Today’s post is written by Archives II volunteer Jan Hodges.
Do you know what a shellback ceremony is? Chances are that unless you’re a Navy man or a relative, you probably don’t. It’s a ritual conducted aboard ship after it crosses the equator. And not just any old ceremony–one that becomes part of the sailor’s permanent record.
The Reference Unit at the National Archives in College Park (Archives II) received a letter requesting information about a shellback ceremony that took place in May, June, or July of 1972. The retired Navy man wanted to update his shellback information and wasn’t certain about the date; he also requested the latitude and longitude of his former ship, the USS America, at the time of the ceremony and the name of its captain. Deck logs contain information about a ship’s position each day and list the commander’s name on a monthly basis, so two thirds of the request would be easy to fulfill if the date for the ceremony could be nailed down.
Since one of my volunteer projects is responding to requests assigned to me by the Reference Unit, the place to start the search was the Deck Logs for the USS America for 1972, but three months is a lot of territory to cover because there is at least one separate page of information for every single day, and many daily logs cover two pages. It’s especially daunting when you’ve never heard of a shellback ceremony — would it really be recorded in the deck log and if so, how would it be recorded?
After I retrieved the deck logs for RG 24 from the stacks, looking through the first month, May, was easy. The ship remained in Norfolk, Virginia; no equator crossing there. So the search was narrowed down to two months, but after looking at the daily reports it became clear that it was time to find a description of the shellback ceremony, otherwise it might be difficult to pick out the right entry in the records.
An internet search revealed several sites devoted to the shellback ceremony. When a ship crosses the equator all the pollywogs (those sailors who have never crossed the equator before, including any officer on board who has not) go through certain tests to become shellbacks. It’s a naval tradition that can be traced back for centuries, across several cultures and superstitions about the sea and the monsters that inhabit it.
Imagine a sunny, hot day in the tropics when the sky is wash of brilliant blue with a few high wispy clouds drifting through it. The deck of the ship has been transformed into King Neptune’s realm, complete with stations where the pollywogs must undergo trials to prove they are worthy of becoming shellbacks. King Neptune, his wife, the royal doctor, and the royal baby (the ugliest man aboard), and shellbacks are on deck for the festivities. Stations where the pollywog trials will be conducted have been set up at various parts of the deck. At one station, pollywogs are required to kiss the royal baby and when they attempt to, they receive a face full of mustard for their effort.
After the pollywogs complete the various challenges and have knelt to King Neptune, they become shellbacks with the privileges of administering the Neputunian rites to the next group of pollywogs.
All of that is good background information, but still left two months of deck logs to be reviewed and the question of what would be recorded there.
Another search of the internet using a combination of the ship’s name and “shellback” yielded a list of highlighted activities by year for the USS America. A shellback ceremony was identified as being held on June 12, 1970. With that information, searching the deck logs was easy, and there it was on the daily log for June 12th–a tiny note that would have been easy to overlook stated that a “shellback ceremony” had been conducted. I copied and sent the deck logs for June 12th to the retired sailor and he was able to update his shellback information.
Did you ever go through a shellback ceremony? Tell us your story in the comments!
Logbooks of U.S. Navy Ships and Stations, 1941 – 1983 (National Archives ID 594258), Record Group 24: Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. 1971-1975, USS America, 1 May – 31 July 1972.