Pollywogs Become Shellbacks

Most of the talk May 18, 1936, aboard the heavy cruiser USS Chicago (CA-29) was about the Royal Court. The “shellbacks” were trying to scare the “pollywogs.”

I had never heard of this initiation before but Delbert Wilson wrote home that his and his brother Don’s would be the next day–when their ship reached the equator.

Pollywogs are sailors who’ve never been over the equator. Through the centuries, seaman had initiated those going over the first time, rough enough so to harden them into shellbacks–in order to let King Neptune pay a visit with his court to see if the “Royal accommodations were satisfactory.” The pollywogs were to do whatever was asked of them to “qualify for entrance into the domain of Neptune.”

Delbert said that when the stern of their cruiser was set on the “line” and the skull and crossbones hoisted, he thought it would be a lot of fun. He reported that they day before, each “pollywog” received his summons from Davy Jones to appear before the court–from men dressed up like admirals of old. Everyone received some kind of funny and strange charges. Delbert’s read: Charge: “This proud ‘muscle bound’ beauty has no use for medical officers’ lectures. He should exhibit his favorite pose to His Royal Highness,” which I suppose he did.

That morning about 8 o’clock everyone was sounded to quarters, the “Skull and Bones” hoisted, the saluting guns fired, and the “screws” stopped. Then they all gathered around the ring of torture, on the well deck, to welcome His Royal Highness, the king and queen, princess, nurse, royal baby and the rest of them. “They were fixed up pretty well. They all received a real welcome, but we should have booed ‘em since we all received the supreme penalty anyway. The higher ranking officers got off easy, most of them with a song or a prayer and a $10 fine. From the Lieuts. down, everyone practically received the supreme penalty.”

Chicago1934
USS Chicago, 1934. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # NH 715.

Supreme Penalty

He went on, “Here is it: First you went in the stocks where they hit you in the ‘rear’ with dummy clubs and made you dance by touching your bare feet with a charged devil’s fork. Next you went before the judge, who read your sentence. Everyone had the same lawyer who always got mad and turned against you. Before the bench was a charged piece of metal. They would tell you to stand still. Next they took you over to kiss the ‘baby’s’ knee or the queen’s foot. When you leaned over they would whack you and you almost take a bit of knee or foot.

Electric Chair

“Next was the electric chair. If the juice didn’t affect you, they would wet the seat of your pants, then it did. Next was the operating table where you were stretched out, belly bare, and a large charged butcher knife run across the belly, an anesthetic of salts, etc., was given before the operation. Next was the black coffin. Locked in so you couldn’t move the shocked man’s most delicate part. Some of the fellows said they just about went crazy in there.

Barber Chair

“Next came the barber chair. They just clipped in spots, made them look mangy. Next came the lamp black. Covered you all over, hair and all, and dumped you over in a canvas tank of salt water. Several of the fellows would grab you and duck you till you yelled “shellback.” After being set you ended up with a run through a line with all of them smacking you. Some of the boys have to sit on one side yet.

“If we aren’t shellbacks, we never will be. Everyone had a lot of fun. Had a holiday dinner.”

Chi1936

“The Big Shot Review,” Eastern Cruise Edition, 1934–the newspaper of USS Chicago (CA-29)

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I didn’t find a Navy Shellback Initiation Certificate for either Delbert or Donald Wilson, but found one in the Dexter (Iowa) Museum from 1943 for LaVerne Keltner Short, who after the initiation was deemed worthy to be numbered as a “Trusty Shellback,” and no longer a “Slimy Pollywog.”

His ship, USS Y.M.S. 281, a minesweeper, was at Longitude 169 degrees, 46′ W, Latitude 00000, bound for Funafuti (hard to read) Atoll and combat.

Navy (2)

13 comments

  1. I’m reading this to my husband now, and he has just brought me his 1983 cruise book from when the USS John F. Kennedy crossed the equator, and he went from becoming a Pollywog to a Shellback. There are several pages of color photos, which are absolutely disgusting! From some inexplicable reason, he spoke about the initiation fondly after the fact.

  2. I’d heard about these equatorial hazing rituals and King Neptune’s appearance from sailing days of yore, but had not heard of shellbacks until two days ago. Also wasn’t aware the Navy actually issued certificates! Maybe that was the creation of someone on a particular ship.

  3. I mentioned your post to my husband and he chuckled being a Navy man himself. Serving in Vietnam; he heard of this and the initiations but never crossed the equator ~ no equator initiation instead, gray water fighting was initiation enough ~ great post

  4. I had no idea that the Navy did this sort of thing to their sailors. Sounded like fun for some of them.
    Thank you for sharing this one,

    • I didn’t find a certificate for Uncle Don or your dad. It would have been a great souvenir! I did send a few snapshots he took. I suppose Jeff has them. Wish I’d copied them after all!

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