"THE FUN OF INITIATION HAIRCUTS -- PART 3 -- "CROSSING THE EQUATOR"
THE LEGENDARY "SHELLBACK" MOHAWK.
FEW PEOPLE REALIZE THAT THE MODERN-DAY MOHAWK WAS PARTLY BORN IN THE SUPER-TOUGH "CROSSING THE LINE" SHIPBOARD INITIATIONS OF AMERICAN SAILORS AND MARINES CROSSING THE EQUATOR EN ROUTE TO SOUTH PACIFIC BATTLES IN WORLD WAR TWO -- AND ALSO ON THE HEADS OF TOUGH AMERICAN PARATROOPERS PARACHUTING BEHIND NAZI LINES.
SO IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL THE STORY OF THE MOHAWK'S EVOLUTION WITHOUT REVISITING THOSE TOUGH SHIPBOARD INITIATIONS . . . WHERE FORCED MOHAWKS WERE ADMINISTERED BY THE THOUSANDS.
(IF YOU MISSED PARTS ONE AND TWO OF "THE FUN OF INITIATION HAIRCUTS" . . . CLICK HERE.)
DURING & IMMEDIATELY AFTER WORLD WAR TWO, MORE MOHAWKS & REVERSE MOHAWKS WERE INFLICTED DURING "CROSSING THE EQUATOR" INITIATIONS THAN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD. NEWSPAPER AND NEWSREEL PHOTOS OF THOSE INITIATION RITUALS PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN POPULARIZING THAT SHOCKING HAIRCUT.
News photographs in and around World War Two often showed young sailors and Marines restrained in Medieval wooden stocks for their initiation haircuts..
An article in Naval History Magazine says that in 1936 alone (five years before the war began) close to 30,000 U.S. sailors got initiated when the admiral deliberately detoured the entire fleet across the equator -- just so all his 30,000 sailors could have the fun of getting initiated. (It's safe to say that most of those 30,000 sailors and Marines ended up with shocking initiation haircuts.) And the war hadn't even begun yet, so the Navy was still rather tiny.
Virtually every sailor and Marine who fought in the South Pacific during World War Two had to cross the equator to get there. And most of them got initiation haircuts. The following Marine's account of crossing the equator in April 1944 aboard the troop ship USS Mormachawk provides evidence that Mohawks were often the most popular initiation haircut:
"Our keepers demanded we pollywogs visit the Royal Barber, We lined up. Our Shellback overlords graciously said we could bargain with the Royal Barber on the type of initiation cut we would each receive with his electric clippers. A pollywog could choose from among only four styles, each sure to bring laughter from a buddy, even if he was next up.
"You could get a Mohawk, the most popular choice by far. Or, for the 'straight back,' the Royal Barber shaved a stripe from your hairline to the nape of your neck (a Mohawk in reverse, if you will). Or, for the ever-dapper 'cross over,' the bald stripe ran ear to ear. Finally, replicating your days in boot camp, you could be shaved completely bald.. Me, I got a Mohawk. I figured it would grow back easier, as opposed to the poor saps who went for a cross over or straight back." [On other ships the Royal Barber usually didn't ask. He just arbitrarily started plowing the clippers through the initiate's hair in bizarre patterns.]
I'm going to dwell in some detail on the toughness of that shipboard initiation back in earlier days before anti-hazing laws . . . including some hazing practices that may now seem a bit brutal and surprisingly sexual by today's tamer standards . . . because it was the toughness of that shipboard initiation that significantly contributed to the image of the Mohawk haircut as a proud and highly visible symbol of toughness that its early-day wearers often relished.
PREPARE TO BE SHOCKED.
Until the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the "Crossing the Line" initiation was rather secretive, largely kept away from prying outside eyes by the men who endured it. It was a closely guarded tradition that the men rarely talked about the exquisite -- sometimes X-rated --humiliations they had endured. It was a an intensely proud bond that they shared only with fellow initiates.
An occasional photo of isolated portions of the secretive ritual -- like a shot of a young sailor with his initiation haircut or perhaps getting paddled -- would, on rare occasions, make it into the newspapers. But not until the rise of the Internet a half-century later, would Americans become fully aware of just how tough that "Crossing the Line" initiation really was.
It's probably no coincidence that the Navy's crackdown on the toughest parts of that initiation coincided precisely with the rise of the Internet and the easy posting online of thousands of intimate and shocking photos of all parts of the ritual. An online comment from one veteran Shellback -- angry that the secrecy of the ritual had been breached -- said that any veteran posting photos of the ritual should be forced to give up their certificate showing that they endured the ordeal. . . . because he had broken the bond of secrecy.
One scholarly journal says -- before the rise of the anti-hazing movement in the 1990s -- "hazing was believed by the Navy to build manliness necessary for the job . . . and that kept many crude activities hidden from public view. As home societies allegedly became increasingly . . . feminized, pacifist, . . . Naval leaders tolerated and even encouraged the ceremony as a way to build a separate world based on discipline and aggressiveness." Naval History Magazine says even the initiation head-shave was seen as a part of manliness.
