T: So that’s a- that’s where you crossing- you ride the ship til you’re crossing the equator.
T: So once you cross the equator you see King Neptune, you have to do the ceremony to become a shellback. Once you become a shellback, next time, when you cross the equator with the new sailors, you’re gonna make them do things, so they have to go through the initiation, like, similar to that to become a shellback. Like you have to wash the deck. What we did is we.. what I did was we.. crawl through the ship, crawl through got sprayed water on, got jumped dunked in the water, all the stuff to become a shellback. When you become a shellback, you better not lose your certificate or else you cannot prove it.
Q: There’s a certificate for it?
T: If you cross the equator at the International Dateline, then you become a golden shell back.
Q: Is there like a worse initiation for that?
T: No, it’s the same, it’s just that you’re crossing the International Dateline instead of other place.
Q: What does the certificate look like?
T: Big. You carry the ID card too. I don’t know where I put my ID card. If I go back to the ship, I have to do it again. [Laughs]
T: Back when- when it was 2013 on my deployment, I was a shellback so I was getting other people to go through it to become a shellback. Make them dress funny, make them do things, spray water on them. Dump into a blue- green water. Yenno the neon sticks, the glow stick? You break that stick into a water tank and make that water turn green.
I collected this piece in a conversation with a retired Senior Chief Petty Officer of the U.S. Navy about his experiences during active duty. He recalled the shellback initiation above as a humorous tradition amongst those who are stationed on a ship that crosses the equator. The informant mentioned how those who were too humiliated to participate would not watch the initiation; they would sit in their rooms and watch TV instead. The informant has clearly participated in the initiation before, as both an initiate and as a shellback initiating others, and clearly holds respect for this Navy tradition since he joked about how he would have to do it again since he misplaced his ID card.
Initiation rites and traditions in groups, including but definitely not limited to the military, serve to introduce individuals to a group or legitimize their membership in it. While conducted, they can establish comradery. For the shellback initiation, those crossing the equator for the first time may not always be new sailors. Vice versa, the shellbacks may not always be the higher-ranking officers. As such, it puts initiates and shellbacks on more equal standing, either in rank or authority, in the space of this tradition regardless of official rank designations. For the prior shellbacks, they would all have a right to participate in the initiation process by spraying water or making funny requests of the initiates. For the initiates, once they have completed the process, they would have another facet of their ship experience that they share with each other and with those who came before them. On the other hand, initiation traditions can also alienate individuals, but in the case of those who chose not to participate as told by the informant, it can be a personal choice. An interesting part of the shellback initiation tradition, though, is the presence of ID cards and certificates to commemorate the event. In most initiation rites, the process itself is the sp;e legitimizing factor in becoming a particular new identity. In this case, there is also physical documentation. I believe this may be because of the nature of military service. The group an individual crossed the equator for the first time with may not necessarily be the group that they cross with the next time. As such, there needed to be another form of documentation to be able to prove one’s shellback title. Overall, the shellback initiation tradition in the U.S. Navy is a humorous and entertaining example of how initiation rites and traditions provide the means of earning a new identity.
For examples of the shellback initiation tradition, please see pages 74-76 of Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions written by retired U.S. Navy Commander Royal W. Connell and retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral William P. Mack.
Connell, Royal W., and William P. Mack. Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions. 6th ed., Naval Institute Press, 2004.