Pollywogs

When I was young, Dad used to tell the story of the first time he crossed the International Date Line with the Coast Guard, aboard the U.S.S. Chautauqua. Sailors who had never crossed before were called “pollywogs” and had to go through what amounts to a hazing ritual, though they didn’t call it that.

Pollywogs would have to climb through a bag of ship’s garbage, have their faces pushed into another man’s belly covered in used motor oil from the engine room, get sprayed with fire hoses while trying to retrieve their clothes, and become the slave of a “shellback” for a day (a shellback being a sailor who had crossed the IDL before). Officers were not exempt.

Dad and I recently had hours of old 8mm and Super8 family film digitized, and have been working on a DVD, preserving a bunch of family footage before the film completely rots. Amazingly, he had an 8mm camera on board with him during a 1957 crossing, and shot several minutes of footage. Decided this would be a good opportunity to experiment with YouTube, and loaded up the clip.


Pollywogs from Scot Hacker on Vimeo.

The military has cracked down on hazing rituals quite a bit over the decades; I wonder how much of this kind of thing still goes on.

Note: This clip was hosted on YouTube for more than a year, then was mysteriously removed from the service for “Terms of Service” violation. I was never informed about the removal, and all attempts to reach YouTube for an explanation went unanswered. Since there is positively no copyright violation involved in the clip, I have to assume that it was removed after complaints from one or more viewers. My suspicion is that complaints may have come from military personnel not wanting to see the Coast Guard shown in a bad light; but that’s conjecture. Let’s hope it has better luck on Vimeo.

20 thoughts on “Pollywogs

  1. Jim Hacker

    Scot – It was fun seeing the Pollywog iniation on your blog. But I would like to clear up a few things. 1. The ship’s name is spelled Chautauqua [I’ve corrected this in the text, will take more work to correct it in the video. -SFH]. 2. This is not just a Coast Guard ritual. To my knowledge, every ship crossing the International date line has some sort of ritual, each will differ from ship to ship and includes Merchant Marine, Navy, Coast Guard and sometimes even private yachts, but does not include cruise ships that I know of. Some general information that I did not tell you about.

    1. The ship’s garbage was saved for two weeks and put into that large canvas bag that everyone had to crawl into (as seen in the video) and then the bag was picked up and you were shaken around in the bag until you were covered with garbage and gagged with the smell.

    2. When you met with the doctor, (as seen in the video) garbage was forced into your mouth and smeared over your head.

    3. At the court meeting with King Neptune and the royal baby– shows kissing the babys belly which is covered with black grease and graphite and then rubbed all over your body. It is almost impossible to get off. Sometimes taking days to get all of it off. King Neptune would tell you what a worthless piece of slime ball shit you were, unless you successfully completed the ritual and became a Shellback that was worth something.

    4. The last part of the clip did not show it well, but everyone’s dungerees were tied into a large knot about 4 feet around (everyone had their name stenciled on their clothes). You than all ran to the ball of clothes, tried to untie it and find your own clothes, and put them on, all the while two fire hoses were blasting you with salt water with intense pressure that almost washed some people over the side. The water made it almost impossible to untie and being almost blinded by the water didn’t help.

    5. This was a 2 day ceremony that even the Captian and all officers had to go through on their first crossing of the date line. The first day you became a slave to a person that had crossed before and was now a Shellback. You had to do whatever that person wanted for a day. I.E. Bring him his meals, wash his clothes, stand his watch, polish his shoes etc. The second day was the iniation and clean up of the ship.

    6. I did not film the paddling, verbal abuse and lots of other demoralizing minor incidents that went on for two days.

    7. I sincerely doubt that this type of intense ceremony continues today, it must be toned down some, but must continue in some form. It wasn’t much fun, but Hey, I am a SHELLBACK and I will never have to do it again. Hoo Rah.

  2. Jim Hacker

    I was going through some old photos yesterday and found an old Coast Guard newspaper about the U.S.C.G cutter Chautauqua stationed at Sand Island, Oahu , Hawaii, which is where I was at the time. The article mentioned a few things that I forgot which I wanted to add here.

    The Chautauqua W41 is a gun boat 255 feet long and used for weather patrol service on ocean station Victor. This is the point of no return for aircraft and ships in trouble. It is between Hawaii and Japan and is at the point that if a vessel or plane has problems, it is just as far to turn around and go back as it is to continue, and it is usually impossible to continue in either direction. We were there to rescue them and I was a rescue swimmer that would pull people to safety before their craft sank. I never had to do it , except for practice drills. We were in radio contact with all vessels and plans passing through our area going to Hawaii, Japan, Midway Island or the Panama canal. We were a weather station ( way before satelites) and sent out weather reports to all who needed them. These trips lasted for three months with a two-week break in Japan for refueling and recreation (another ship relieved us on station and then we would relieve it.)

    Anyway, on the day of the iniation the elected Sheriff and his deputies would scour the ship and pull pollywogs that were hiding in their lockers and behind crates etc. All Pollywogs made a trip to the ship’s barbers for a custom hair style left only to the imagination. Once the iniation was complete and you became a Shellback or also known as a Golden Dragon, you were now qualified and worthy of the mysteries of the far east.

    Everything else that I remember is just stories and facts about the ship. For a photos go to Google and type in “Coast Guard Cutter Chautauqua”.

  3. Les

    I crossed the dateline in 1993 on the USCGC Steadfast. There is still a ritual performed but not ‘hazing’ it was in your dad’s (or mine CWO4 Richard Bowman an MST who went Bosun when he made Warrant) day.