In those early days, that tough shipboard initiation was a major part of the Mohawk's strange allure.
When photographs like these began showing up in newspapers, magazines and newsreels during the Second World War showing young American sailors and Marines with their heads forcibly shaved into Mohawks during the ritual crossing of the equator, it was obvious that they were intensely proud of those Mohawks.
The shocking haircut advertised to the world that that they had been man enough to endure an initiation that often made college fraternity "hell weeks" look like a walk in the park by comparison.
You may be surprised to learn that Old Navy salts" who endured this initiation -- before it was tamed in the 1990s -- now look back on the ordeal with great fondness and nostalgia as one of the most eagerly anticipated highlights of their Navy career. For the rest of their Navy careers, they liked to brag that they had the balls to endure the roughhouse initiation.
Most of those "old salts" were bitterly disappointed when the Navy -- under pressure from anti-hazing reformers (and the sudden appearance of women on warships) -- outlawed some of the more humiliating and painful practices that you will see in the shocking photos below. The Old Salts complained that the Navy was "going soft."
Although the ritual still exists in a reduced form, the really rough, really humiliating, really painful initiation that Old Navy Salts fondly remember from decades ago is now largely "gone with the wind" . . . now largely a part of American history and folklore.
These shipboard Mohawks don't at all eclipse the vital role that Mohawked American paratroopers in the D-Day invasion of Nazi Germany played in popularizing the Mohawk -- but it certainly supplements and augments it in a huge way.
The paratroopers were the first to seize on the Mohawk as a wartime emblem of toughness. But the Navy's initiation ritual carried the Mohawk to new heights of popularity..
CAUTION: Most of the archival photographs you will see below came from the era prior to 1995 -- before the U.S. Navy cracked down on some of the more shocking aspects of the "Neptune Day" initiation. The centuries-old ritual continues to this day in a greatly reduced form. But information is spotty as to precisely which aspects of the ordeal are still inflicted on sailors and Marines today.
So we will be talking here primarily about the way this initiation was conducted prior to 1995 . . . when the initiation was more like an entire "hell week" at a college fraternity all rolled up into a single, incredibly humiliating and painful day that seemed to the initiates as if it would never end.
Forced Mohawks and other more embarrassing haircut mutilations were doled out like candy. The creativity of those initiation haircuts was endless. For a couple of weeks after the initiation, each Navy ship was full of half-shaven sailors with bizarre haircuts . . . which the initiates were proud to wear for days to come so everyone could see they were man enough to take it.
Veteran sailors pretend to be Neptune, the ancient god of the sea. In the old days, they would tie up the captain and take over his ship, for the express purpose of initiating new sailors crossing the equator for the first time, called "polliwogs." If the polliwog successfully endures the always humiliating and sometimes painful initiation ordeal, then he joins the proud ranks of the "Shellbacks." A Shellback is a sea turtle -- believed to be the toughest of all the sea animals because of its hard, protective shell.
In earlier centuries, it was such a brutal ritual that it wasn't uncommon for young sailors to lose their lives while being initiated. During the ritual, initiates sometimes drowned while being "keelhauled" -- tied up and dragged beneath the ship on ropes. In later centuries, mercifully, it was tamed quite a bit.-- but it was still a tough, day-long ordeal of humiliation and debasement.
NAVAL HISTORY MAGAZINE EXPLAINS THE SYMBOLISM & SIGNIFICANCE OF THE INITIATION HEAD-SHAVING:
"The pollywogs [wogs for short], would be put through a series of initiation rites involving harrowing and often embarrassing tasks, obstacles, physical hardships, and generally good-humored mischief—all of which were meant to entertain the Shellbacks and degrade the pollywogs.
"The esteemed rituals conducted on board the USS Oregon that day were symbolic rites of passage. Shaving, which represents a farewell to childhood innocence for most men, was originally connected to manhood. No one may enter Neptune’s kingdom without first having a haircut."
One reason the Mohawk, during World War Two, acquired a reputation as a symbol of toughness was because -- in those days -- if you saw a Mohawk, it was probably worn either by an American paratrooper . . . or by a sailor or Marine who had just crossed the equator and endured one of the most grueling, day-long initiations on record . . . one that sometimes made fraternity "hell weeks" seem like a picnic in the park in comparison.. If a sailor or Marine had a temporary Mohawk, you knew he had earned it the hard way.
ICONIC PHOTO: When this World War Two photo of a just-initiated U.S. Marine on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands was distributed worldwide in a major American magazine in 1945, it (like the earlier photos of the Mohawked paratroopers during the Normandy invasion) helped enormously to popularize the Mohawk -- which in 1945 was still a shocking new look to most Americans.
"What attracted my curiosity," the combat correspondent wrote, "was the haircuts of several of the horseshoe players. Some had their heads half-shaved. Others had just bristly tufts extending over their otherwise bald pates. (The Mohawk was so new, the reporter didn't even know the name for it.) 'We've just become Shellbacks,' one explained. "Yesterday we crossed the equator for the first time. This is what our pals did to us.'"
