King Neptune Ceremony

Crossing the equator ceremonies; at sea November 1928.

The United States Navy has long stood on traditions.  These traditions reinforce the discipline needed to keep the crew’s morale high and their mission focused.  One such tradition is the King Neptune ceremony when crossing the equator aboard ship.  An experienced sailor dresses as Neptune; another cross-dresses as Queen Amphitrite, a third appears as Davy Jones.  They form a kangaroo court to sit in judgment of those who have not yet crossed the equator.

Those who have never crossed the equator on a ship, pollywogs in the Neptunian parlance, must prove their seaworthiness by enduring a series of physical trials at the hands of their more experienced crewmates.  These may include, but are not limited to: wearing clothes backwards or inside out, drinking the royal tonic—a concoction of hot sauce, salt-water and alcohol, running a gauntlet while the crew strikes you, and surviving repeated dunking underwater.  Once the pollywogs have proven themselves by surviving the hazing, they are then initiated into the kingdom of Neptune as shellbacks.  Upon completion of the ceremony, the shellback is given an ornate certificate awarding him all the rights and privileges due a seasoned sailor.

Herbert and Lou Hoover and many of the Maryland crew, having crossed the equator before, were shellbacks; so they served as audience to the trial of the uninitiated.  The pollywogs numbered more than thirty, consisting largely of members of the press, but also including Allan Hoover, Ruth Fesler—Mrs. Hoover’s secretary, and Kosta Boris—Mr. Hoover’s man.  All pollywogs faced specific charges before the royal high court of Neptune.  George Akerson was charged with spreading malicious propaganda.  Berkeley Philips was charged with malingering in sick bay to avoid the ceremony.  Allan Hoover was charged with attempting to burn a man’s tonsils with a magnifying glass. Ruth Fesler was accused of flirting with King Neptune.  James Wright stood trial for baiting a fish hook with candy in hopes of catching a mermaid.  Kosta Boris faced charges of attempting to Balkanize King Neptune.

King Neptune and his admirers, at sea, November 1928.

Facing these charges, the pollywogs had no hope when facing King Neptune.  Neptune’s address must have shivered their timbres: ‘Give me your landlubbers Captain Kimberley.  I’m here to make men of them.  Get your sea legs, ye land dogs, and approach me.  If you pass our tests, you will soon be initiated into our order of sturdy shellbacks. Approach and pledge loyalty to the traditions of our realm.’  Nevertheless, they endured, becoming shellbacks and doubtless enjoying the privileges of hazing the next group.  This is how traditions endure.

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