A World War II sailor told me about the goofy rite of passage he went through when he crossed the Equator on his way to fight the Japanese. His name is Mathias F. Gutman, and he’s ninety-seven years old.
“Matt” was aboard a landing ship, tank (LST) and was coxswain on one of its two Higgins boats. My interview with him about landing troops on enemy-held islands appeared a few days ago, on September 4, in The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Matt said that after leaving Pearl Harbor, his ship sailed southwest to parts unknown. Days passed, and then the skipper announced to all hands:
“Within two days, we are going to cross the Equator. Most of you crew members have never done that. You are known as pollywogs, the slime and the scum of the sea. Now you are going to enter the realm of King Neptune and the mysteries of the deep, and you’re going to be initiated to become a shellback.”
The day before the crossing, each pollywog received a written summons of trumped-up charges from King Neptune that read:
USS LST-553 on entering Domain of Neptunus Rex
Notice and Listen Ye Landlubber
I order and command you to appear before me and my court on the morrow to be initiated in the mysteries of my Empire. If not, you shall be given as food for sharks, whales, pollywogs, frogs, and all living things of the sea, who will devour your head, body and soul, as a warning to all Landlubbers entering my domain without warrant.
Matt’s summons charged him with being associated with boatswain mates and getting pie-eyed in San Diego. It was read aloud to Davy Jones and his court. Of course, like everyone else, Matt was found guilty and had to undergo the ritual.
The next day, July 25, 1944, the ship crossed both the International Date Line and the Equator, which meant the sailors would be “golden shellbacks” because of their simultaneous entry into the realm of the Golden Dragon. On board, the skull-and-crossbones flag was raised, and the initiation began. It was carried out by sailors who were already shellbacks.
Matt was nineteen at the time. He laughed about the ritual as he told how it went.
“In the first stage, you had to walk through a paddle line where the guys slammed your butt. If you ran through, you had to come back again, and they really gave it to you. The second stage was the dentist. He politely sat us down in the chair and said, ‘Open your mouth wide. I want to check your teeth, your gums.’ And while we had our heads way back, he squirted some bitter solution into our mouths. It stayed with us most of the day.
“The third stage was the barber. He sat us down and said, ‘How would you like to have your hair? A regular cut? A trim?’ Before you could answer him, he grabbed these big sheet-metal shears and cut chunks out of your hair. He said, ‘Now you have to have a shampoo.’ He had a big GI can full of dehydrated eggs mixed up with saltwater. It was really gooey. He grabbed a big wad of that with both hands and plunked it down on your head and massaged it in there, and all this was dripping down your face and the back of your neck.
“The fourth was the water tank about four foot deep. It had three steps going up to the top with a landing, where they had a folding metal chair. They sat us on that chair with our backs to the water tank. The shellbacks asked us a lot of nautical questions. When we gave the wrong answer, they gave us a shock. That chair was wired to a battery under the platform.
“Then they tilted the chair backwards, and we fell back into the tank. Two shellbacks with hoses sprayed us with saltwater. Two other guys dunked us in the water and said, ‘What are you?’ We didn’t know. They kept doing that. Then finally one guy said, ‘Tell them that you’re a shellback.’ And we hollered ‘Shellback!’ And that’s when they stopped. And that’s when the ceremony ended.
“It was entered into our records that we were golden shellbacks.”
My dad was in the Coast Guard in World War II, a radio operator on patrol frigates in the North Atlantic. He was nineteen. The two ships he served aboard collected weather data and could be called on to rescue fliers whose planes had ditched or crashed.
Like Matt’s skipper and many others, the commanding officer on the USS Sheboygan had some fun with his crew. At one point while Dad was at sea in 1945-46, he got a “certificate of rugged duty” that reads in part:
Know all you present that Venditta, Carmine has completely knocked himself out on at least two Weather Patrols aboard the USS Sheboygan. He was there, and he went back.
Upon presentation of this Certificate, he is hereby entitled to discuss the weather at length.
Dad died in 2004. He had kept the original certificate among his Coast Guard records, a reminder of camaraderie at sea when the world was in flames.
The sentiment is the same for that onetime pollywog, Matt Gutman.