The reason the shaven portion of his scalp looked so patchy is because his tormentors shaved him using an old, World War Two era, manually operated hand clipper. If you have to endure an initiation, just hope your tormentors have access to electric clippers.
So . . . since that roughhouse shipboard ritual played such a historic part in spreading the image of the Mohawk as a symbol of toughness . . . let's take a moment to examine the nature of those "crossing the line" initiations.
CAUTION: SOME OF THE HISTORIC EQUATORIAL INITIATION SCENES BELOW FROM WORLD WAR TWO AND THE FIRST TWO DECADES AFTER THE WAR CONTAIN NAKEDNESS AND SIMULATED SEX ACTS. SO IF YOU ARE EASILY OFFENDED, WE SUGGEST YOU STOP READING AT THIS POINT.
In the bad old days before about 1995, the "Crossing the Line" initiation was openly sexual . . . deliberately sexual.. . . as you are about to discover. Heck, that was one of the big attractions. When men were isolated at sea for long periods, far from women in those early days . . . uh . . . well, they tended to get a bit raunchy. Wouldn't you?,
But be tolerant . . . because these are historic, wartime, archival photographs from half a century ago. Some of these scenes, which I guarantee will shock you, are the reason the Navy eventually outlawed some aspects of the ritual and toned it down after about 1990, under pressure from anti-hazing reformers . . . although much of the ritual continues today in a tamer form. Some of the quotations below from sailors describing now forbidden portions of the ceremony are from lengthy analyses of the ritual in a number of scholarly university journals . . . which had a very hard time persuading tight-lipped initiates to share the secrets of what they endured -- and frankly enjoyed..
Here's a World War Two photo of a U.S. Navy sailor, who has just been subjected to a forced Mohawk during his initiation as a "Shellback."
Some of the shocking scenes that you will see below will likely never happen again -- thus infuriating most old-time Navy vets who bitterly resent the partial loss of an age old ritual that once allowed them to prove their toughness. That was the original purpose of the initiation 400 years ago. It allowed young sailors joining a ship's crew to prove to their shipmates that they were tough enough to withstand the dangers of life on a sailing vessel. And an embarrassing haircut -- in later years often a Mohawk -- was proof to their buddies that they had survived the ritual.
A standard part of that grueling, day-long initiation ritual was when the "Shellbacks" forced the "pollywogs" to submit to a haircut from the Royal Barber -- which included chop-jobs like those inflicted on these two pollywogs in February 1944 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga en route to the invasion of the Marshall Islands. Notice the early-day World War Two Mohawk on the sailor on the left.
At the end oif the ritual, the victims are awarded wallet cards certifying that they have survived the initiation and are now "Shellbacks."
Old Navy men are intensely proud of having endured that tough initiation, so they carry those wallet cards with them for the rest of their Navy careers. If they lose the wallet card, then they are forced to undergo the initiation all over again the next time they cross the equator. Some sailors who are careless with their wallets have endured the initiation several times.
Here's another Mohawked initiate forced to crawl along the decks during the hazing ritual.
Most civilians had never heard of that humiliating initiation ritual -- didn't even dream it existed -- until February 1945 when another national magazine published the startling World War Two advertisement below, which depicted the initiation barber shaving the head of a young Marine . . . while his grinning buddies swig soft drinks and snap photos of his ordeal to send to the folks back home.
In case the print is too small to read, here's what the ad said:
". . . INITIATING A NEW SUBJECT OF NEPTUNE. It's a fine old custom -- the good-natured initiation of those who cross the equator for the first time."
So you think that ad was exaggerating the situation by depicting the smiling, young Marine with his head and hands locked helplessly into wooden stocks while the initiation barber happily uses the clippers to carve bald swaths through his hair? Think again. The stocks and the head shaving were standard parts of the ritual -- as you will see in the photos below.
Before the reforms -- as that 1943 advertisement showed -- the initiates were indeed often restrained helplessly in wooden stocks for their "punishment" haircuts and for their ritual paddlings for supposedly entering the equatorial zone without the permission of Neptune, the ancient god of the sea. Most warships headed for the equator seemed to have carried several sets of wooden stocks to restrain young polliwogs for their initiation haircuts.
Here's the actual news photograph which apparently gave the artist the idea for that 1943 soft drink ad. Just a few months before that soft drink ad appeared, this news photograph in late 1942 showed a sailor on a U.S. aircraft carrier locked in wooden stocks, getting his initiation haircut while crossing the equator.
One scholarly journal explains that "the men, in anticipation of this ritual, buy and store the stocks on board before the ship departs. Sometimes these items are kept for 5 or 6 months before the ritual.
So far, the initiation victim on the right still has his hair intact. But in another ten minutes, he'll be bald. Below him we can plainly see the piece of wet canvas fire hose that was traditionally used during these Neptune rituals to paddle initiates.
"There was someone called the Royal Executioner. . . . His costume consisted of a black hood with eye slots, tattered dungarees and a fire hose paddle in either hand. . . . He looked like a psychotic nightmare.
