During the mid-1930s, the bulk of the U.S. Fleet, which was divided into the Battle Force, the Scouting Force, and Train, was stationed at various ports on the West Coast. Once a year, elements of the Fleet sortied from their home ports and joined together to take part in an annual fleet problem that was designed to test various aspects of naval warfare in order to better prepare for conflict. In late April 1936, the Fleet departed its West Coast ports for Fleet Problem XVII, to be conducted in the Pacific off Panama. The problem was divided into five phases intended to test strategic, tactical, logistical, and communications abilities. After several weeks of strenuous maneuvers that required constant alertness and attention to duty, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Fleet, Admiral Joseph M. Reeves, took his armada south of the equator near the Galapagos Islands so that each ship could conduct the time-honored ceremony known as “Crossing the Line,” which he knew would be a refreshing interlude and a morale booster for the men.
Entering King Neptune’s Realm
The Crossing the Line ceremony, one of the oldest customs at sea, is a rite of passage for landlubbers and seamen alike who have never before crossed the equator, or line. In the boisterous ceremonies that accompany a ship’s crossing, the “pollywogs,” those on board who have never crossed the line, are initiated into King Neptune’s realm in a series of hazing rituals conducted by “shellbacks,” those who have already experienced this tumultuous rite of passage. The practice is believed to have evolved from Viking rituals, which were passed on to the Anglo-Saxons and Normans.
Early Crossing the Lines had a fairly serious purpose: to test new crews to see if they could endure the hardships at sea. Ceremonies in the 17th century were particularly rough, but in later years the festivities provided a welcomed break from the tedium of a long voyage. Then, as now, it was primarily a crew party, with the participants—even those being tormented—finding certain psychological satisfaction in the sport. With rank and position forgotten, everything is topsy-turvy. For one hour an ordinary seaman in the guise of Neptune becomes the most powerful man on board.
According to custom, the ceremonies are orchestrated and run by King Neptune’s court, headed by Neptunus Rex himself—traditionally the oldest or most senior shellback in the crew. Other members of the “royal court” assist him, including Davy Jones, the mythological evil spirit of the sea; Her Highness Amphitrite, often a young seaman in a costume of seaweed and rope; the scribe; the doctor; and the barber. Other members often include the royal baby, usually the fattest man in the crew wearing only a diaper; the navigator; the chief bear and his assistants, the latter of whom perform the dunkings; the chaplain; jesters; and the devil. The royals also have a secretary, sometimes known as a clerk, notary, or chancellor, whose job is to enter the names of the candidates to be sentenced by the court. The king’s entourage also includes a judge—Davy Jones sometimes performs this function—who passes sentence on the pollywogs.
Admiral Reeves, known as “Bull” from his football- playing days at the U.S. Naval Academy, had his first encounter with King Neptune 38 years earlier while serving as assistant engineer in the battleship Oregon during the vessel’s record-making 14,000-mile run from the West Coast around the tip of South America during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The revelry started at 0830 the morning of 31 March when several outlandishly dressed seamen representing King Neptune, his queen, and their entourage of shellbacks mystically appeared on board. The royal couple paid their respects to the ship’s captain, Charles E. Clark, who then asked and received permission to bring his command into Neptune’s domain.
The king, a noble-looking old sea dog with an untwisted rope serving as his hair and beard, thumped the deck three times with his trident and ordered the initiation to begin. As roll was called, the pollywogs were led to a hinged chair where they were covered with a lather made of oil, molasses, flour, and saltwater, applied with a large paintbrush and then shaved by the royal barber using a three-foot wooden razor. Before the victim could escape, the chair was tilted back, dropping him onto a canvas chute where he was pummeled with rubber hoses on the way to the dunking tank, where an old salt playing the part of the doctor pushed him under.
Officers were offered a less honorable, but more comfortable way out: They could purchase immunity by paying a large ransom in beer. It’s not known what option Reeves selected, but the number of officers taking this route of escape led King Neptune to become so inebriated he was unable to deliver his farewell speech. Instead, he stood up on the forecastle repeating the phrase “I am satisfied” again and again as he swayed back forth before being mercifully led away by members of his court.
The esteemed rituals conducted on board the Oregon that day were symbolic rites of passage. Shaving, which represents a farewell to childhood innocence for most men, was originally connected to manhood. In more recent times, seamen regard the shaving ceremony as a beauty treatment: No one may enter Neptune’s kingdom without first having a haircut. Dunking was a form of baptism that cleansed the neophyte so that he would be fit to be accepted into the new society of shellbacks. Since no one may enter Neptune’s kingdom unless he is sound and healthy, it was the doctor who pushed him under. Once baptized, a sailor is exempt from again undergoing the initiation ritual. When the occasion demands, the best way to prove his status as a shellback is to produce a certificate attesting to that fact, like a real baptismal certificate issued by a church. These unofficial documents are printed in the ship’s print shop—if it has one—or obtained from commercial sources.