    The ritual was only one day. We still had the garbage saved, still crawled through it but no slavery or paddlings, they can’t hit you no more. There was still verbal abuse. The only hazing was that less popular people were left on the Forecastle longer than the unpopular people. I realized this when it was down to me and four others including the XO who pretty much no one liked, an epiphinal moment to be sure. After 5 hours in the equitorial sun the ritual seemed like nothing.

    First you were blindfolded, then you crawled through the garbage, then you would be showered with it while beind demanding to sing a song. Then you had to eat something (pickles I think they were but you didn’t know since you were blindfolded) and some more yelling and I believe a squirt or two with a firehose until you were at the feet of King Neptune and declared worthy. Then you could take part in hazing those people left.

    For the most part crossing that line is fairly rare in the CG unless you’re on an ice breaker, a ship out of Hawaii or on a rare cruise like the one I was on. All the 210′ cutters in the Guard were getting upgraded so we travelled from Astoria, Ore to Baltimore, MD to crossdeck from the USCGC Venturous to the Steadfast. A good trip and one I’m glad I made.

  4. John Hacker

    Wow! Awesome footage! I cant believe you guys tracked that down. Good job. That does not look fun AT ALL!!

  5. Les

    I have a friend (also an ex-coastie) who’s now a naval public affairs/historian guy, I’ve emailed him to clarify when these are done I’ll let you know what he says. I thought they were done at the equator, date line/prime meridian. I do know that you’re a Golden shellback if you cross at 0’0′,0’0′ which is the equator and date line.

    Also you can be a ‘square knot’ if you’ve been on all 4 oceans (arctic, atlantic, indian and pacific).

    Finally I emailed Scot a quick scan of my shellback ‘certificate’ but it most likely got flagged as spam. In the meantime though I found out that Photoshop Elements has a neat feature called Photomerge that will merge scans/pics into one photo if they line up so have full images of my Equator and Panama Canal certs up here.

  6. Les

    Looiking at it, Picassa turned down the detail quite a bit on upload, if you want to be able to zoom in on the Equator cert (it’ much more interesting detail/text-wise) you can download it direct here.

  7. Les

    I really don’t mean to spam, seriously.

    OK using the Naval Institute (the place written on my equator cert) here’s a page that lists all the unofficial commemorative certificates the navy issues and their meanins.

  8. shacker Post author

    Beautiful cert, Les, thanks for posting. Dad says:

    “That was quite an impressive certificate. All we got was a wallet size card that was blue and white that did not tempt me to keep it. I guess people weren’t very imaginative in those days. Thanks for sending the copy of the certificate. Tell the owner I will trade him. :) “

  9. shacker Post author

    Les, just wanted to say thanks for all of your comments and additional info on this thread – you’ve helped my family sort out some of the questions that were lost to the vagaries of time. Much appreciated!

  10. Jeb

    OK, I’m suddenly really glad I bailed on my NROTC scholarship! My father was on an aircraft carrier in the mid 50’s. I grew up hearing similar polywog and shellback stories, but only had (approved) black & white photos. This is really shocking footage. Take the video out of the context of men bonding (?) and put it in the context of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.

  11. Michael Belden

    I crossed the international dateline three times aboard the Chautauqua. For two years, from 1969-1961, I was the ships driver while we were moared at Sand Island and, striking for boson’s mate and storekeeper kept me from serving normal watches, though I did stand watch at sea. I loved best the mid-watch, standing aloft in the middle of the night as lookout, seeing the stars, and an occasional, rare, satalite sweeping through the sky. There was a salty old chief boson’s mate I would like to recall if anyone knows his name. It was a great ship with a gallant crew.

  12. Rexford J Hagood

    I was on the Chautauqua from 1963 into 1965 and went from Pollywog to Golden Dragon on the first trip across the IDL. I tried to view the video but got message it was no longer available. Would love to see it. Could it be emailed or is it available on another site?

    My time on the Chautauqua is one of my life’s fondest memories. What an adventure and great way to learn many lessons. Every young man should spend a year or two at sea.

  13. shacker Post author

    Rexford, thanks very much for letting me know that the video has been removed from YouTube for “terms of use violation.” I have contacted YouTube to try and find out why.

  14. C.D. Mee

    I crossed the dateline on Chautauqua on March are April 57 I might have been in those pictures, we even had a olive race.

  15. mike dietrich

    WOW….I was on the Chautaqua in 1965 and made three ocean Victor trips, I very well remember my polly-wag trip, never thought I would see colored vidio of my old ship and the very spot I was made a Golden-Dragon, in 1965 a black and white still camera was all anyone could afford or had,anyway thanks for the chance to get a taste of what was the best years of my life to briefly relive…..It really was not that bad men were real men in those days and did not cry at the little things people cry about now……We where ship mates having fun! Thanks for the memorys and this footage belongs in a museum,what a treat…..Regards Mike Dietrich EN3 Chautauqua 1965-66.

  16. mike dietrich

    Just thought about something…..This vidio is so historic please go to a web-site called FREDS PLACE it is a site for all of us Coast Guard guys and gals still active and retired can go to look up old ship mates,pictures,etc…………….They would love to have this for there site for all us old guys to see, Regards Mike Dietrich.

  17. Dennis Oldt

    1967 stationed on chatauqua – I was a cook – I was on chautauqua for 2 years – left as E5 I also crossed date line and went thru same thing – this vido brought back good memiories. It was fun.

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