Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Myths and Legends: Memories of Pollywogs and Shellbacks

Two of my favorite books in High school were Edith Hamilton's Mythology and Homer's Odyssey. Something about the man versus the gods story within a story continues to draw me back to Homer.

Then Zeus, the cloud-gatherer, answered him, and said: “Ah me, thou shaker of the earth, wide of sway, what a thing hast thou said! The gods do thee no dishonor; hard indeed would it be to assail with dishonor our eldest and best. But as for men, if any one, yielding to his might and strength, fails to do thee honor in aught, thou mayest ever take vengeance, even thereafter. Do as thou wilt, and as is thy good pleasure.”
Then Poseidon, the earth-shaker, answered him: “Straightway should I have done as thou sayest, thou god of the dark clouds, but I ever dread and avoid thy wrath. But now I am minded to smite the fair ship of the Phaeacians, as she comes back from his convoy on the misty deep, that hereafter they may desist and cease from giving convoy to men, and to fling a great mountain about their city.”
I loved to think of Odysseus and those sailors, lost for years, on a tiny ship, in a vast wine-dark sea.

The other day I was sorting through a box of old photos and came upon a photo of my Grandfather as a young seaman.

Also in the box I found an old, rolled up certificate from the time when he first crossed the equator. My old friend Wallace Hartley had recently signalled his interest in the subject of Neptune (Gr. Poseidon), Lord of the Sea, and the peculiar initiation rites surrounding the crossing of the equator that sailors must undergo. I sent him a note that I had my Grandfather's original certificate from 1919, and I was asked to post it. This took some doing as my scanner is not big enough to handle the certificate. After several attempts at stitching two images together, here is the final result:

As near as I can make out it reads,
To all Sailors, wherever ye may be, and to all Mermaids, Sea Serpents, Whales, Sharks, Porpoises, Dolphins, Skates, Eels, Suckers, Lobsters, Crabs, Pollywogs and other living things of the sea. GREETING: Know ye that on this First day of February, 1919, in latitude 00,000 and longitude 36, 58', W., there appeared within the limits of Our Royal Domain the U. S. S. Westerdyk. BE IT REMEMBERED That the Vessel and Officers and Crew thereof have been inspected and passed on by Ourself and Our Royal Staff. AND BE IT KNOWN: By all ye Sailors, Marines, Landlubbers and others who may be honored by his Presence that _________, Lt. j.g. U.S.N.R.F. having been found worthy to be numbered as one OF OUR TRUSTY SHELLBACKS, has been gathered to our fold and duly initiated into the SOLEMN MYSTERIES OF THE ANCIENT ORDER OF THE DEEP. BE IT FURTHER UNDERSTOOD: That by virtue of the power invested in me I do hereby command all my subjects to show due honor and respect to him whenever he may enter Our Realm. DISOBEY THIS ORDER UNDER PENALTY OF OUR ROYAL DISPLEASURE. Given under our hand and seal this First day of February, 1919.

DAVY JONES, His Majesty's Scribe


Also in the box was a list of ships on which my grandfather served or commanded as well as various newspaper clippings about his distinguished career. I was surprised to find him considered a "genial" Commander since I remember being scared of him most of the time. At least that was the myth I had created about him, that of the imperious sea captain. I guess a good commander has to instill a certain amount of fear in his crew and in his grandchildren. Another myth busted.

Still, it gave me a smile when I imagined him going through the hazing process as he was inducted into the Order of Neptunus Rex.

Here is a description of the tradition.
"In the U.S. Navy, when a ship crosses the equator a time-honored ceremony takes place. This is a Navy tradition and an event no sailor ever forgets. With few exceptions, those who have been inducted into the "mysteries of the deep" by Neptunus Rex and his Royal court, count the experience as a highlight of their naval career. Members of Neptunus Rex's party usually include Davy Jones, Neptune's first assistant, Her Highness Amphitrite, the Royal Scribe, the Royal Doctor, the Royal Dentist, the Royal Baby, the Royal Navigator, the Royal Chaplain, the Royal Judge, Attorneys, Barbers and other names that suit the party.

