Happy Birthday, Navy! The United States Navy turned a whopping 239 years old on October 13th. On this day in 1775, the Continental Congress created the Continental Navy, thus establishing what would eventually become the United States Navy.
To commemorate the occasion, I wanted to explore an intriguing and historic Navy tradition that is frequently discussed in Veterans History Project collections: the crossing the line ceremony. Naval culture, and seafaring culture in general, are rife with tradition and ritual, and the crossing the line ceremony is just one example of this. Complete with characters, costumes, and initiation rites, this ceremony is carried out whenever a ship crosses the equator. The ceremony predates the establishment of the US Navy; in fact, folklorist Keith Richardson argues that the main elements of the modern ceremony were in place as far back as the 1500s.
During the ceremony, those sailors who have not yet crossed the equator (known as “pollywogs” or “wogs”) are put through various tasks, teasing, and trials, before being presented to King Neptune (also known as Neptunus Rex) and his court, including a Queen and other Royal attendants. After going through the ceremony, the pollywogs become “shellbacks,” and are presented with a large certificate and smaller identification card that notes their new status. While specifics of the ceremony can vary from ship to ship, they nearly always involve these main elements.
Veterans History Project collections are full of descriptions and photographs of the ceremony, as well as the certificates and ID cards which new shellbacks receive. Navy veteran William Wolf, who served aboard the aircraft carriers USS Leyte, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, and USS Tarawa during the Korean War era, vividly recalls crossing the equator:
Crossing the equator was a very memorable event. You could never imagine in your wildest dreams as to what the process was going to be for this equator crossing. The planning that went into this event to initiate 2,800 people and to set everything up was an astonishing feat … Everyone assembled on the flight deck with their respective units. Then the party began. The people that have crossed the equator before and were initiated were the people doing the initiating of all the others. The people who had crossed the equator before are called Shellbacks and those being initiated were called pollywogs. They built a large pool on the flight deck and filled it with ocean water, before the pollywogs were tossed into the pool, they shaved your head or eyebrow or mustache and when you were tossed in the pool, the Shellbacks in the pool would keep dunking you until you said the magic word, which was pollywog. After getting out of the pool you had to crawl through a long canvas tunnel that had water blasting in from both ends and Shellbacks with canvas whips were hitting the pollywogs on their behinds as they crawled through. After getting out of the tunnel you had to run past a line of Shellbacks with wet canvas straps and they whipped you as you ran by them. You then went to a table with a bedpan on it and wieners floating in a yellow liquid, which was shot in your mouth. You then went to an area where you had to kiss the belly of a big fat man with grease spread all over his belly. As you went to kiss his belly, he grabbed your head and smeared grease all over your face. At the same time there were Shellbacks in back of you with spear like devices that were wired with electricity and they gave you a shock in the butt. After all of this initiation, we were now Shellbacks.
Military papers within the VHP collection of Joseph Freiburger, a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy during World War II, corroborate Wolf’s assessment that these ceremonies were highly orchestrated affairs: Freiburger’s papers outline the various characters of King Neptune’s court as well as the script to be followed. Charles Bradwell‘s collection contains original photographs of the ceremony that took place aboard the USS William P. Biddle in the Pacific on January 19, 1943. Looking closely, various characters–Neptunus Rex, the Queen, and the Royal Judge–are visible.
Heather Sandler, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was part of one of the first classes of female sailors to serve aboard an aircraft carrier. In her oral history interview, she describes the modern iteration of the crossing the line ceremonies, noting that soldiers still dress in costume and put the pollywogs through a series of tasks. At the end of the day, her clothes were covered in so much muck and grime that she had to throw them overboard. During her second crossing the line ceremony, she was part of the initiated; as she explains, putting the new sailors through the ritual is part of the “glory of being a shellback.”
In her interview, Sandler discusses the ways in which the present-day version of the crossing the line ceremony has been modified over the years. Edmund Klepps, who served in the Pacific theater during World War II, says in his interview, “In those days, it was really mean.” Klepps notes that after going through the ceremony, “my butt was black and blue for three months.” John Daniel Kempton, a Navy veteran who served from 1942 to 1962, writes in his memoir that the initiation was “not fun.” He goes on to describe scrambling to prove his shellback status during a subsequent trip across the equator–going so far as to radio his wife in San Diego to send his shellback ID card by mail, so that he could avoid going through the initiation a second time.
As scholars have pointed out, the ritual has its roots in the days in which all sea journeys posed grave dangers, and crews needed to ensure that that new sailors could meet the rigors of life aboard ship. The modern version of the equator crossing, however, often elicits comparisons to fraternity hazing. Klepps’ and Wolf’s descriptions illustrate the physical abuse that characterized the ceremony–and led to changes in official Navy policy concerning it. An official Navy statement issued in 1997 noted, “Graduations, chiefs’ initiations, “crossing-the-line” ceremonies, and others are only meant to celebrate and recognize the achievements of individual Sailors or Marines or those of entire units. Service members must be able to work together, building-up, encouraging, and supporting their shipmates. Hazing behavior that is degrading, embarrassing or injurious is unprofessional and illegal.”
Folklorists have long been interested in the crossing the line ceremony as a ritual of military culture. Scholars such as Simon Bronner, Steven Zeeland, and Keith Richardson have all examined the symbolism and function of various aspects of the ceremony, such as cross-dressing, nudity, and role-playing, and their meaning in a largely all-male environment. In exploring the crossing the line ceremony, these folklorists unpack a longstanding phenomenon that was, by many accounts, a brutal ritual, but is also remembered as a centerpiece of many sailors’ careers. For more on their takes on the ceremony, consult their works cited below.
- Richardson, Keith. “Polliwogs and Shellbacks: An Analysis of the Equator-Crossing Ritual.” Western Folklore 36 (Apr. 1977): 154-159.
- Cited in Bronner, Simon, Crossing the Line: Violence, Play, and Drama in Navy Equator Traditions (Amsterdam University Press-Meertens Ethnology Lectures, 2007): 5-6.
- In addition to Richardson and Bronner, see also: Zeeland, Stephen, Sailors and Sexual Identity: Crossing the Line Between “Straight” and “Gay” in the U.S. Navy (Haworth Gay & Lesbian Studies, 1995). See also this bibliography compiled by the Naval History and Heritage Command.