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Kneeling to Neptune

By Sterling Mace, with Nick Allen
4/25/2017 • World War II Magazine

On a journey from innocence to experience, a Marine and his buddies found a flash of levity in an ancient mariners’ ritual.

IN WAR THERE ARE SOME LINES YOU CROSS AND some lines you don’t. Some of those lines you’ll come back across and some of those lines you will not.

Every man who went to war in the Pacific had to cross Longitude (bupkis) and Latitude (zilch)—in other words, the equator, the realm of Neptune, Poseidon’s playground, or simply, as the sailors would have it, the line. With some hazing, a few hair shavings, and a little paddling on our asses, we crossed a line that 108,505 other American servicemen would never cross again. We were the goddamn Pollywogs, the landlubbers and lounge lizards, freshwater sailors, slimy wogs and amateur mermaid chasers, aboard the SS Mormachawk. We were Marines heading to war against the Japanese in April 1944.

Specifically, we were the 43rd Replacement Battalion, a bunch of young precombatants, never giving mind to the fact that as replacements we were either taking the place of fellow Marines rotating back to the States or Marines “Going Home,” as the phrase reads on the inside of a casket lid. We were so green that when we hit a storm about an hour outside San Diego, we thought the weather would kill us before the Japanese could. The Mormachawk rose and plummeted, heeled and listed, dipped and dunked, convincing us we were bound for a watery grave. What a tub! We swore it was a floating coffin.

The Mormachawk was a Crap-class chum-bucket refit, little more than a life-support system for rivets. Scuttlebutt had it that she’d seen action in the Boxer Rebellion, back when Corporal Titus scaled the infamous walls of Peking. That was fine by me. Any chariot would do. I’d been in the Marines since December 1942, and after I’d loafed around the Brooklyn Navy Yard for six months and played baseball at Camp Lejeune, new adventure was what my wild heart desired—even if it meant joining the inevitable rifle squad.

With adventure came King Neptune and his insatiable hunger for Pollywog soup. You would have thought this fellow Neptune and his pal Davy Jones could have figured out that there was a war on, what with all the burials at sea and all the ships we were losing in the Pacific.

Nothing doin’. Even a low-rent dinghy like the Mormachawk couldn’t escape Neptune’s greedy eye and his thirst for human sacrifice. Besides, the line-crossing ceremony was nearly as old as the first crossing by equator-happy explorers centuries ago, and, to tell the truth, it did a helluva job of breaking the monotony on a voyage as long as ours.

The trip was a semester of such profound tedium that each afternoon’s highlight was watching navy gunners pop a few rounds into the ocean. There was nothing to see but ocean. Miles and miles of Pacific blue. The horizon, a thin hazy line, held neither a vessel nor a lump of land for 6,304 nautical miles between California and New Caledonia. We traveled at a maximum speed of 16.5 knots, zigzagging to frustrate the advances of Japanese submarines. Turtles at the Bronx Zoo made better time.

Still, we were young Marines. I mean, young. Baby-faced, with smiles aplenty, we bounced back from the walloping we took during the storm off San Diego and quickly made a novelty of the ship despite her geriatric pace. Those first few days every one of us was content to stand at the bow and lean out to watch the prow part the water like a hand gliding across a spread of silk. We would loll there a while, finally strolling to the stern, smoking cigarettes, to laugh and ogle the green phosphorescent foam churning in the wake of our propellers. We would observe how remarkable the ocean seemed: vast and powerful, beautiful and crystalline, until eventually the remarkable became the least remarkable thing we had ever seen, as we repeated the routine over and over, stern to bow, bow to stern. The ritual made flatlanders from New York like myself and Privates First Class Sy Levy, Billy Leyden, and Larry Mahan a little cagey at the thought of spending a month stuck on that can.

Growing up in New York we had the Atlantic at our elbows, but its grey tides didn’t hold the same allure as the Pacific, a whole continent away.

After all, in Captain Blood, Errol Flynn didn’t cross swords with pirates off of Coney Island, did he? Even as a kid, watching those grainy films at the Loew’s Valencia on Jamaica Avenue, I could tell that Flynn, when he wasn’t sharpening his cutlass, must have wised up to the ways of the sea. Like us, he probably would have been happier watching paint dry than subject himself to another day counting whitecaps under a heavy sun.

