[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Carolina Basave, who worked on a small research project at the Sutro Library last semester. She supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

The Line Crossing Ceremony certificate earned by army private “L.Gray” in 1943 on board the Liberty ship, SS Adolph Sutro.

The Crossing the Line Ceremony certificate from above reads:

 “CROSSED THE PACIFIC EQUATOR IN THE PACIFIC OCEAN IN THE GOOD AMERICAN LIBERTY SHIP, ADOLPH SUTRO ON HER MAIDEN VOYAGE, ON THE SEVENTH DAY OF JULY IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD NINETEEN HUNDRED AND FORTY * THREE”

June 4, 1943 the SS Adolph Sutro was completed and launched from Richmond, California. [1]

The S.S. Adolph Sutro was a cargo ship built during World War II, and according to the National Museum of the United States Navy, the liberty ships “were built on a mass-production scale in order to save supplies…[as] the war progressed, the ships were also utilized as troop transports in the convoys.”[2]  Thus the liberty ships were created to help supply and fuel the World War II efforts, and then used to transport soldiers overseas.

Awarded to “L. Gray,” the mimeographed (a duplication process that predates modern photocopier) Crossing the Line certificate represented a long maritime tradition. According to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “L. Gray” was Leonard Ray Gray, an army private and 27 years old when he crossed the equator on the Pacific.[3] The Navy Times mentioned that the Crossing the Line ceremony is a traditional initiation ceremony where sailors who have not crossed the equator before and then do for the first time transition “from a slimy pollywog to a trusty shellback during an equator line-crossing.” [4]  A ceremony performed by sailors who have already crossed the equator, the shellbacks, initiate the pollywogs in order to test their ability to, “with[stand] long voyages at sea.” [4] The ceremony is a an all-day performance and hazing ritual that represents the pollywogs initiation into King Neptune’s realm.

 The equator represents the home of the Neptunus Rex or King Neptune, ruler of the deep and guardian of the mysteries of the sea. According to Thomas Wildenberg from the Naval History Magazine, the night before the ship crosses the equator, Davy Jones (a member of King Neptune’s royal court) appears in front of the Captain with a message on behalf of King Neptune, “stating at what time he wanted the ship to hove to receive the royal party.” [5] That same night, all of the pollywogs are subpoenaed from Davy Jones, “to appear before the royal court on the morrow to be initiated in the mysteries of King Neptune’s Royal Domain. Usually, the subpoenas would include a long list of fake offenses the pollywogs were charged with like, “too many captain’s masts, excessive liberty, or seasickness.” [5]

Accompanying the Crossing the Line certificate, is a name card with the same name of the sailor who is featured on the certificate

The rest of King Neptune’s royal court includes:

Her Highness Amphitrite, often a young seaman in a costume of seaweed and rope; the scribe; the doctor; and the barber. Other members often include the royal baby, usually the fattest man in the crew wearing only a diaper; the navigator; the chief bear and his assistants, the latter of whom perform the dunkings; the chaplain; jesters; and the devil. The royals also have a secretary, sometimes known as a clerk, notary, or chancellor, whose job is to enter the names of the candidates to be sentenced by the court.[5]

Once King Neptune and his royal court appeared on deck, his flag known as the “Jolly Roger” appears, and the ceremony would begin. [5] The hazing would then take place and according to the U.S Navy it involves, “embarrassing tasks, gags, obstacles, physical hardships, and generally good-humored mischief”—all of which were meant to entertain the shellbacks and degrade the pollywog.”  It is estimated that the hazing rituals could last for up to 12 hours or more. Once the hazing rituals were completed, the pollywogs would then become a shellback, and a worthy member of King Neptune’s realm. According to research, every ship practiced their own version of the hazing rituals, therefore every shellback’s experience would be unique to them, and according to U.S Navy, the Crossing the Line (or equator) Ceremonies are completely voluntary, and not every ship and crew participates or practices the ceremony.