Officially recognized by service record entries indicating date, time, latitude and longitude, the crossing of the equator involves elaborate preparation by the "shellbacks" (those who have crossed the equator before) to ensure the "pollywogs" (those who are about to cross the equator for the first time) are properly indoctrinated. All pollywogs, even the Commanding Officer if he has not crossed before, must participate.

A Golden Shellback is one who has crossed the equator at the 180th meridian."

All of this salty history led me to investigate the ship my grandfather was aboard at the time of his meeting with the "Ruler of the Deep." From my copy of Paul Silverstone's U.S. Warships of WWI, I found that the U.S.S. Westerdyk was a transport converted into U.S. naval service with the addition of 5 inch and 4 inch cannons, and returned to civilian ownership in Sept. 1919 (well after the crossing the line ceremony).

The following is an abstract published in the November 1913 issue of International Marine Engineering (p 499) (Google books) that tells us a bit about the ship itself.
"The quadruple screw steamers Oosterdyk and Westerdyk.- These vessels are modern cargo steamers designed by Messrs. Irving’s Shipbuilding and Dry Docks Company, Ltd., West Hartlepool, for the Holland-America Company of Rotterdam. The dimensions are: Length 470 ft; beam, 55 feet; depth, molded to shelter deck, 41 feet 7 ½ inches. The cargo loading and discharging gear is very complete and the accommodations for the officers and crew are fitted out with every possible improvement for the comfort of the personnel at sea, in accordance with the usual practice of the Holland-America Company. The machinery, built by Messrs. Richardsons, Westgarth & Company, Ltd., Hartlepool, consists of quadruple balanced four crank engines with cylinders 27 ½ , 37 ¾, 55 and 84 inches diameter by 60 inches stroke, supplied with steam at 215 pounds pressure by six Scotch boilers. A feature of the engine is the fitting of a Contraflo condenser with its appropriate accessories. A brief description is given of the auxiliary machinery and equipment of the vessels- Engineering, August 29."

One story that my grandfather told about the U.S.S. Westerdyk was how it would pitch and roll while crossing the Atlantic with a hold full of horses bound for the army in France in WWI. On one trip they had problems with the horses not being well cared for by the crew, so on the next trip the Captain found some Quakers to serve as crew (they couldn't fight, but they knew how to take care of horses), and as a result, on that trip they delivered the Army's horses with zero losses, and as an added bonus, they returned with a clean (and sober) ship.

I was able to find one record on-line of one of their journeys that seems to corroborate part of my grandfather's story,

Embarked October 19 1918, disembarked at St Nazaire, 648 animals on board, animals destroyed or died 2, sick or injured 0, Transport Veterinarian 1 st Lt. Eugene L Hannon, Veterinary Hospital No. 13
How often do think of the stories passed down to us as tall tales, legends, or myths? What part of "Honor thy Father and Mother" (Exodus 20:12) do we disobey when we ignore the value of their stories and place our present above the past?

Now if I can just find Grandfather's WWI Victory medal he earned for service aboard the Westerdyk.

And what about that story of how he sank a German submarine with his bare hands?


  1. Excellent. I knew you had it in you.

  2. Thanks for the intriguing history lesson.

    BTW, I know what "USNR" stands for, as my dad was a USNR officer. What about the additional "F" at the end?


  3. Randall,

    "F" Stands for "Force." You will find this on many headstones across the country. I do not know exactly when the "F" was dropped. The Navy Reserve pages have some info on the history of the reserves including the following.

    "On August 19, 1916, with the prospect of World War I looming, the Navy Reserve Force was formally organized, with the first official U.S. Navy Reservists hunting enemy U-boats from the cockpits of biplanes.
    By the summer of 1941, two years after the start of World War II, virtually all members of the Navy Reserve were serving on Active Duty, their numbers destined to swell upon the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In the ensuing four years, the Navy would grow from a force of 383,150 to, at its peak, 3,405,525 — the vast majority of which were Reservists, including five future U.S. presidents."

    In that box of stuff, I found my Grandfather's commissioning certificate from 1942. He played an important role in Gulf coast shipping throughout the war making him a participant in both WWI and WWII.