Some Marines, emulating the freebooting ways of Treasure Island, even tied their dungarees to lines and dipped them overboard so that the ocean would beat the minty look of youth out of the fabric. This gave those clever gyrenes the air of real salty veterans—even if our weak attempts at growing facial hair produced what looked more like duck down instead of the rakish goatee of a proper villain like Basil Rathbone. Otherwise, besides dungaree dipping, the only other action to be had was a few games of bid whist, along with our ill-fated attempts to bribe the guard at the water cooler for a sip. We drank warm water the whole way. And calisthenics, lots of calisthenics, which were better than tossing your cookies during a tempest…though not by much.

 

TO BREAK THE MONOTONY, THEY GAVE US DUTIES. On one such duty I first heard chatter about a “ceremony” a few days hence. A ceremony; it sounded better than calisthenics.

As duties went, I wouldn’t say that manning a 40mm Bofors gun turret was the most exciting assignment you could pull, but it beat staffing the chow line. Only when you realized the navy had not trained us on Bofors did you savvy the reality of the situation. To wit, if the Japanese came gunning, some navy genius would take over the turret, leaving me to scramble for cover. This awareness begat a certain wryness among those of us warming turret seats.

One day, sitting in my gun turret, I spied Corporal Marchand, from Philly, perched 20 feet below in turret 10, wearing the quarter-egg-shaped gunner’s helmet twice the size of our standard-issue headgear. These helmets gave the wearers an almost vaudevillian appearance.

In my best authoritative voice, I leaned into the microphone affixed to the inside of my turret. “Gun turret 10,” I intoned. “Turret 10!”

“Yes, sir!” replied Marchand. I cleared my throat, stifling a laugh. He thought he was hearing from the bridge.

“Turret 10, I thought I told you to wear your regular helmet and not that other one!”

There was a little static in the speaker as Marchand swapped his navy helmet for its Marine counterpart.“Affirmative,sir!”he barked.

That sealed it. I had my day’s entertainment arranged. I let 10 minutes go by before flipping the microphone switch again.“Gun turret 10!”

“Marchand!” my hapless pal answered.

“Gun turret 10, what did I say?” I growled. “Didn’t I tell you to put your navy helmet on? What the hell are you doing down there?”

“Yes, sir!” Marchand said, again performing the switcheroo, to equal hilarity.

This went on until duty was over, Marchand wearing one helmet for 10 minutes and then hurriedly switching. Afterward I thought he had wised up to me. When I saw him chatting with some fellas about some kind of ceremony, I thought he was returning the favor and pulling my leg. He wasn’t, though.

Later I noticed in the chow line, and on the way to the water cooler, all over the ship in fact, fliers were cropping up, informing us that a line-crossing ceremony would take place the next day—April 19, 1944.

The strange thing is, a year later to the day I would not be the same fresh-faced kid I was before crossing the equator, having killed men on Peleliu and Okinawa with my Browning Automatic Rifle. During that year I would cross many lines, and as a fire team leader in K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, I would lead men across lines that two of my New York buddies would never return from. Some of those lines you’ll come back across and some of those lines you won’t.

But as the Mormachawk crossed the equator, it’s safe to say she was carrying scarcely a genuine killer, only a few hundred killers-in-training.

 

WHEN A SHIP CROSSES INTO NEPTUNE’S REALM, experience and rank go out the blowhole, leaving only two classes of passengers.

First there were Shellbacks—noble fellows, the saltiest of salts, who had not only crossed before, but with great swagger professed to be famous chums with Neptune and his retinue, certified as bona fide by the good king himself.

Then there was the rest of us—Marines in green, slimy Pollywogs, equatorial virgins in dungaree jackets ill-favored by Neptunus Rex merely for breathing the air of his realm.

And so it came to pass that at 11 a.m. that April 19, the crew of the Mormachawk proceeded to give us the business.

Ship’s crewmen suddenly were pushing and pulling, corralling us from one spot to another, yanking the sheets off our boredom and exposing us for the uninitiated lot we were.