"The Slimiest Wog from each division would appear before the company of Shellbacks, and present the Royal Executioner with his summons. The crowd would hear the charges and call out the required number of strokes to the victim’s backside as they knelt on all fours before the executioner."
A book about destroyer life during WWII says that on the USS Macdonough during WWII, there was one sailor who somehow managed to escape the haircut portion of his Neptune Day initiation. Shipmates said he was very vain about his hair and mustache. "The rest of us Pollywogs who suffered through the initiation haircuts questioned the Shellbacks about their seeming lack of concern.
"Months later . . . the night before entering San Francisco Bay, the Shellbacks captured this no-haircut pollywog, cut off all his hair, and shaved off one sideburn and half his mustache."
The nude sailor below is forced to kneel before Neptune's "Royal Court" to receive his sentence and to be told what his day-long punishment will be. The following written account from 1945 shows just how tough those "crossing the line" initiations could be in those days.
"Many of those initiation indignities came in the form of punishment for crimes you will not find listed in Black’s Law Dictionary.
"One seaman was charged with threatening to steal the line of the equator for a kite string."
Some World War Two ships held a "Wog Dog Auction," in which the pollywogs were auctioned off as dogs to veteran Shellbacks. Their "masters" put collars and rope leashes on them and made them crawl around the decks all day, performing dog tricks whenever ordered to do so . . . such as rolling over, marking their territory by peeing on the legs of fellow initiates, and simulating sex with other pollywog dogs on leashes . . . while their "master" whipped them along with a piece of fire hose.
One scholarly journal quotes a veteran sailor thusly: "When you’re a Shellback you can pick one or two 'wog dogs' as your personal slaves. You put them on a leash and run them around the ship. And I had this guy . . . . I often had him screwing or getting screwed by other wogs . . . ."
But even the other Wogs who weren't on leashes and collars were still subjected to what was called "wog sex." The article in a university publication says prior to 1990, "throughout the ceremony, Shellbacks simulate anal or oral sex with the pollywogs. . . . [and] in several accounts shellbacks ordered pollywogs to simulate oral and anal sex with each other.
When ordered to simulate sex with their fellow initiates, if they didn't "hump" vigorously and realistically enough, they were whipped with fire hoses while they humped to spur them on.
The scholarly articles all agree that -- surprisingly -- even the straight guys were perfectly OK with the simulated sex with other men . . . because they could assure themselves that they were not doing it voluntarily . . . that it was required as a centuries-old Navy tradition. As long as the initiates could say they were only doing it because they were forced to do so -- while being whipped -- as part of their deliberate humiliation during the world's most macho initiation . . . then it was perfectly OK on this one special day.
It was one of the biggest attractions of the initiation. One initiate described his humiliating day as a "wog dog" this way:
He said the Shellback who had won him in the Wog Dog Auction and had him on a leash said to him : “Wog Smith, since you are such good friends with Wog Jones, I want you to mount him. NOW!”
"It was a command that was always suicide to refuse. So I began to dry-hump my friend to the amused hoots and catcalls from the gathered crowd of Shellbacks. This went on for about five minutes before I was relieved by a Shellback who allowed us to switch positions. Now, I was the humpee, so my friend mounted me and went to town at it.. This went on for another five minutes. Eventually we were allowed to stop -- after a few more whacks with the paddle for a great performance."
All the scholarly articles agree that "on any other day, such homoerotic behavior would be severely punished by the Navy -- but on Shellback initiation day everyone winked at it . . . and everyone enjoyed watching."
Or at least they did until the reforms in the 1990s.
Oldtime Navy guys universally deny that it was ever homoerotic. "It's never gay when you're forcing them to do it solely to humiliate them," said one Shellback.. "There's nothing more humiliating than for a straight man to be forced to simulate sex with another man. It's the ultimate humiliation. And the Shellback initiation is all about humiliation -- all about finding out whether he's man enough to endure a little public embarrassment."
"It's the same reason so many freshman initiations in high schools and colleges routinely force their initiates to dress in women's clothes . . . and then take them to the shopping mall and force them to parade around in their dresses," said another Shellback. "They do it because the ultimate humiliation is seeing some tough football player wearing a girl's dress.in public."
The Navy's Shellback initiations likewise humiliated their initiates by forcing them to dress in drag for the so-called "Wog Beauty Pageant" prior to the 1990s -- as in the photo on the right. . But they also kicked up the embarrassment to an even higher level by then forcing them to dry-hump each other in front of a crowd of paddle-wielding Shellbacks.
Some observers insist that, instead of being homoerotic, the pre-1990 ritual actually was quite the opposite -- blatantly homophobic -- that the Shellbacks forced the initiates to simulate homosexual acts precisely because that's the one thing that would embarrass them more than anything else.
A university article quotes one Navy veteran as saying: “It’s got to be tough, it’s got to be embarrassing, just so you can say, ‘Yeah, I did it, I went through it,' Every old Navy guy wants to go through the ordeal."
