Searching for a Shellback Ceremony in the Navy Deck Logs

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.

10 thoughts on “Searching for a Shellback Ceremony in the Navy Deck Logs

  1. This is fascinating! I remember coming across a shellback ceremony picture in ARC, and thinking it looked like fun. I wonder how it felt to be named the royal baby though — I guess it’s all in good fun to be considered the ugliest man aboard!

  2. A Shellback certificate with the name of the ship, date, and latitude and longitude is placed in the sailors Master Personnel Record. For records prior to 1994, they are at NPRC in St Louis, after 1994, the records are electronic and maintained by the Navy. The sailor (veteran) should have contacted NPRC first for the information about his Shellback information. It probably would have saved some effort if the requester was directed to NPRC and only if the certificate was missing from his record, then infomed to request a search of Deck Logs.

  3. Additionally, this effort could have been greatly reduced by using the Internet. “On 2 June 1972, three days before America was to sail Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, the Chief of Naval Operations, visited the ship and explained the reason why her orders had been changed sending her to the Gulf of Tonkin instead of the Mediterranean. Sailing on 5 June, America crossed the equator on 12 June and held the usual initiation of “pollywogs” into the realm of Neptune. ”

    Then one would know to immediately check 12 June 1972.

    There were three other equator crossing by the USS America.

  4. There were more than 3 additional equator crossings, so here is my correction to the previous post:

    CV-66 Deployments – Major EventsAdd a CV-66 Shellback Initiation Add a CV-66 Deployment – Major Event

    Month Year to Month Year Deployment / Event
    NOV 1964 – DEC 1964 Sea Trials
    JAN 1965 – JAN 1965 Commisioning
    MAY 1965 – MAY 1965 Guantanamo Bay
    JUL 1965 – JUL 1965 Dependents Cruise
    NOV 1965 – JUN 1966 Mediterranean
    NOV 1965 – JUN 1966 Mediterranean
    MAR 1968 – DEC 1968 West Pac-Viet Nam
    APR 1968 – – – Shellback Initiation – 24 APR 1968 – Atlantic Ocean
    APR 1970 Shellback Initiation – 24 APR 1970 – Atlantic Ocean
    APR 1970 – DEC 1970 West Pac-Viet Nam
    JUL 1971 – DEC 1971 Mediterranean
    JUN 1972 – MAR 1973 West Pac-Viet Nam
    JUN 1972 – MAR 1973 West Pac-Viet Nam
    JUN 1972 Shellback Initiation – 12 JUN 1972 – Pacific Ocean
    JUN 1972 – Shellback Initiation – 12 JUN 1972 – Pacific Ocean
    JAN 1974 – JUL 1974 Mediterranean
    SEP 1974 – OCT 1974 North Atlantic
    NOV 1975 – DEC 1975 North Atlantic-Med-Indian Ocean
    APR 1976 – OCT 1976 Mediterranean
    JUN 1977 – Shellback Initiation – 6 JUN 1977 – Atlantic Ocean
    JUN 1977 – Shellback Initiation – 6 JUN 1977 – Atlantic Ocean
    JUN 1977 – Shellback Initiation – 15 JUN 1977 – Atlantic Ocean
    JUN 1977 – – – Shellback Initiation – 15 JUN 1977 – Atlantic Ocean
    JUN 1977 – Shellback Initiation – 15 JUN 1977 – Atlantic Ocean
    JUN 1977 – Shellback Initiation – 17 JUN 1977 – Atlantic Ocean
    SEP 1977 – MAR 1978 Mediterranean
    OCT 1977 – Shellback Initiation – 15 OCT 1977 – Atlantic Ocean
    APR 1978 – NOV 1978 Mediterranean
    SEP 1978 – OCT 1978 Sea Trials
    APR 1979 – NOV 1979 Mediterranean
    NOV 1979 – AUG 1980 Overhaul
    OCT 1980 – OCT 1980 Guantanamo Bay
    JAN 1981 – JAN 1981 Grenada
    APR 1981 – NOV 1981 Mediterranean-Indian Ocean
    APR 1981 – NOV 1981 Mediterranean-Indian Ocean
    MAY 1981 – OCT 1981 Suez Crossing
    AUG 1981 – Shellback Initiation – 10 AUG 1981 – Indian Ocean
    AUG 1981 – Shellback Initiation – 10 AUG 1981 – Indian Ocean
    AUG 1981 Shellback Initiation – 10 AUG 1981 – Indian Ocean
    DEC 1982 – MAY 1983 Mediterranean-Indian Ocean
    FEB 1983 – – – Shellback Initiation – 26 FEB 1983 – Indian Ocean
    APR 1984 – NOV 1984 Mediterranean-Indian Ocean
    AUG 1985 – SEP 1985 North Atlantic
    FEB 1986 – SEP 1986 Mediterranean
    DEC 1990 – APR 1991 Desert Storm
    JUL 1992 – Shellback Initiation – 27 JUL 1992 – Atlantic Ocean
    JUN 1993 – FEB 1994 Mediterranean-Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf
    SEP 1993 – NOV 1993 black hawk down somalia
    NOV 1993 – DEC 1993 Somalia
    DEC 1993 – Shellback Initiation – 1 DEC 1993 – Indian Ocean
    AUG 1995 – FEB 1996 Mediterranean-Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf

  5. My Trusty Shellback card indicates that I crossed the Line on board USS Guadalcanal (LPH-7) on 23 July 1987 at Longitude 045 degrees and 44.3 minutes. To achieve this distinction I had to don my uniform backwords with my underwear over my uniform. I crawled on all fours on the non-skid to the port side elevator where I was soaked with a fire hose before proceeding to various stations filled with refuse that had been saved for the past several days. In the intervals between stations, Shellbacks flayed me with cut sections of fire hose named shilleleghs. Once that bathing cycle was finished, I was hoisted by Tillie (the mobile aircraft crane) in a cargo net and spun around a few times with another charged fire hose. Eventually I encounted the court (King Neptune, his Queen, and King Neptune’s baby) where I had to pick a slice of black olive off the baby’s Crisco-slathered belly. Finally, I recieved ablution in a bath of clean salt water, where I became a Trusty Shellback. It was a memorable day in my Navy career, and I still proudly carry my Shellback card in my wallet.

  6. Sure did! I became a shellback on the USS Princeton in October of 2003 – I don’t recall the exact date since I don’t carry my wallet card around anymore in order to preserve it. We actually had crossed earlier that year but since we were in a hurry due to the Iraq invasion, it had been postponed. It was quite the spectacle but being a “wog” wasn’t all that much fun. It had been really toned down by the time we crossed again in 2005 – but both of my experiences pales to the stories I’ve heard from decades past. A funny aside; when I told my folks about it, my mother asked an elderly Navy vet at the nursing home she works at if he was a wog or a shellback. Apparently he became very indignant and tore off to his room to get his card to prove to her he had crossed!

    Furthermore, there are additional special designations, such as golden shellback if you cross at international date line, and emerald shellback if you cross at prime meridian.

  7. If someone could help me locate shellback information for USNS Navasota in 1991, that would be great. My husband’s ex-wife took all his memorabilia with her when they divorced shortly after he came back and I would love to replace it, but am having a hard time finding the location and coordinates.

  8. When aboard theUSS Dennis J Buckley DDR 808 we crossed the equator around mid or late 1958.would like any info i can get on crossing so i can get shellback cert.thanks.

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