Crossing the Line En Masse
Admiral Reeves was well aware of the fate awaiting the fleet’s pollywogs when on Tuesday 19 May 1936 he issued the order for the fleet to stop on signal. This command was part of the traditional Crossing the Line ritual, as it was customary for Davy Jones to appear on board the night before the ship was to cross the equator with a message to the ship’s captain from His Majesty Neptunus Rex, stating at what time he wanted the ship to hove to to receive the royal party. Davy Jones’ reception usually takes place after dark and is an impressive spectacle, with him coming over the bow in a boatswain’s chair or up a forward hatch amid the glare of searchlights and the spray of fire hoses.
That night, crew members who had never crossed the equator would have been served summons or subpoenas from Jones to appear before the royal court on the morrow to be initiated in the mysteries of King Neptune’s Royal Domain. Included was a fictitious list of offenses—such as too many captain’s masts, excessive liberty, or seasickness—with which the pollywog was charged. The reading of some of these offenses at initiation before sentencing added much to the hilarity of the occasion.
Although there don’t appear to be records of the next day’s ceremony on board the battleship Pennsylvania (BB-38), Admiral Reeves’ flagship, tradition and imagination can fill the gaps. In all likelihood Jones appeared forward and reported to the officer of the deck that the captain should be informed that Neptunus Rex and the royal court had been sighted ahead. As soon as King Neptune and the royal party appeared on deck, the “Jolly Roger,” the king’s personal flag, would have been broken out and a bugle sounded while the officers and crew were called to quarters. In a general description of what might occur in the revelry that followed, the Navy notes that “the pollywogs [wogs for short], would be put through a series of initiation rites involving harrowing and often embarrassing tasks, gags, obstacles, physical hardships, and generally good-humored mischief”—all of which were meant to entertain the shellbacks and degrade the pollywog.
On board the heavy cruiser Astoria (CA-34), the secretary of the royal court recorded that the pollywogs were subjected to:
• The gauntlet to make them scream and pray
• The barber to slice and rake them measly stubble
• The slime and squirt gun to test their inside
• The tank to fill them with salt and break their brittle bones.
After undergoing these degrading and embarrassing hardships gleefully conducted under the auspices of the ship’s shellbacks, the pollywogs were inducted into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep,” becoming full-fledged shellbacks.
As a keepsake to memorialize the occasion, an unknown entrepreneur struck a commemorative medal—similar in form to the official campaign medals issued by the U.S. Navy for service in World War I—that was apparently offered for sale. Hanging from a black ribbon was a medallion with a raised image of King Neptune. Centered on the back of the medal was the date “5-20-36” and the “U. S. Fleet Adm. J. M. Reeves” encircled by “Latitude 00000 Longitude 81.0000.” Although there have been many Crossing the Line ceremonies since, that of 20 May 1936 appears to have been the largest ever recorded; by the end of the day 29,751 pollywogs had been initiated into the “Royal Order of Shellbacks.” It is unlikely that we shall ever see the likes of this again.
Number of Ships Participating in the 20 May 1936 Crossing the Line Ceremony
Heavy Cruisers: 12
Aircraft Carriers: 4
Light Cruisers: 7
Richard H. Bradford, “And the Oregon Rushed Home,” The American Neptune, vol. 36 no. 4 (October 1976), 257–65.
E. S. Brown, “The Royal Works: A Souvenir of the Neptune Party Held 20 May, 1936 in the United States Ship Lexington,” Navy Department Library, Washington, D.C., www.history.navy.mil/library/online/lexington1936.htm.
Andrew B. Church, “From Wog to Shell Back,” U.S. Navy news story, 4 July 2013, www.public.navy.mil/surfor/lhd6/Pages/FromWogtoShellback.aspx#.VAiktmPp-So.
“Fleet Problem XVII and East Coast Tour 1936,” USS Astoria, www.ussastoria.org/Fleet_Problem_XVII_1936.html.
Henning Henningsen, Crossing the Equator: Sailor’s Baptism and Other Initiation Rites (Munksgaard, Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1961).
William P. Mack, Royal W. Connell, and Leland P. Lovette, Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press,1980).
E. Valade, Clerk of the Court, to V. N. Ennis, MM1c, Sentence of the Court, reproduced in “Fleet Problem XVII and East Coast Tour 1936,” USS Astoria (CA-34) website, www.ussastoria.org/Fleet_Problem_XVII_1936.html.
Thomas Wildenberg, All the Factors of Victory (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2003).