As a way to entice the initiates into donning women's dresses, the Shellbacks would promise that whichever pollywog won the beauty contest would be exempt from all the other degrading ordeals and would get to watch his buddies getting humiliated. But unbeknownst to the pollywogs, the joke was on them.
In reality the winner of the Wog Beauty Contest ended up being punished and humiliated even more than all the other guys . . . still wearing his dress.
On a Navy landing craft support ship in the South Pacific in 1943, a young initiate on his knees, with part of his hair shaved off, is forced to use his tongue to extract an olive from the greased-up belly button of a veteran Shellback posing as "The Royal Baby," while everyone watches..
And then swallow it.
Widely viewed as a simulation of oral sex, this was a standard part of the Shellback initiation, enacted on virtually every Navy ship that crossed the equator during the war.
By the end of World War Two, hundreds of thousands of young sailors and Marines had enacted this embarrassing ritual with their tongues -- an experience they never forgot for the rest of their lives..
As one veteran Shellback said, "That's what the initiation was all about -- exquisite humiliation."
The initiate below has a steel collar bolted around his neck, while his wrists and head are locked into wooden stocks. He's being led around on a chain by a shellback wielding a whip made of fire hose while he waits to go under the clippers. His fellow initiate on the far right has already been given a reverse Mohawk. The guy in the stocks (below) is about to get the same treatment with the clippers. Another initiate (2nd from the right) awaits his turn in the stocks .
Notice that in this photo, all the initiates are forced to wear the striped clothing of chain gang convicts, marking them for abuse -- and for chaining..
A university publication quotes one veteran sailor as saying of his initiation: "They would give you orders. You are a slave—-someone with no authority whatsoever. So I would get behind this guy and I’d be like this, having [simulated] sex with him [as ordered] , and everyone would be laughing and stuff. . . . : It was humiliation, but it seemed OK, because everyone else was going through it."
This young Marine -- with a rope leash around his neck -- is forced to crawl around the deck in the garbage while his buddies whip him with sections of wet canvas fire hose.
He may have a Marine Corps high-and-tight haircut now, but he'll soon be relieved of the rest of his hair.
Nobody ever said this was an easy initiation. As one Navy veteran said with a grin, "This is a sublime form of hazing."
Others, like the initiate being tormented below, were humiliated by being required to wear women's clothes while undergoing the day-long hazing.
On many ships, initiates were required to strip to their underpants, which had to be worn backwards and inside-out for the entire day -- to add to the humiliation and to make the constant paddlings sting more. Sometimes the initiates were stripped completely naked for their ordeals, as you will see below..
Notice the crude Mohawks that have been inflicted on the initiates in the background.
In this photo, a grinning, newly inducted shellback with a reverse Mohawk shows off his initiation haircut. He has been forced to wear his underpants backwards.
The "crossing the line" initiates were intensely proud of their humiliating haircuts, because for two or three weeks, the haircuts provided strong visual proof to everyone on shipboard that they had been man enough to endure this rite of passage. The haircuts -- frequently including crude Mohawks -- were a badge of courage to be worn proudly.
Judging by his grin, this guy appears to have come through the ordeal with flying colors.
In this scene, which appears to be on a merchant marine ship, the initiate has his wrists tied behind his back with rope as he kneels to receive his initiation head shave.
It's possible this haircut victim is already a veteran shellback from a previous initiation -- because part of the standard ritual is that -- the day before the initiation -- the polywogs are expected to stage a "revolt." They are allowed to capture any veteran shellbacks and, in the words of one victim, "tie them up and do anything to them that they want to." The shellbacks willingly submit. It;s part of the fun, and the veteran shellbacks are disappointed if the "wogs" don't revolt and initiate the shellbacks too. It's revenge in advance for the punishment the "wogs" know will be inflicted on them tomorrow.
So by the end of the second day, everyone has been initiated -- polywogs and shellbacks alike. And it's all in fun. Ever since the ship left port, both sides have eagerly looked forward to this two-day ritual -- with the two sides initiating each other. And there are a lot of crude Mohawks on both sides.
In the photo below, a veteran shellback restrains the hands of the polywog below while the Royal Barber shaves his head. The bald headed "wogs" on the right have already lost their hair.
These U.S. Marines ended up with these initiation haircuts when they crossed the Equator enroute to the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific during World War Two (1944).
There heads have been shaven to spell out "Victory USMC."
The virtual sea of egg-bald heads shown below was likewise the result of a World War Two shellback initiation. A memorable war story they can tell their grandchildren about.
In a typical equitorial initiation, at the end of the day there were enough shorn locks lying on the deck to stuff a dozen mattresses. But the initiates cherished the experience for the rest of their lives as one of the most memorable parts of their service at sea. For years afterward they loved to recount stories of the tough, day-long humiliations they endured.
The obvious question: Why -- back in the days before the Navy's anti-hazing crackdown -- would hundreds of thousands of young sailors and Marines have voluntarily submitted to all those painful floggings, humiliating haircuts, and other horribly embarrassing degradations?
