Pollywogs Become Shellbacks

Envelope from Donald Wilson, on the same South American Cruise

Delbert Wilson to his folks, Clabe and Leora Wilson of Dexter, Iowa.

“At Sea, May 18, 1936 – a few knots north of the equator, and steaming south”

“Dear Folks:

“The deadline for us ‘lowly pollywogs’ is set for Wed. at 10:00. The stern will be set on the ‘line’ [Equator] and the skull and crossbones hoisted. Will be a lot of fun. . .”

Delbert and Donald Wilson were about to be part of a very old ritual for sailors crossing the Equator for the first time. According to The Big Shot Review, Eastern Cruise Edition, 1934, the tradition of initiating pollywogs, who hadn’t yet been over the equator, was to let King Neptune pay a visit with his court to see if the “Royal accommodations were satisfactory.” The pollywogs attempted to “qualify for entrance into the domain of Neptune.” Delbert describes the hazing:

“May 20 – Oh, my! How sore I am. It’s all over and I said ‘shellback’ and ‘shellback’ again, or they would have drowned me or electrocuted or humiliated to death. Last night everyone received his summons from Davy Jones to appear before the court. They were all dressed up like admirals or old. Everyone received some kind of funny and strange charges. I received only one besides being a pollywog. Charge: ‘This proud muscle bound beauty has no use for medical officers’ lectures. He should exhibit his favorite post to His Royal Highness.’ They charged all of us weight men with something like that. They didn’t make me do it, though.

Delbert Wilson, 1930s

“This morning about8 o’clock everyone was sounded to quarters, the ‘Skull and Bones’ hoisted, the saluting guns fired, and the ‘screws’ stopped. Last night the whole fleet shot off about twenty different rockets apiece. After quarters we 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 all 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.”

Delbert wrote the rest with no paragraphs. I added them for easier reading:

“Here it is: 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 and keep jabbing you with the fork. It was impossible 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 bite of the knee or foot.

“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.

Donald Wilson aboard the USS Chicago (CA-29), 1930s

“Next was the black coffin. Locked in so you couldn’t move, they shocked man’s most delicate part. Some of the fellows said they just about went crazy in there.

“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 the 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.

“When we stopped the ship, a big shark kept swimming around the ship. He must have been big because the fin stuck out of the water about 15 inches.”

I’ll bet Delbert’s younger brothers especially enjoyed hearing their mother read this letter!

This article about Herbert Hoover watching a ceremony in 1928 also tells about the tradition.

Delbert and Donald Wilson joined the Navy in 1934, during the Great Depression. More about their service aboard the USS Chicago is told in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression.


  1. I had always heard about such an initiation when crossing the equator for the first time but had never seen any details. Thanks for clearing up that mystery!

  2. Oh, it’s such a lark to get paddled till you can’t sit and when you do sit, you get zapped with electricity then stuffed in a coffin! These initiations must help seamen bond in some ritualistic masculine way. Thanks for the fun history lesson, Joy! 🙂

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