Chapter 6: The Red Sea, The Indian Ocean, and Crossing the Line

Chapter 6: The Red Sea, The Indian Ocean, and Crossing the Line

The ten days transiting the length of the Red Sea was rather uneventful although I was concerned about a relatively unarmed U.S. Navy ship in a less than friendly area. The Gulf of Aden transit was no less traumatic although it felt more like being at sea than anything in the Canal or the Red Sea.

Looming ahead was a significant concern of mine. I decided not to discuss it with anyone, even the captain. It was going to be what it was going to be, and my discussing it would not change it. On Wednesday, October 12, Yosemite would cross the equator. The ship would experience “Crossing the Line.” “Crossing the Line” was a rough initiation in my old Navy. I was concerned it might get out of hand, and that could become a huge problem for a ship with 106 enlisted women, two female chiefs, and six female officers.

In general, the Navy had been cracking down on hazing, which for centuries was a major part of the initiation of “pollywogs” (those who had not crossed the equator) by “shellbacks” (those who had crossed the line and gone through the initiation). I knew. I was a shellback.

In 1979, I flew to Hobart, Tasmania to join the staff of Commander, Amphibious Squadron Five as Current Operations Officer aboard USS Tripoli (LPH 10), a helicopter carrier. Our staff numbered about thirty, the ship’s complement was just short of 700, and the number of embarked USMC personnel on the landing force commander’s staff and the marine air unit also numbered just less than 700. The ship had crossed the equator en route to Tasmania. The number of pollywogs was significantly more than the number of shellbacks. It was a raucous two days.

The number of personnel, i.e. pollywogs, reporting in Tasmania included about 100 enlisted marines and one lieutenant commander, aka me.

Tripoli departed Hobart and went to Sydney, Australia for a week. Following Sydney, we made a port visit to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. After New Guinea, we headed for Subic Bay, Luzon, Philippines, and crossing the equator en route.

The officer I was relieving, Lieutenant Commander Conrad Bormann, knew “Crossing the Line” could be very rough for me. Out of 100 pollywogs, I was the only Navy type and the only officer. The 900 or so brand new shellbacks were excited about being on the giving part of the initiation, especially to initiate the one Navy lieutenant commander. Conrad gave me the low down on what was going to happen, how I should pick out my shabbiest working khaki to wear backwards and inside out for the ceremony, and how to act. He went an extra mile by promising to escort me through the initiation line to prevent some overzealous new shellback from hurting me.

After getting up an early hour, I dug out my oldest and most stained khakis (having been a chief engineer, I manage to soil a number of working khakis), turned them inside out, and pulled them on. I reported to the mess decks and was met by Conrad. I pretty much faked eating the “green” eggs and other supposedly gross breakfast fare. I figured I didn’t need anything on my stomach for what was going to happen next.

Conrad escorted me to the gauntlet of eager new shellbacks excited about getting to lay on to a lieutenant commander with their shillelagh’s (lengths of fire hose cut to be flexible paddles). The shillelagh-wielding gang did not disappoint. I was amply whacked as I crawled along the flight deck, confident and assured Conrad was watching to make sure it would not get worse.

On my knees, I was ushered to the boatswain, one of the…how shall I say this, ahh… most stomach-ample sailors on the ship. It was time to kiss the “Boatswain’s Belly.” He grabbed by ears and forced by head into the folds of his grossly greased belly. This could have been really bad, but Conrad had it stopped before I completely lost my breath.

Still, it had not been unbearable, and I was confident as I approached the last two steps. It would soon be over. Conrad’s escort was a blessing. Then, as I approached the chute filled with garbage we had to crawl through, Conrad, after a messenger had run down to him from the flag bridge nudged me and said, “We just received a top secret radio op-immediate radio message. I have to go read it, brief the commodore and chief staff officer, but I’ll get back as soon as I can.

As I faced the jury rigged tube stuffed with the previous night and morning messes garbage, my confidence dimmed a bit. But it was only about fifty feet, and one more event. I made it through and was spitting and trying to clear gunk out of my eyes and ears. I saw the final event was being hoisted in a cargo net along with three or four other pollywogs and being blasted by a firehose stream. Considering all of the slime I had all over me and filling most of my pores, that didn’t sound too bad.

But as I headed, again on my hands and knees, to the cargo net’s final indignity, they stopped me. I was informed as an officer, especially a lieutenant commander, the only officer on the ship who was a pollywog, I would have to kiss the boatswain’s belly and traverse the chute again.

Being a good sport, I went through the ordeal again. This time with that unholy garbage mess now filling the pores of my pores, I once again headed for the cargo net. Once again, I was stopped. Once again, I went through the line. I was beginning to wonder, but Conrad finally came back, saw what was going on, and took me to my cleansing.

Back in my stateroom, I stripped out of my inside out khakis, violated the Navy shower rule with a non-stop fifteen minute drenching, trying to wash as much as I could off of me. Finished and dressed, I gingerly held my initiation uniform away from me, walked out to the weather decks and tossed the garments into the sea.

So I was very aware of what could happen at the Crossing the Line initiation.

