Line Crossing Ceremony

Contributor: C. Peter Chen

The open seas had been a subject of myths and legends since the beginning of seafaring. Mariners of the ancient times made animal sacrifices to Neptune to please him, asking for protection from the monsters and storms. Meanwhile 15th Century explorers pondered what lay beyond Northwest Africa, at the same time both looking for something to ease their fear of falling off the edge of the world as well as tokens to display their maritime achievements. Somewhere along the line, the line crossing ceremony was born. When a sailor crossed the equator for the first time, sailors who had previously crossed the equator tested them for their capability to endure the long voyages, and at the end of the ceremony inducted them into a fraternity of seasoned sailors. Since then, other similar ceremonies were conducted when other lines such as the Arctic Circle or the International Date Line were crossed by sailors for the first time.

The tradition of the line crossing ceremony lived on into the WW2 era, and for many navies in the world at the time, it constituted a rite of passage for sailors. In the British Royal Navy and the United States Navy, for example, Pollywogs who had not yet crossed the line transformed into Shellbacks with the ceremony, entering a brotherhood of trusty sailors. The ceremony traditionally was presided over by a Shellback dressed as King Neptune, ruler of the high seas; other Shellbacks might dress as the king's court. As popularly known, the ceremony involved the embarrassment of Pollywogs for the entertainment of Shellbacks. Pollywogs often had to run through a gauntlet of various obstacles, then swear loyalty to King Neptune by kissing his signet ring and/or his bare foot.

In late Nov 1936, when American cruiser USS Indianapolis crossed the Equator with President Franklin Roosevelt aboard, even the leader of a nation was not subject to exemption. Roosevelt was made to plead his case before a seasoned sailor who dressed up as King Neptune, and had to go through some degree of embarrassment before he was granted the status of a Shellback. Like most sailors who went through this rite of passage, Roosevelt was given a certificate to show his status as a trusty Shellback.

Men who crossed the equator and completed the ceremony often received a certificate to commemorate the event. Decorated by drawings of mermaids and sea serpents, Roosevelt's certificate read:

Subpoena and Summons Extraordinary
The Royal High Court of the Raging Main

BE IT KNOWN, That we hereby summon and command you

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT

Now the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, to appear before the Royal High Court and our August Presence on the aforesaid date at such time as may best suit OUR pleasure under penalty of eternal pickling.

You will accept most heartily and with good grace the pains and penalties of the awful torture that will be inflicted upon you to determine your fitness to be one of our Trusty Shellbacks and answer to the following charges:

CHARGE 1. Disregard of the traditions of the sea.
Specification: In that Franklin D. Roosevelt, having, for many years sailed the high seas and bounding main, entirely through kindly assistance, toleration and consideration of his Majesty Neptunus Rex, has, for lo these many years, failed to appear in person to show allegiance to his Royal Highness, thereby masquerading as a man of the sea, and by this utter disregard added insult to other previous crimes.

CHARGE 2. Taking liberties with the piscatorial subjects of His Majesty Neptunus Rex.
Specification: In that, Franklin D. Roosevelt, having taken liberties with the denizens of the Realm of Neptunus Rex, by maliciously removing them from the depths of their recognized habitat, has permitted these acts to be publicized by print, town crier, and all other means of shameless publication; and, furthermore, has exaggerated this crime by the public humiliation of the greatest of these creatures of the sea, by stuffing them full of sawdust, and placing them in a position of eternal disgrace in a national museum where the eyes of all mortals may regard their pitiful and ignoble plight.

Disobey this summons under pain of Our Swift and Terrible displeasure
Our Vigilance is ever wakeful, Our Vengeance is Just and Sure

NEPTUNUS REX
Ruler of the Raging Main

DAVY JONES
Clerk

Modeled after the British Navy, the Japanese Navy had its version of the equator crossing ceremony as well. On 20 Jan 1942, the Japanese Army South Seas Force crossed the equator at 0500, the first group of Japanese Army soldiers to cross the line in the nation's history. Toshio Miyake, a newspaper correspondent traveling with the troops, later described:

"On the day we crossed the equator, all the men, fully armed and equipped, assembled on deck. 'At this time, when we are about to... advance into the southern hemisphere, we shall pay our respect toward the Imperial Palace,' said the commander toward his assembled subordinates. Solemnly, and with overflowing emotions, the men presented arms toward the north."