Perhaps the answer can be found in one initiate's description of his ordeal posted online:
"I heard the sound of people getting hit with [fire hoses] down the line, working its way toward me. . . . WHACK! The [fire hose] went right up the crack of my ass and just barely caught my scrotum. My anger exploded.
"Heedless of the rules I jumped up and grabbed my assailant. . . . 'Calm down,' said one of the paddle-wielding Shellbacks. 'it’s just a game.'”
In other words, the whole ritual was just a huge, elaborate role-playing game . . . in which both the perpetrators and the victims willingly and enthusiastically played their assigned parts. Most of the victims said later they wouldn't have wanted to miss the exciting ritual even if they could . . . even though their butts were sore for a week.
In those days, the game was played out in an elaborate, carefully scripted psycho-drama.that lasted a full week leading up to initiation day. Beginning a week beforehand, the veteran Shellbacks began teasing their future victims relentlessly with hints of all the degradations they would soon be inflicting on them. .
They began showing the initiates the women's dresses that some of them would soon be ordered to don.
On deck, there was much hammering and nailing, as the initiates had to watch veteran Shellbacks assembling the wooden stocks that would soon restrain the initiates for their head-shavings and floggings. The Shellbacks began taunting the victims, warning them they'd have to wear the Mohawks and other humiliating haircuts they were about to receive for at least a week so everyone could see them and tease them about the haircuts.. And, in the ultimate act of humiliation, they taunted them that, as straight men, they'd be ordered to simulate sex acts with their buddies while the whole ship's crew watched.
Hey, nobody ever said this was an easy initiation.
While the future initiates looked on with growing trepidation, the veteran Shellbacks spent the entire week fashioning old fire hoses into paddles -- wrapping them with twine, waxing them, and stiffening them with salt water so they would really sting the butts of the pollywogs. .
Then -- the day before the initiation -- came the strangest, the most hard to explain part of the weeklong psycho-drama -- the "Wog Rebellion."
The veteran Shellbacks expected . . . no, demanded . . . that the "wogs" (pollywogs) must mount a massive rebellion . . . in which the soon-to-be-initiated victims must capture the veteran Shellbacks, tie them up, "interrogate" them (what today we would call "enhanced interrogation -- i.e. "torture").
Why? Well, just because . . . you know . . . that's the way the "game" has been played for centuries.
In other words, the Shellbacks offered themselves as victims -- willingly submitting to a preview of the very same tortures that, tomorrow morning, they would be inflicting on the pollywogs. So before the next 48 hours was over, both sides got initiated. Result: the Shellbacks got re-initiated every time there was a new crop of pollywogs . . . over and over and over again. Ouch!!! .
The pollywogs gleefully and enthusiastically stage their rebellion . . . even though they know that, by tradition, the daring leader of the "Wog Revolt" will be whipped even harder than the others at tomorrow's initiation.
Actually it probably was a brilliant move on the part of the Shellbacks. Because, by demonstrating that they themselves were man enough to submit repeatedly to the tortures, it demonstrated very powerfully to the initiates that "hey, it's just a fun game. Just a guy thing" . . . even if it's painful. It adds two days of fun to what would otherwise be a very long, boring voyage to the South Pacific. Something both sides look forward to with excitement.
One university study said, as with other ritual celebrations of manhood, "it is considered a proud and necessary rite of passage, one that should be secretive and guarded." The author said "All of the men I interviewed who had participated in it were very hesitant to reveal any of the details, whether risqué or not. . . ." Which is why some Old Salts will not be happy that the most shocking of these historic, archival initiation photos reached the public.
The academic study continues: "Rites of passage culminate with bonding between the initiates, which would not be possible without a certain amount of [secrecy]. Also, the gender bending and sexual play, which are explored in the context of the ritual, were protected by this [secrecy]."
HERE'S ONE OF THE BEST FIRST-HAND DESCRIPTIONS OF THE SEMI-SECRET INITIATION RITUAL -- FROM THE WARTIME DIARY OF AN AMERICAN SAILOR:
It's from a book called "Pacific War Diary, 1942-1945: The Secret Diary of an American Sailor." by James Fahey. The book jacket says Seaman First Class Fahey defied the Navy's wartime security regulations "by surreptitiously compiling a diary on scraps of paper." Fahey's warship -- the light cruiser Montpelier -- was in some of World War Two's most brutal sea battles, frequently attacked by enemy dive bombers.. The book jacket calls it "one of the most extraordinary personal documents to emerge from the war."His "secret diary" provides a vivid description of a December 1944 initiation upon crossing the equator:en route to the Battle of Luzon.
". . . They cut the poor polliwog's hair off in big chunks, and when they get through with him, you would think the moths were at it. Boy, what a mess! He might just as well have all his hair cut off. After the haircut, his head is covered with machine grease. A special group of Shellbacks were dressed like pirates. . . . They carried long clubs the size of a baseball bat, made of canvass and full of rags and cotton soaked in salt water. When you got hit with one of these, you felt it. .
"Everyone was really enjoying the show. . . . The Royal Barber was next to work on the polliwog. They really chopped his hair. It will take months for it to grow back right. When they finished chopping his hair, they covered his head with catsup and mustard and broke eggs over it. . . . They did many other funny things to the poor polliwogs before it was over.