We used every way of communicating to keep things under control, including a POD note:

  1. CROSSING THE EQUATOR: (THE INITIATION)

GENERAL SAFETY GUIDELINES: “CROSSING THE EQUATOR” IS A TIME HONORED TRADITION IN WHICH AN INITIATION CEREMONY IS PERFORMED TO INTRODUCE THE SLIMY, GREASY POLLYWOGS TO TRUSTY SHELLBACKISM. IT CAN AND SHOULD BE FUN FOR ALL HANDS. IT CAN ALSO BE UNNECESSARILY INJURIOUS AND HUMILIATING IF COMMON SENSE IS NOT APPLIED TO TONE DOWN THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL ACTS WHICH ARE INVOLVED. SHELLBACKS MUST GUARD AGAINST BEING OVERZEALOUS WHEN APPLYING THOSE WELL-DESERVED WALLOPS TO THE HIND SIDES OF THE SLIMY POLLYWOGS. THE SAFETY REGULATIONS SHALL BE STRICTLY ENFORCED AND ANY PERSONNEL VIOLATING THOSE REGULATIONS WILL BE REQUIRED TO FORFEIT ANY PARTICIPATION IN THE CEREMONY. THE WOGS WATCH COMMITTEE HAS THE OVERALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SAFETY OF BOTH POLLYWOGS AND THE SHELLBACKS ON THE FORECASTLE. ALL SENIOR PERSONNEL ON COMMITTEES HAVE OVERALL RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SAFETY OF BOTH THE POLLYWOGS AND SHELLBACKS IN THEIR ASSIGNED AREAS. THE FOLLOWING GENERAL SAFETY GUIDELINES SHALL APPLY:

    1. FIRE HOSES SHALL NOT BE USED INSIDE THE SKIN OF THE SHIP.
    2. FIRE HOSES SHALL NOT BE SPRAYED DIRECTLY TOWARD POLLYWOGS.
    3. NO FOREIGN MATTER OF ANY KIND WILL BE RUBBED INTO EYES, EARS, OR NOSE.
    4. WALLOPS, TO THE HIND SIDES, SHALL BE MADE WITH CARE TO AN AREA BELOW THE WAIST AND ABOVE THE CROTCH AND SHALL ONLY BE ADMINISTERED IN THE DESIGNATED “SHILLELAGH LINE.”
    5. CARE MUST BE TAKEN TO AVOID DIRECTING WATER TOWARD ELECTRICAL BOXES AND OUTLETS.
    6. ACTIVITIES INCIDENT TO “CROSSING THE LINE” WILL BE CONDUCTED ON WEATHER DECKS ONLY. ALL AREAS INSIDE THE SKIN OF THE SHIP ARE OFF LIMITS TO INITIATION EVENTS.
    7. POLLYWOGS WILL WALK UP AND DOWN LADDERS.
    8. SHOWER SHOES OR RUBBER PADS WILL BE TAPED TO THE KNEES.

I considered adding some comments to the above note concerning sexual abuse of any kind being cause for NJP. I remembered our watchwords of not having men and women but sailors aboard and decided against such a warning.

Captain Boyle, Command Master Chief Weaver, who would be King Neptune in the ceremonies, and I had numerous meetings on security and how to handle any misconduct. The word got out. It was not a patty cake initiation. It was pretty much the way I remembered them. It just happened to be some women pollywogs who became shellbacks that day.

The ceremony, I thought, was really good for morale. Everyone had gone through the ordeal or meted out the initiation requirements together. Everyone was proud of getting through the two days, and everyone on board was a certified shellback.

Now it was time to get ready for Diego Garcia.

As we approached Diego Garcia, the captain and I wanted to be sure our sailors understood our rules. After discussing liberty on Diego Garcia, I published the following note in 4 October Plan of the Day and it ran daily in the POD until we reached the lagoon:

  1. Fraternization: The following USS Yosemite regulation is provided for the information of all hands: Fraternization between crew members of the opposite sex is prohibited on board or on the pier controlled by Yosemite. There will be no displays of affection, physical contact, or other type of conduct except that which is normally expected in a military environment. Off ship, public display of affection between Navy members in uniform is prohibited.

The morning of Thursday, 13 October, we went from pollywogs and shellbacks to sailors a day out of port. Not counting the Suez Canal transit and the refueling stop in Augusta, Sicily, we had been out of port since leaving Palma de Majorca 27 September, the longest continuous time at sea, 16 days, for the vast majority of Yosemite’s crew.

We began our preparations for entering port in earnest. A fresh water wash down of the entire weather decks was conducted that morning. A navigation brief for entering port was held in the wardroom in the afternoon. We took a break when the captain cut the cake on the mess decks to celebrate the Navy’s 208th birthday and then held a brief on boat operations, especially liberty boat runs, presented on the ship’s closed circuit television in the evening.

1425, Friday, 14 October 1983: USS Yosemite (AD 19) anchored in the middle of the lagoon of Diego Garcia. Known to sailors as the “Footprint of Freedom,” Diego Garcia had a significant U.S. Navy presence in the British Territory, the largest island in the Chagos Atoll Island chain

There is not much there. However, I had said during my previous stop there in 1982 on USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3), it was my vision of the island I would like to be on if marooned. It was still that enchanting.

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