Image of United States Liberty Ship: SS Adolph Sutro from 1946

After completing the ceremony and hazing rituals, the newly transitioned shellbacks would then receive their Crossing the Line certificates that commemorated their experience.   I discovered most of the Line Crossing Ceremony certificates issued during World War II were incredibly detailed, vibrant in colors, and often had phrases written in Latin with a description of what the certificate signified. Many of them included drawings of mermaids, the ocean, a globe, King Neptune, Dolphins, and various marine life, and other mythical creatures depending on which equator crossing a pollywog passed through. While Leonard Gray’s certificate was a mimeographed copy of a quickly assembled sketch, it nevertheless included significant details like: mermaids, clam shells, a map of the world including the ocean, and even King Neptune’strident. According to the U.S Navy, there are handful of different certificates that all represent different equator crossings based on a specific Ocean or Sea.

The Line Crossing Ceremony certificate earned by army private “L.Gray” in 1943 on board Liberty ship SS Adolph Sutro.

Despite the certificate not being in color like a virtually all other certificates probably due to the fact that Leonard Gray was on board a liberty ship, in the middle of a war, they probably were not equipped with an artisan who could draw out the certificates. Regardless of the lack of color and detail, the certificates are equally as significant as the ceremony themselves. They showed that even during a war, the ships still exercised King Neptune’s long tradition of initiating pollywogs into this brotherhood of men who crossed the equator and earned their rightful place in King Neptune’s world. In 1953, the United States Navy begun to issue incredibly detailed certificates that were made — and continue to be — by the Tiffany Publishing Company in Norfolk, Virginia.[6]

Example of a 1943 Crossing the Equator certificate awarded to a U.S sailor, Harry F. Revers on board U.S.S. Chenango. [7]

Leonard Gray was one of these men who back in 1943 went through the ceremony and joined the brotherhood of shellbacks even during war time proved his loyalty and worthiness to King Neptune. Today that tradition is upheld as countless pollywogs are currently being initiated into that same brotherhood, all connected by their experiences crossing the equator.

Here are examples of recent Crossing the Line Certificates earned by my older brother’s friend, a current submariner YNSN Scotty H.[8]


If you would like to see the Crossing the Equator/Line certificate of “L.Gray” please email the Sutro Library (sutro@library.ca.gov) two days in advance of your visit and mention the following item and call number:

SS Adolph Sutro Equator Crossing Certificate, July, 7, 1943. Place of publication not identified: [S.S. Adolph Sutro Liberty Ship], 1943, call number MISC000346

FOOTNOTES

[1] Photograph of the liberty ship Adolph Sutro at Launching, 1943, Richmond Public Library: Richmond Local History Photograph Collection, Richmond, California. https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/13030/kt7x0nd5z0/

[2] “WWII: Battle of the Atlantic: Liberty Ships,” National Museum of the United States Navy, Accessed. 08 Oct 2019. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmusn/explore/photography/wwii/wwii-atlantic/battle-of-the-atlantic/merchant-ships/liberty.html

[3] “Display Full Records,” The U.S National Archives and Records Administration, Accessed: 10 Oct 2019. https://aad.archives.gov/

[4] J.D Simkins, “This color footage of hazing during a World War II Line-crossing ceremony does not disappoint,” Navy Times, Aug 21, 2018. Accessed 08 Oct 2019.

https://www.navytimes.com/off-duty/military-culture/2018/08/21/this-color-footage-hazing-during-a-world-war-ii-line-crossing-ceremony-does-not-disappoint/

[5] Thomas Wildenberg, “Neptune’s Band of Brothers,” U.S Naval Institute, December 2014. Accessed 19 Oct 2019. https://www.usni.org/magazines/naval-history-magazine/2014/december/neptunes-band-brothers

[6] “Ceremonial Certificates: Proudly Serving the U.S Armed Froces Since 1953,” Tiffany Publishing Co, Accessed 17 October 2019. https://certificatesbytiffany.com

[7] “Harry F. Revers Short Snorter,” The Short Snorter Project, Accessed 20 October 2019. http://www.shortsnorter.org/Harry_Revers_Short_Snorter.html

[8] The last name has been omitted due to privacy reasons.

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