They hunted the hesitant, who proposed to skip Poseidon’s blessings and go to war without him. “Bullshit! You’re comin’ with us!” crewmen bellowed. “Now get your asses moving!”

They had Marines rushing up and down the deck under a rain of laughter and curses so blue most of them hadn’t been invented. “Organized chaos” best describes how the crew raced and chased us all over the ship, managing to keep us herded and catalogued in a textbook display of naval efficiency.

Cloth rustled and snapped. I looked toward the sound. Where the Stars and Stripes had flown, now the Jolly Roger flapped. What’s more, the Mormachawk crewmen had become pirate versions of themselves, replete with long striped socks, eye patches, chopped pants and colorful garments—all bearing the scowls of real scurvy dogs.

Even the brass got into the act.

While admiring the pirate banner, I noticed a major on a walkway coming off the bridge. He was holding binoculars to his eyes, but he couldn’t have been seeing much because his “binoculars” were Pabst bottles rigged together, giving the impression that as far as the major could tell, everything was in the swim for Neptune to come aboard.

Really, it was a riot. Sure, you got the jitters. You didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Our keepers demanded we Pollywogs visit the Royal Barber, even though we had been shorn before shipping out. If you were going to present yourself to mighty Neptune, they told us, you had better look sharp.

We lined up. Our Shellback overlords graciously said we could bargain with the Royal Barber on the cut we would each receive with his electric clippers. Here’s the rub—and it was a doozy: a Pollywog could choose from among only four styles, each sure to bring laughter from a buddy, even if he was next up.

You could get a Mohawk, the most popular choice by far. For the “straight back,” the Royal Barber shaved a stripe from your hairline to the nape of your neck (a Mohawk in reverse, if you will). In the ever-dapper “cross over,” the bald stripe ran ear to ear. Finally, there was the“shitbird,”replicating your days as a new boot with a noggin shaved baby bald.

Me, I got a Mohawk. I figured it would grow back easier, as opposed to the poor saps who went for a cross over or straight back.

After the trim, it was straight to the deck, where ruffians grabbed you and dunked your head in a garbage bin brimful of swill. I don’t know what the swill was—slop water from the deck, piss water from the head, maybe something as innocuous as seawater—but whatever it was, you held your breath, because you knew if you let any of that stuff in it would lay you out!

So we crossed another line, and then another. Up ahead Shellbacks were roaring. It was bedlam, a real Chinese fire drill.

I stood in line with other Marines, each of us cleaning swill from his ears and admiring his new haircut, as the line moved forward rapidly and the applause grew louder, until we could see what the hubbub was about.

They called it the gauntlet.

My first instinct despite the fun was to scram. The gauntlet was two rows of 20 Shellbacks, 40 men facing one another, with a strip of deck between them barely wide enough for a Pollywog to run through. Each Shellback held a wooden paddle or a stick, or even a long salami, eager to give you a whack in accordance with Neptune’s decree.

I took off running like I was sprinting for first base on a short grounder, receiving about eight good wallops from the guys in sailor suits. Boy, did that smart!

It couldn’t have been half as bad, though, as it went for the more lead-footed of the Pollywogs, who got the works and then some. Still, to a man we were filled with mirth, even the killjoys who had balked at the whole experience.

Rubbing sore arms and asses and wiping away tears of laughter, we screeched to a halt at the final stop in our initiation into the Ancient Order of the Deep.

There he sat: King Neptune.

Reposing on a makeshift dais, the king held court in pomp and regality, affecting such a purple air of nobility that for just a second you forgot that he was just another swabbo in a gaudy getup, putting on a show for all of us Pollywogs. I don’t know who it was beneath that garb, but whoever he was he played an ace role!

Neptune’s garments were all white, voluminous and flowing, nearly engulfing his throne. His headdress seemed to me to be an extension of his toga, rising from his robes to swaddle his head in a turban-like affair that accentuated his otherworldly appearance. He gazed on us with cold fish eyes, as if measuring the weight of our souls. A beefy black beard spilled loose on his chest, thick and curled with ocean foam.