Such events were open to controversies, however. Line crossing ceremonies were sometimes known to become brutal hazing events, where the uninitiated often were beaten with wet ropes or fire hoses. During WW2, United States Navy ship logs often recorded additional visits to sickbays immediately after the particular ship had crossed the line. One such example was when aircraft carrier USS Franklin crossed the equator in the Pacific Ocean on 20 Sep 1944. "[A]ll hell broke loose", recalled Electrician's Mate 2nd Class Bob St. Peters. "The shellbacks grabbed pollywogs and started beating them. Actually beating them." He was one of the victims as well by members of his station, who gave him electric shocks with a hand-cranked generator as part of his initiation. Seaman 2nd Class George Sippel remembered beatings, hair shavings, tarring, painting, humiliation, and other forms of hazing, but he explained it as a rite of passage that, when all was said and done, all sailors enjoyed. He said

You've got to understand why this is done. It's all navy tradition, sure, but all we had was each other. There was no liberty, we weren't going ashore, and no one was going to see you. Your hair was going to grow back; the grease and paint will come off, and things will turn back to normal. After it was over, we grew closer and it tightened up the crew. For me it's a fond memory and all part of being in the navy.

In 1995, the line crossing ceremony aboard an Australian submarine was deemed as sexual assault upon the uninitiated, and the news came before public scrutiny. Navies of the world began curtailing or banning the ceremony in the 1980s.

There were other similar ceremonies. For instance, the Dragon Ball sometimes took place on the return trip across the Equator. When sailors cross other major lines or landmarks, such as the Arctic Circle, International Date Line, or the Panama Canal, similar ceremonies were sometimes held. For many veterans of different navies, their recollections of the line crossing ceremony remain one of the most memorable experiences in their careers.

Sources: Inferno, United States Navy Naval Historical Center, Wikipedia.

Photographs

Equator crossing ceremony aboard Indianapolis, Nov 1936James Roosevelt punished by Shellbacks, Equator crossing ceremony aboard Indianapolis, Nov 1936Roosevelt pleaded his case, Equator crossing ceremony aboard Indianapolis, Nov 1936Equator crossing ceremony aboard Wasp, Jul 1942
See all 8 photographs of Line Crossing Ceremony


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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Tina Pratt says:
    28 Oct 2009 11:23:08 PM

    USS G. M. L. Hersey crossing the line in 1944 Going to the islands to drop sailors off to build Hollandia New Guinea. Also building Mandus and Los Negros . WHAT date is the line crossing. No ship books open to people to see. Shellback cards not given to all. When were the crossing dates to the islands at war time 1944 to 1946 ?
  2. Wesley Higgins says:
    10 May 2010 06:02:47 AM

    From a journal of one of the LST 740's radioman, Earl L. Roper -USNR-
    July 5 - Crossed equator. Us pollywogs (the one’s that had not been across the equator before) got initiated into the order of the shellbacks by King Neptune and Davey Jones and his band. We flew the Jolly Roger all the time we were being initiated. First we had to strip to our shorts and then they sprayed us with sea water and we went and knelt down before King Neptune and they blindfolded us and gave us so many licks with a paddle and then they took us in another partition and gave us castor oil and painted us every color you could think of and cut our hair every which a way. We were sure funny looking sights. We had a lot of fun though after getting initiated watching others get it.
  3. Anonymous says:
    18 May 2010 10:01:13 PM

    After my dad died, we found his Domain of Neptunus Rex card among his belongings - it is dated: 22nd day of August 1944 (aboard the U.S.S. Leon).
  4. Cark E. Parks Ex SM1/c LST 740 says:
    8 Jun 2010 05:51:35 PM

    Earl L. Roper
    I was also on the LST 740 and crossed the equator with Earl Roper.
    I'm very interested in hearing from Earl. I have a lot of pictures on a CD that I would be happy to share. Please let me know where I can send them.