"The last thing the polliwog had to do was get on their hands and knees and crawl through a long line of men on both sides of them, about 50 altogether. They really warmed the rear ends of the poor polliwogs with their wet canvas clubs. . . .
"One kid only about 18 yrs old felt very funny, because he only had a pair of girl's pink panties on, and his face was made up with lipstick. He really looked like a girl. If his parents could have seen him, they would have died laughing.
"The ones who had their rear ends paddled could not sit down for a week. . If you were watching that ritual, you would never know there was a war on. Everyone had a great time except the poor polliwogs -- and they really had a rough time. It was a really tough initiation.All the other ships in our task force did the same thing [to the polliwogs]."
DESPITE THE HUMILIATIONS, AN ENDLESS NUMBER OF FIRST-HAND ACCOUNTS TESTIFY THAT, INSTEAD OF RESENTING IT, THE GUYS BEING INITIATED ACTUALLY RELISHED THE EXPERIENCE:
Like this account in a scholarly journal: "In 1998, aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, I experienced my first “crossing.” initiation. . . . I was subjected to a feast of humiliation. I was treated as the lowest of low by my fellow shipmates and made to do degrading things, such as rolling in garbage and eating rotten food; I was ridiculed and suffered mock beatings. Yet the experience is one of the richest memories of my life. . . .
"I was brought before the Royal Barber. Blind-folded and disoriented, I was placed in a line with my fellow “pollywogs” and led along the outside of the ship with many of King Neptune’s minions surrounding me, taunting me mercilessly. Brought to a halt, my blindfold was removed, and the scene before me was ridiculous. The Royal
Barber and his assistant were standing on a stage . . . .
"I heard a buzzing sound and a huge patch
of my hair was shaved off. The barber took his time and carved out a Mohawk in the shape of a phallic symbol into my head. . . . I stood up, and the numerous Shellbacks who milled about to watch the show, began to cackled and howl at my new haircut. I was subjected to a few seconds of ridicule, and then was blindfolded again and led to the next stage of my initiation., . . .
"Why, after having experienced this degrading, humiliating and down-right disgusting ritual, do I not feel sullied? Why am I not angry with my shipmates for treating me so poorly? . . . Probably the most rational explanation, though, is that I didn’t want to let my shipmates down. . . . By taking every torture that they could invent and by suffering every humiliation, I told them, “You can trust me. . . . "
AN ONLINE BLOG PROVIDES A FIRST-HAND EXPLANATION OF WHY OLD NAVY SALTS REALLY LOVED THOSE SHELLBACK INITIATIONS BACK WHEN THEY WERE REALLY TOUGH . . . BEFORE THE ANTI-HAZING REFORMS:
This Navy veteran -- whose father also served in the Navy -- says he deeply regrets that he'll never have a chance to get flogged with a fire hose and have his head shaved into a Mohawk like his dad did. Because his dad had never talked about his initiation ordeal until his son found his secret stash of initiation photos, it illustrates the traditional secrecy with which Navy men fiercely protected the ritual from disapproving eyes. The son writes:
"I first heard about the Shellback Ceremony when I was eleven years old and I came across this old black and white Navy photo in my dad's drawer. One of the shipboard photos showed a line of men on their hands and knees, head to butt, crawling through two rows of standing men. The guys standing over them them were holding what looked like cut-up fire hoses.
"The crawling men had their names written on their white tee shirts, with the word “wog” added to it [short for "Pollywog"]. When I read the name "Cudywog" on the initiate about to be whipped with the fire hose, my heart skipped a beat. I wondered if he could be my dad because “Cudy” was his Navy nickname. Upon closer inspection and seeing the head of thick black hair [about to be shaven], I knew it was him. .
“Pa! Pa!” I excitedly yelled. I hesitantly touched his arm to get his attention, not sure if he’d be annoyed that I was bothering him. He started at my touch, and I had to stifle the urge to giggle.
“What?” he grumbled as he reached for the TV remote control to lower the volume.
"I held the picture out and asked, “What were you doing here?” He took the picture from me and stared at it for a few seconds then broke out in a smile, all hints of grouchiness gone.
“Flogged? Doesn’t that mean getting beat?”
“Yup, I was getting beat with fire hoses.” I heard the pride in his voice.
“But why?” Confused, my eleven-year old self did not understand why he seemed happy about it.
“My ship was crossing the equator, and sailors who’ve never crossed become Shellbacks. It’s a type of initiation. Not only were we beat, we had to crawl through a tunnel full of garbage, get our heads shaved, and then had to kiss a fat guy’s belly.”
"Aghast, I asked again, “Why?”
"My dad laughed at the expression on my face as he simply answered, “Because it’s Navy tradition.”
"A few weeks later, some of my father’s shipmates came over for dinner and the topic of being Shellbacks came up. My mother, siblings, and I listened in fascinated horror and amusement as they swapped stories.
