taken from above and onboard the deck of a ship. A line of men wearing cut-off dungarees and white undershirts were on their hands and knees, head to butt, crawling through two rows of standing men. Some were similarly dressed, and the others were dressed like pirates. Most of them were holding what looked like cut-up hoses. The back of their shirts had black handwritten words, such as: ShellbackX2, Shellback Stud, Shellback Princess (this man had a mop head for a wig).
The crawling men had names with the word “wog” added to it. As I read the names -Johnsywog, Williwog, Steiniwog, Gradywog – my heart skipped a beat when I read Cudywog. I wondered if he could be my dad because “Cudy” was his Navy nickname. Upon closer inspection and seeing the head of thick black hair, I knew it was him. While other sailors wore their hair closely cropped short or buzzed, my dad was a bit vain about his and wore it longer, but within regulation.
“Pa! Pa!” I excitedly yelled, running downstairs and through the house. My mom stuck her head out from the kitchen and gave me the evil-eye. I slowed down and finally reached my father in the living room. Sitting in his recliner, he was watching a video of Muhammed Ali’s greatest fights. With the volume up on high, he apparently hadn’t heard me yelling for him.
“Pa?” I hesitantly touched his arm to get his attention, not sure if he’d be annoyed that I was bothering him. He started at my touch, and I had to stifle the urge to giggle.
“What?” he grumbled as he reached for the TV remote control to lower the volume.
I held the picture out and asked, “What were you doing here?” He took the picture from me and stared at it for a few seconds then broke out in a smile, all hints of grouchiness gone.
“I was being flogged,” he said proudly.
“Flogged? Doesn’t that mean getting beat?”
“Yup, I was getting beat with fire hoses.” I heard the pride in his voice.
“But why?” Confused, my eleven-year old self did not understand why he seemed happy about it.
“My ship was crossing the equator, and sailors who’ve never crossed become Shellbacks. It’s a type of initiation. Not only were we beat, we had to crawl through a tunnel full of garbage, get our heads completely shaved, and then had to kiss a fat guy’s belly.”
Aghast, I asked again, “Why?”
My dad laughed at the expression on my face as he simply answered, “Because it’s Navy tradition.”
A few weeks later, some of my father’s shipmates came over for dinner and the topic of being Shellbacks came up. My mother, siblings, and I listened in fascinated horror and amusement as they swapped stories. Their stories were about performing their daily work assignments wearing their whitey-tighties over their uniform, having their head completely shaved and smeared with oatmeal which attracted flies, wearing women’s make-up with a mop head as a wig, being whipped with fire hoses and given a salt-water shower via those fire hoses turned on full blast, or having to a carry a fifteen-pound dead fish around as a “girlfriend,” its lips painted with bright red lipstick and having to kiss it whenever a Shellback demanded.
One shipmate told of having to help sew up a fifty-yard long piece of canvas into a makeshift tunnel (affectionately called “The Tube”), fill it up with days old garbage and fish guts, then crawl through it. Anything that touched the top of the tunnel (a head or back) got hit with a sock full of uncooked rice. Another of my dad’s shipmates told of having to crawl through “The Tube” then at the end, eat lumpy chocolate pudding out of a toilet bowl, using no hands. They all told how they had to kiss the Royal Baby’s bare belly. He was usually the fattest guy on the ship, and he would grab their ears and rub their faces into his belly as they bent to kiss it. Usually the belly was greased with cooking oil, mustard and ketchup, or leftover mashed potatoes and gravy. Another one of my father’s shipmates told us, that on his ship, they had to suck a maraschino cherry out of the Royal Baby’s belly button, eat it, and then kiss the belly. We all laughed and groaned as we tried to finish our dinner.
Many years later when I was stationed onboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1), I was a bit disheartened to learn that none of our deployments would take us across the equator. As crazy as it sounds, I would have loved to have gone through a Crossing the Line Ceremony and earn the title of being a “Shellback.”
Performed when a ship crosses the equator, the “Crossing the Line Ceremony” or “Shellback Initiation” is an ancient naval tradition celebrated by most world navies. Each naval ship may have its own traditions (from simple to elaborate), but the basic structure and characters of the ceremony are the same. There are the Pollywogs (sailors who have not crossed the equator), the trusty Shellbacks (sailors who have crossed the equator), King Neptune (highest ranking Shellback), and his royal court. King Neptune’s court usually consisted of his wife, Queen Amphitrite (traditionally, a Shellback dressed in drag, but in today’s Navy, a female Shellback), the Royal Baby (Shellback with the biggest belly), Davey Jones as the Royal Scribe (usually the smallest Shellback who is given a hump, horns, and a tail to depict his villainous ways), and the Royal Chef, Royal Barber, and Royal Doctor.
The night before the Ceremony, a talent show is held, and the winners are given an easier time during the initiation rites. The purpose of these rites is to test sailors of their seaworthiness, and even high ranking officers are not exempt from the Ceremony. Pollywogs are made to perform often embarrassing tasks, humiliating gags, and go through harrowing obstacle courses. It is all done in good humor and fun, but during my father’s time, some of the rites have included inflicting physical pain on the Pollywogs or testing their swimming capabilities by throwing them overboard. However, in today’s navies, the rites have been toned down due to gender, safety, and sanitary factors.
I recently called a friend of mine who became a Shellback in 2012. He told me that Pollywogs still had to crawl through garbage and kiss the Royal Baby’s belly, but because of recent hazing policies, they were now “flogged” with greased socks filled with rags; the Royal Barber didn’t shave their heads anymore but colored their hair with a washable dye; fire hoses were turned on low, and they could “opt-out” of the Ceremony but still receive a certificate.
“What!?” I exclaimed into the phone. I couldn’t believe it! I felt that in order to become a Shellback, you had to earn the title by actually going through the Ceremony.
As I complained about the “kinder, gentler” Navy, I saw my ten-year-old son, Elijah, curiously looking at me. He was quietly drawing in his sketchpad, but I knew that he was also listening in on my side of the phone conversation. As soon as I said goodbye to my friend and hung up the phone, sure enough, Elijah asked, “What was that about?”
After admonishing him for being nosy, I told him about the Crossing the Line Ceremony and what Pollywogs had to do to become a Shellback. I even got out my laptop and googled “Shellback Ceremony” and pictures of Pollywogs and Shellbacks popped up. We laughed and “eewwwed” together as we scrolled through the images. I told him that “Papa” had been a Shellback, and I wish that I had had the honor to be one.
I felt a sense of déjà vu coming on when wide-eyed and in disbelief, Elijah asked, “Why?”
And like my father those many, many years ago, I simply answered, “Because it’s Navy tradition.”