    Clark E. Parks,
    Ex Signalman on LST 740
  5. Clark E. Parks says:
    21 Jun 2010 05:17:57 PM

    Wesley Higgins,
    I would like to hear from Earl Roper. As stated above, I was a shipmate of Earl.
    Clark
  6. jClark E. Parks says:
    22 Jun 2010 09:20:57 AM

    Please contact by e-mail,(cep1207@aol.com) if you are or know of any shipmates of LST 740.
    Clark E. Parks
  7. Cllark E. Parks says:
    4 Jul 2010 06:36:08 AM

    Mr. Chen
    I was a signalman onboard the LST 740 in the Pacific during WW 2. I have been working on a website for a long time and just got it up and running. www.usslst740.com Please take a look at it and hopefully you will link it to your site for others to see. Clark E. Parks
  8. Anonymous says:
    11 Aug 2010 05:39:01 PM

    My dad talks about crossing the equator on the USS Newberry on his 18th birthday, 1945. One of the rituals he endured was: he was put into a barbers chair, his head was shaved, and he was tipped back into a tub of drain oil. At 84 years young, he laughs about it.
  9. Gina says:
    16 Nov 2010 09:10:49 AM

    I found a certificate for my grandpa's crossing from WWII. Wish he were still alive so I can ask him about it.
  10. soojin says:
    28 Feb 2011 05:39:04 PM

    looking for anyone who knows when the USS Baltimore may have crossed the equator in "44". I found a certificate among his belongings.
  11. Kelly Lantz says:
    9 Apr 2011 03:28:56 PM

    I recently found my fathers certificate from the USSLST-688. It is dated August 23, 1944. I would appreciate any information anyone has. His name was Robert Thompson.
  12. Anonymous says:
    13 Jul 2011 07:27:10 PM

    we recently got my grandfathers from usns "general Callan" from the 15th day of november 1957, we got this document and we had no idea what it was for, so if anyone has any more info about this ship or the time frame please let me know i would appreciate anything you have
  13. Clark E. Parks says:
    8 Nov 2011 10:21:25 AM

    To Kelly Lantz
    Your father on the USSLST-688 was in some of the same operations we were on the LST 740.
    Leyte and Luzon.
    You might enjoy my web site that tells about these operations.
    www.usslst740.com
    Clark E. Parks, Ex SM 1/c LST 740

  14. H.S BYERS says:
    13 Feb 2012 02:06:51 PM

    I have found a Neptunus Rex form for my step-father Thomas Norman Bromfield. Its dated 12th April 1943 on the HMS Striker bound for Balboa. I am totally confused as I can't seem to find any verification of this. Does anyone remember him as he was in the Russian Convoy. Some autographs have comments on calling him Stripes or Stripes the rum rat. Any info would be much appreciated.
  15. Jack Dukey says:
    20 Feb 2012 09:33:17 AM

    I have my dad's certificate from crossing on January 17, 1944 on the USS Azalea City bound south on a secret mission of war.
  16. Debbie Pastor says:
    25 Jul 2012 02:30:39 PM

    My Dad was on the USS Erie. He is very proud of his Navy years. I had his certificate and then gave it to my nephew. He is 92 and doing fine.
  17. Hkd says:
    19 Nov 2012 09:06:57 PM

    I have my fathers certificate Domain of Neptunes Rex Dated Aug 30 1943, any information would be appreciated.
  18. AnonymousBriesch says:
    27 Feb 2013 06:23:41 PM

    I have a flag that my dad got when he crossed the international date line I don't know his boat history or when he got it
    I knowHe was on a let first then some kind of missile ship
    His name is LaVerne briesch born in 1924 anyone have history for me? Character24@msn.com. Or where can I get records thanks
  19. Marla says:
    19 May 2013 01:52:48 PM

    We purchased some old photographs at an auction. In a USN cruise albulm we found wonderful pictures of James Melton Henry (killed June 20, 1948) and Clifford Neal Gilham (killed May 28, 1945), along with all of their Navy buddies. We would love to return these to the family. If anyone has any information please let me know. The albulm was made by someone named "Peg".
  20. Kim Veil says:
    8 Sep 2013 07:41:57 PM

    I have my Dad's Neptune Certificate from Oct, 1944. He was on the Thetis Bay in the South Pacific.
  21. Andrea Zalonka says:
    21 Dec 2013 09:20:25 PM

    I have my dad's "Ruler of the Raging Main" dated July 13th, 1944 from the S.S. Howell....I used to love to hear his stories of the war. He was awarded the Silver Star among other medals. He was in the Phillipines. He was such a proud man who fought for his country. He was in the same time with his 2 other brothers...Colonel Adam and bomber pilot Charlie. My dad's name was Andrew Zalonka

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Equator crossing ceremony aboard Indianapolis, Nov 1936
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