Historically, mariners have been known to follow a long line of ancient traditions, many of these based on old superstitions. For instance, Neptune, the Roman god of the seas, was believed to summon storms and cause shipwrecks. During ancient times, sailors attempted to appease Neptune by performing rituals, some of which involved sacrificing oxen or goats. They believed it was necessary to perform these rites at specific locations, such as the crossing of the Equator. If all elements of the ceremony were not exact, Neptunus Rex would become irate, conjuring horrendous storms that would inevitably wipe out an entire ship’s crew.
Centuries later, navies around the world would adopt the tradition of crossing the line ceremonies (without the sacrifice of animals, of course). In the US Navy, the ancient rituals have evolved into rites of passage for new and inexperienced sailors (known as pollywogs) who cross the Equator for the first time, ultimately becoming initiated into the Order of the Shellbacks (experienced sailors). Regardless of rank or service, officers and enlisted crewmembers who had never crossed the Equator must suffer through a grueling but vibrant initiation process in order to gain respect and join the realm of the more experienced shellbacks.
During the Intrepid’s time of service, on the day of the initiation, all pollywogs were called to the flight deck where the ceremony occurred. Former crewmen have told stories of pollywogs being ordered to strip down to their underwear and crawl across the flight deck, or being hung by the ankles and egged by the shellbacks. Other activities included forcing the pollywogs to dress as women and participate in fashion shows, only to be “judged” by the shellbacks. At the end of the day, each humiliated pollywog would be granted status as a shellback, receiving a certificate of acknowledgement, signed by none other than Neptunus Rex himself. Like other Navy ships, the Intrepid crewmen printed their own versions of the non-official Neptune Certificate. Pictured below is Captain Vincent F. Kelley’s certificate, which states that he successfully crossed the Equator and was “found worthy” of joining the “trusty Shellbacks” in 1968, while en route to Vietnam. Regardless of Captain Kelley’s rank on the Intrepid, he was still considered a lowly pollywog prior to his crossing of the Equator.
The Intrepid Museum has in its artifact collections several original Neptune Certificates from various eras throughout the ship’s history. Visit us and view an original certificate on exhibit, along with photographs taken during one of the many crossing the line ceremonies.
For more information on crossing the line ceremonies, please check out the Naval History & Heritage Command’s web page on this topic: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq92-1.htm.
Britta K. Arendt