Shellbacks and Privilege

My Grandpa Joe, flight surgeon of the USS Monterey, in his family memoir “We’re Not Dead Yet!”:

We crossed the equator on the 27th of September.  Whenever we did so, we always marked the event by initiating all the new recruits.  We were the “shellbacks” and the newer sailors were the “polliwogs”.  The shellbacks blasted the polliwogs with water from  fire hose, spanked them with paddles, and forced them to dress like infant babies or women.  Even though the festivities could get rather wild and even a little dangerous sometimes, they always served as a relief from the normal tensions of everyday military life.

What he saw was a “line crossing ceremony“, a ritual of silly degradation and casual cruelty that dates back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.  For military ships at sea, whenever some significant nautical boundary was crossed, those who had crossed it previously (“shellbacks”) would initiate those who hadn’t (“polliwogs”) into their new brotherhood.  For the equator they are inducted into “The Order of Neptune”.  While aboard the Monterey Grandpa also crossed the International Date Line, which would have gotten him in “The Order of the Golden Dragon”, though he never described any experience about that.  The initiation would go about as Grandpa explained above, though with varying levels of violence according to the time period and nation of the vessel.

The pranks were mostly petty embarrassments, but as Grandpa observed, there were occasional physical dangers.  On some ships things got entirely out of hand, and sailors were injured or even killed.  Not the most dignified way to go, and probably a source of some embarrassment for the victims.  After the war, red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy claimed a purple heart for a battle wound, but actually “his record [showed] that [his] leg was broken when he fell down a flight of steps during an Equator-crossing party aboard the seaplane-tender Chandeleur, and far from any actual hostilities.”  (link)

Curious for Grandpa Joe to put himself in the shellback camp – no “new recruit” he!  But he had only been on the Monterey for three months, and never before had crossed the equator.  Indeed, when he drew out a map detailing his travels, he put this note on the map for that day:


9-27-44 Turned into Shellback

He was proud of his new status, for sure.  But “shellback” wasn’t a title that was lightly given to the uninitiated, and apparently Grandpa didn’t have to pay the price.  I wonder why he was spared?  Participation was officially voluntary but there was strong social pressure to go along, and it was awkward for a non-participant to be there witnessing the shenanigans, as Grandpa obviously was.  Grandpa was an officer, and there were few people on the ship that outranked him, but in many cases rank or dignity were no guard against this hazing.  For example, in 1831 Charles Darwin faced his own initiation into Neptune’s Order as he voyaged on the HMS Beagle towards the Galapagos and immortality.  In 1936 aboard the USS Independence, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was said to have endured some degree of humiliation on an equator crossing.  So we’re not getting the whole story about this.

Looking at wartime photos of the Monterey I found a photo depicting the events of 27 Sep 1944.  I found it heremonterey_polliwogs

You see it’s pretty tame at the moment, just dressing people up in funny clothes and pouring things on their head.  There’s a lot of smiles; the biggest one probably the fellow with impressive tattoos dressed up as a baby.  Pretty jovial and relaxed, just as Grandpa observed.  Somewhere in the shot is future President Gerald Ford, though I can’t spot him.  There’s about a hundred guys in the photo, while the Monterey had a crew of more than fifteen hundred.  So with a one in fifteen chance that Grandpa is in the photo, I asked some of Joe’s children whether they recognized him in the photo anywhere.  Nathan Pace, my dad, pointed out a fellow up in the island behind the glass that looks just like him:


Behind the glass you don’t get a lot of detail, so we can’t be completely certain, but if it isn’t him it is someone that bears a strong resemblance.  Here’s some wartime shots of Grandpa Joe for reference.  Scanned off a xerox, sorry for the quality:


See Grandpa there wearing the same officer’s shirt as in the photo. My dad also pointed out that up there in the island was Grandpa’s battle-station – where he would report during an emergency or military operations.  So it makes sense that he would be there in particular, perhaps relieved that he had escaped from being soaked with a fire hose.  It didn’t take as much boldness for a furtive pollywog to hide up on the bridge, watching the action from above.

You notice that there’s a big crowd everywhere but the bridge.  Sailors are vaulted up on ladders, sitting on cranes, clinging to rigging, and staring through portholes so they can catch a glimpse.  But there’s only five guys where the view is nicest.  Surely there’s a reason for that. Only certain people – officers all – were allowed in there, even during wogging ceremonies.  The distortions and contrasts of military hierarchy are very apparent on sea vessels.  As opposed to the Army, where your commander might be in a different city, the Captain of the vessel was just a few meters away, but the privileges of hiererarchy were so rigid that if you were a dogface nobody you wouldn’t share company with or talk to him hardly ever.

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