"Their stories were about having their head shaved, wearing women’s make-up with a mop head as a wig, and being whipped with fire hoses. They all told how they had to kiss the Royal Baby’s bare belly. He was usually the fattest guy on the ship, and he would grab their ears and rub their faces into his belly as they bent to kiss it. Usually the belly was greased with cooking oil, mustard and ketchup, or leftover mashed potatoes and gravy.
" Another one of my father’s shipmates told us, that on his ship, they had to suck a maraschino cherry out of the Royal Baby’s belly button, eat it, and then kiss the belly. We all laughed and groaned as we tried to finish our dinner.
"Many years later when I was stationed onboard the USS Wasp (LHD-1), I was a bit disheartened to learn that none of our deployments would take us across the equator. As crazy as it sounds, I would have loved to have gone through a Crossing the Line Ceremony and earn the title of being a “Shellback.”
"I recently called a friend of mine who became a Shellback in 2012. He told me that because of recent hazing policies, they were now “flogged” with greased socks filled with rags. And the Royal Barber didn’t shave their heads anymore but colored their hair with a washable dye. .
"As I complained on the phone about the “kinder, gentler” Navy, I saw my ten-year-old son, Elijah, curiously looking at me. As soon as I said goodbye and hung up the phone, Elijah asked, “What was that about?”
"After admonishing him for being nosy, I told him all about the Crossing the Line Ceremony and what Pollywogs had to do to become a Shellback. I even got out my laptop and googled “Shellback Ceremony” and pictures of Pollywogs and Shellbacks popped up. We laughed and “eewwwed” together as we scrolled through the images. I told him that “Papa” had been a Shellback, and I wish that I had had the honor to be one.
"I felt a sense of déjà vu coming on when wide-eyed and in disbelief, Elijah asked, “Why?”
"And like my father those many, many years ago, I simply answered, “Because it’s Navy tradition.”
SHORTLY AFTER WORLD WAR TWO, WHEN AMERICAN FOOTBALL TEAMS BEGAN USING THE MOHAWK AS AN INITIATION HAIRCUT, THEY ALMOST CERTAINLY GOT THE IDEA FROM THOSE "CROSSING THE LINE" HAIRCUTS . . . AND FROM THE WORLD WAR TWO PARATROOPER MOHAWKS.
As when the 1950 University of Nebraska football team -- five years after the war -- shaved initiation Mohawks into the heads of all their sophomore players. . .
SOME CIVILIAN CRUISE SHIPS AND 'SEMESTER AT SEA" STUDENT SHIPS LOVED THE NAVY'S "CROSSING THE LINE" INITIATIONS SO MUCH, THEY VOLUNTARILY COPIED THEM
Yup . . . Ironically, just as the military was toning down the Shellback initiations considerably to avoid the criticism of anti-hazing reformers, the civilian passengers on many cruise ships -- especially university cruise ships providing students with a semester at sea -- were happily launching their own civilian versions of the "crossing the equator" initiation ritual -- for both passengers and crew. .
Thousands of civilians on cruise ships and student ships began lining up to volunteer to submit to "Crossing the Line" haircut hazing . . . including hundreds and hundreds of women..
So just as the Navy was deciding that initiation haircuts amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, civilians in droves were deciding the exact opposite . . . that initiation haircuts were actually . . . well, great fun!!!
Student cruise ships now take special pains to include the exciting head shaving ritual -- but only for those brave civilians who volunteer.to be shaved bald.
Like this woman who proudly holds up the long tresses that the clippers have just stripped from her head.
Brave woman!!! Hey, you look kind of sexy with a bald head!!!
The Neptune Day head-shave is one of the most eagerly anticipated days of the entire student cruise. Contrary to what the anti-hazing reformers would have you believe, these passengers feel the equatorial initiation head-shave is a hallowed sea-going tradition, and they don't want to be deprived of a chance to endure it like the old-time sailors did.
END OF AN ERA
When anti-hazing reformers in the mid-1990s -- and the later arrival of women on battleships -- caused the Navy to crack down on a lot of the more shocking (and painful) parts of the "Crossing the Line" ritual . . .
. . . it meant the end of an era.
And the end of a major era in the birth and popularization of the Mohawk haircut, which had been inflicted on thousands (tens of thousands?) of initiates during and immediately after the Second World War.
Those who love and admire the Mohawk haircut as a sign of toughness may perhaps look back on the passing of the really tough "Crossing the Line" initiation with just a touch of sadness . . . .
. . . as do the "Old Navy Salts" who still to this day bitterly lament that by taming the initiation and civilizing it, the Navy has deprived them of a really tough test of manhood that every Old Navy guy was intensely proud of enduring. For more then four centuries, it was a deeply cherished part of Navy life.
The anti-hazing reformers will spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out why in the world so many of the younger men joining the Navy today are intensely disappointed that they will never have a chance to experience that profound bonding experience.
The bewildered anti-hazing reformers are probably muttering to themselves: "But we thought we were doing you a favor."
(IF YOU MISSED PARTS ONE & TWO OF "THE FUN OF INITIATION HAIRCUTS" . . . CLICK HERE.)
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