Saturday, February 26, 2011

A break and a sea story

SAN DIEGO – Recently, these columns have been somewhat formulaic, and there were some people and things back home, who and which I wanted to mention.

But now I want a break and tell a sea story, which, by the way, can never happen again.

In the autumn of 1979, I was required to leave my Brigadoon, actually Texas A&M after almost four years. I was a single lieutenant commander, the senior Naval officer in the Marine-oriented NROTC unit, and an associate professor. The Aggies love the military and accordingly, held me in high esteem.

But duty called. I came to the Southwest corner for a month’s course in tactics before reporting to Amphibious Squadron Five as the staff current operations officer.

Joining the squadron was no mean feat. I flew to Los Angeles, boarded a Military Airlift Command chartered airliner departing that afternoon. At midnight, we stopped in Anchorage, Alaska where a young woman on her way to join her husband in the Philippines traversed from the aircraft to the terminal and back in short shorts and a halter top in 25-degree temperature.

After a snack, we re-boarded for our trek to Fukyoka, Japan; Okinawa; and finally Clark Air Force Base on Luzon: 26 hours with about three hours of sunlight. After a 60-mile bus ride without air-conditioning (the equivalent of a three-hour sauna) from Clark to Subic Bay, I lazed for a day before taking a 14-hour flight to Melbourne, Australia, where I caught a six-hour flight to Hobart, Tasmania.

Needless to say, I was beat. I reported aboard the flagship, U.S.S. Tripoli and was told the squadron would get underway the next morning. As much as I wanted to visit Hobart, I remained aboard and hit my rack (that’s Navy for going to sleep).

The next morning, the ships got underway. I began the process of relieving Lt. Cmdr. Conrad Borman. We spent a week in Sydney, Australia and another in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on our voyage north.

Two days after standing out of Port Moresby, we celebrated “Crossing the Line.”

For centuries, crossing the equator has been a sailor’s concoction of initiation, high jinks, hazing, and a break from the tedium of life at sea. Those who have crossed the equator before are initiated “shellbacks.” For those making such a passage for the first time, they are reviled as “pollywogs.” Although I had been at sea for nearly a decade, I remained a pollywog, until that day.

Normally, being a pollywog is a group thing. But the flagship had crossed the line on its way to Australia, and almost 2,000 pollywogs had magically become shellbacks and were anxious to initiate the new pollywogs when the ship re-crossed the equator. The new pollywogs consisted of 100 brand new enlisted Marines, and one Navy lieutenant commander.

Guess who got the most attention.

But Conrad promised he would look after me during the day-long initiation. For about three hours, he held to that promise, escorting me through donning my uniform inside out, limiting my weird breakfast concoction, ensuring the shillelaghs (Irish clubs, but made out of fire hose for the Navy ceremony) weren’t wielded with too much enthusiasm, and limiting my time “kissing the bosun’s belly” where a shellback rubbed the pollywog’s face into his very large, greased belly.

As I started my 40-yard crawl through the garbage chute, Conrad Borman was called to decrypt an incoming top-secret message. Although spent, I crawled through the yuk fast, anxious to get to the cargo net, where I would be hoisted with four or five of the Marine pollywogs and washed off with a fire hose spray, ending the ordeal.

But the shellbacks had other ideas for this inverse khaki clad officer. They rerouted me back to the start. I went through the route three more times before Conrad returned for my rescue.

Today’s Navy is not a raucous as it was then. Political correctness and women at sea have down graded such rough-housing frolic to wimpdom. There is no question, today’s Navy is much more capable and efficient, but I wouldn’t fit in.

And today’s sailors won’t have much of a sea story when they “cross the line."


  1. Interesting Post, Mr. Jewell, I like seeing different views of the age old practice as it has been applied throughout the years. WWII initiations seem to have, depending on the ship and war footing, been dulled a bit too. Thank you for this post!

    Incidentally, I had the opportunity to be escorted off Tripoli! Back in 2003, I wandered aboard when she was pier side at Mare Island. I had my cameras around my neck and looked like a tourist. No one was at the head of the gangplank so I walked across the hangar deck to a group of men having lunch. I asked what they were doing to her. They looked like they had been jumped by a group of terrorists instead of an unarmed man with camera. I was politely escorted off the ship and told nothing, but later, down the pier, a dock worker told me they were fitting her out for missile tests. So much for security!

    You can see a couple pictures I took then and later, here:
    (they have my name next to them)