Navy Shellback Initiation

My father recalls two different ceremonies he learned in the Navy while away at sea. The two ceremonies are performed when a sailor first crosses the equator and/or the international date line. He remembers, “When I was finally on a Navy ship, they had different ceremonies, one for crossing the equator, from the northern hemisphere to southern hemisphere, and the other is for crossing the international date line, which is in the middle of the Pacific ocean, goes vertical.  They were called initiation ceremonies. I think it was called the Shellback initiation ceremony, or Order of the Shellback. I was 27 for Shellback and 33 for the other. This is something that used to get wild in the old days, they used to paddle guys butts and make them carry apples in their mouths and stupid stuff like that, kind of akin to entering a fraternity.  The guys who had already done it get to administer to the guys who haven’t done it. Now, they probably just lecture them or something, or make them read a poem or something not physical [laughs]. I think I had to drink a bowl of melted butter.”

I researched these ceremonies, and found a website which describes the Shellback Initiation ceremony as much more humiliating than what my father told me. I wonder if perhaps he censored his story for my sake, even though I asked for the brutal truth, or if things have just changed as time goes on to become less brutal (both are likely accurate). The website also mentioned a card, or certificate one would receive after going through the initiation, to carry on him at all times, lest he lose it and have to go through the ceremony again for a new card. The Golden Shellback is the name for the ceremony performed when one has crossed the international date line.

When I asked my father what he thought about the initiations, he said, “It was all pretty silly, and it’s probably not that way anymore, but that’s how it was when I was there.” Either way, with or without the humiliating activities, the ceremony goes on, honoring the men at sea who have crossed a liminal line.