Marines walked up to Neptune and knelt for instructions from the monarch’s aide-de-camp on how to approach a living god. I wasn’t able to make out what the deputy said. Whatever it was, each neophyte would bend at the waist, and after a couple of seconds of bowing, Neptune’s generals would roar with laughter. The king would tamp his trident on the dais and the Pollywog would depart a Shellback, transformed by that thump, Neptune’s verdict on the inductee’s qualities revealed! A Pollywog no more, he was not only free to cross Neptune’s home coordinates, but also, if need be, to take a Japanese bullet.

Tamp! So let it be done!

The closer I got to the king, the more curious I became—especially after viewing the bemused looks on the faces of Marines after Neptune finished with them. We Pollywogs were nearly beside ourselves to have the inside scoop.

Before I knew it I was standing, then kneeling before his oceanic majesty, the biggest fish in the pond, Neptunus Rex.

As he had with Marines before me,Neptune’s lackey leaned close.

“Now, you’ve reached the final station of becoming a worthy Shellback in King Neptune’s service,” he whispered in my ear. “You may now bend down and kiss what the king is hiding.”

I bent, thinking I’d be seeing a ring like the ones in movies at the Loew’s Valencia. I had it all wrong.

What are you supposed to do when Neptune swings open his robe to reveal the royal phallus? Or, rather, what choice do you have? You laugh the way everybody else did, and you kiss it, because once you blink and see it for what it really is, you know you’re in on a much better prank.

The ship’s butcher had a flair for the dramatic. From the galley he had absconded with a side of beef and, with great attention to detail, had fashioned a quality replica of what you would otherwise see only on large barnyard animals—but decidedly human in anatomical detail.

I bent and gave the pseudoprick a peck, to japes and guffaws. The king tamped his trident, sending me on my way as a newborn man of land and sea. A Shellback first class.

Larry Mahan clapped me on the shoulder, a huge grin on his face. “Smoke?” He said, holding out his pack.

“Nah, gonna get me a drink of water,”I said.“Jeez, whatta show!”

Larry looked at his pack quizzically, raised his eyebrows and smirked. “No foolin’? I thought everybody had a cigarette after sex,” he said. “All Mace wants is water. Never woulda thought.”

I laughed. “Yeah?” I replied. “An’ here I thought you would’ve already gone back to Neptune for seconds by now.”

“Ah, sure…,” Larry rolled his cigarette between his fingers. “Sure, I thought about it. But with a good hunk of beef like that? I figured they’ll have that thing chopped up for our supper tonight, anyway…so we might as well have seconds à la carte.”

We both laughed. What a joker. Poor Larry. He had no idea that the line he just crossed aboard the Mormachawk had him on a direct path to another line he’d have to cross seconds after clearing his amtrac on the beach at Peleliu, September 15, 1944. None of us knew, and we were all the better for it. That day, every Marine aboard ship felt as though he could bend bricks and eat glass. We were young.

We were transformed.

 

THE REST OF THE JOURNEY WAS ABOUT THE SAME AS the first leg. Nothing would speed up the slow, methodical clock that wound down the sun every day like the last life in a worn toy.

We reached New Caledonia by night, gazing at the horizon to spy the first land we had seen since California disappeared behind us a month ago. Billy Leyden stood beside me on deck. He remarked how New Caledonia looked exactly like King Kong’s island, shrouded in mist.

I don’t remember exactly when they gave us our Shellback cards—proof that we had made it across the ocean, and a ticket to safe passage home when the war was over. I only remember that we got them. I’ve kept that card in my wallet for 68 years. It reads:

Ancient Order of the Deep
…this certifies that…
Sterling G Mace, USMC
was duly initiated into the Solemn Mysteries of the
Ancient Order of the Deep
HAVING CROSSED THE EQUATOR ON BOARD THE
S.S. MORMACHAWK
Bound for Tokyo, on the 19th day of April 1944, Longitude 0-0

Call it superstition, call it a good luck charm, call it what you want. I’ve kept that card. It means something. In war there are some lines you cross and some lines you don’t. It means come hell or Pacific waters, there were some lines I wouldn’t cross. And I didn’t.

But I will.

 

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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