Tag Archives: military initiation

Charge Books – A Navy Chief Initiation Tradition


T: The older chiefs will pass on the knowledge and the expertise to the new chiefs with the charge book, right? So then when you- before people in the old days, when you want to be chief you have to carry around a charge book to see all other chiefs to get the- collect the knowledge and experience from them.  But through the years, they use the charge books, they do all kinds of stuff with that charge book, yenno, they- they destroy the charge book, yenno, you’re supposed to protect that charge book, you cannot let the charge book go and some of the chiefs they’re destroying it and burning it so, it just doesn’t mean much anymore so they changed it new way, they changed it a lot, they put a lot of that restriction to them.  Some of the guys ruin it for other guys. So yeah.

T: So the new way is, inside your chief’s mess, depending on how big it is – some mess got really small number of people, some people got a big – but you list all the chiefs in your mess and you go to see each one of them.. to get the knowledge to pass down.  That’s what you’re supposed to do during the transition period.

Q: So you’re not considered an actual chief until you finish that process?

T: Well, that’s the tradition, but the new- I mean, the way, once you got selected for chief, you gonna become a chief either yes or no but, yenno, if you go through the transition, you go through the training, you become a chief.  If you don’t you decide not to do that, other chiefs they’re gonna call you an E7 not a chief.  So in the Navy, you call someone an E7, that’s in-insulting.

Q: So does that mean you still have yours then?

T: Have what?

Q: Your charge book?

T: You’re always supposed to have it with you. You carry that through your life, that’s your memory.



I collected this piece in a conversation about the informant’s experiences in the U.S. Navy.  He joined in 1990 and served 26 years before retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in 2017.  He recalled the charge book tradition while discussing some of the Navy Chief culture.  He also mentioned how the Navy Chief’s Mess is the largest association in the world.  He has a lot of pride in being a retired Navy chief, saying how “The Chiefs are the backbone of the Navy, the Chiefs make the Navy run.”  The informant remembers his own initiation in which he also completed a charge book as a significant moment in his life, especially considering how he asserts that you carry your charge book through your life.  He briefly joked about how when you ask a Navy Chief their birthday, they’ll ask back which one in regards to their actual birthday or the day they became pinned as a Chief.  In addition, the informant talked about why there may be such significant traditions around becoming a Navy Chief.  He says that in other branches, moving from to an E7 ranking is nothing particularly special.  For the US Navy, though, becoming a Chief (the equivalent title for an E7) holds a higher significance and as such has an initiation “just like joining a fraternity”.



Initiation rites and traditions are a means of legitimizing or introducing an individual’s membership in a group to those who are already members, especially beyond any official announcement.  Particularly in the charge book tradition described above, even though becoming a Chief is an official designation in the Navy, the informant mentions how the other Chiefs will not acknowledge an individual as such unless they have completed the initiation tradition.  The alienation of those who choose not to participate is further emphasized by their insulting address as an E7, as also mentioned by the informant.  The process of the initiation is quite literally gaining a body of knowledge and experience from the existing members of the Chief’s Mess that otherwise would have taken years of experience to learn.  Especially considering how disparities in knowledge or experience are the basis of distinguishing a certain identity, as the Chief candidates complete their charge books, they slowly close the gap between themselves and the Chiefs already in the.  Thus, they slowly become part of the association.  The pieces of advice given are like stepping stones as the candidates complete their transition; once they have completed all of them, they have earned the right to be called Chief and a part of the Navy Chief’s Mess.  Initiation traditions, like completing a charge book to become a Navy Chief, not only legitimize an individual’s membership in a group, they also provide the means to earn an identity that cannot merely be given.

Shellback Initiation – A Navy Tradition


T: So that’s a- that’s where you crossing- you ride the ship til you’re crossing the equator.

Q: Uh-huh.

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: Yup.

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.