Haze Grey & Underway: An Ethnograpic Observation of U.S. Naval Traditions and Ceremonies

One of my first college classes in my post-Naval career was an introduction to Anthropology. This course was the baseline course that taught the fundamentals for the future anthropology student to learn the fundamentals and theories behind the research methods. Our semester project was to observe a family tradition such as Christmas or Thanksgiving and look at it through the eyes of anthropologists who are trying to describe and explain this event to their collegues. I chose to describe Naval traditions such as those associated with crossing the Equator or Arctic Circle as well as ceremonial events such as significant promotions in rank. The footnotes have not been included since they were intended to authenticate specific research sources. Also, at the end of the various quotes found embedded in the body of the text, annotations like ‘CO 94’ are indirect anonymous references to the source of the quote – a specific requirement of the assignment.

The following is my Ethnographic Observation of life afloat in the Navy…

Life at sea on a US Navy warship can be tedious and mind-numbingly boring at times. The nature of the job takes the crew members away from family and loved ones for several months at a time. Even with the modern technology employed by today’s fleet, it is possible for weeks, even months, to pass without contact with the crew member’s family and loved ones. This loss of contact can lead to lack of cohesion amongst the crew members and ultimately a loss of morale. Since morale is vital to crew cohesion, the crews of the ships tend to bond into a family like structures. The leadership of the crews routinely employ formal and informal tactics to maintain high crew morale.

In this project I will investigate the social structure of the crew of small combatant ships by looking at the three major families that comprise the ship’s crew and how they interact.  Additionally, I will be comparing the Shellback Ceremony, Blue Nose Ceremony, and transition to Chief Petty Officer as rites of passage.

I will be utilizing personal retrospection my twenty-two year Naval career,  over sixteen of which were physically at sea on five different ships. During those years at sea I participated in all aspects of these social customs and ceremonies. Additionally I will be interviewing former shipmates; Appendix B and C identify the interview subjects and their relationships with each other. I will be asking each shipmate a variation of the following questions (the actual format of each question will be tailored to the individual and their position within their respective group).

  • What is your opinion of the Shellback and Blue Nose Ceremonies, do you think that they acted to improve crew cohesion or were they just a way to mitigate the boredom of life at sea?
  • How important do you think that functions like ‘jazz and cigars at sunset’, ice cream socials, flight deck picnics, and pizza nights were for crew morale?
  • Was there a specific moment in your transition to Chief, or your assistance in the transitions of others to Chief that stands out above the rest?
  • Were there any other moments or situations that enhanced or detracted from the overall morale of the crew

As a general statement it can be said that the crew of any US Navy ship is comprised of three major communities: the Ward Room, The CPO Mess, and the Blue Shirts. These three communities work closely with each other but maintain strict social boundaries that include segregated dining and living spaces. With the exception of the work environment and special functions, there is little or no social interaction. While segregation has a negative connotation, it is necessary in order to maintain crew discipline under all situations, especially adverse conditions that can result from accidents or combat situations.

… while it is good for chiefs and officers to know their people, social relationships can hurt the organization. Quick story here. When I was a department head on a precom, had a Departmental Master Chief who brought over a bunch of folks from his prior shore command to the ship. He wanted to maintain a social relationship off hours, but tried to maintain a professional relationship at work. He lost on both counts…                                                                                                                                         C.O. 94

The Ward Room is the group of Officers that by virtue of their higher education maintain order and make the tactical decisions that keep the ships running efficiently and safely. The Ward Room  is comprised of approximately 25-30 personnel for a 350 person crew.  Officers join the Ward Room based on their formal education. Other than the college degree, or special circumstances such as promotion from the enlisted ranks, there is no special selection process for the Ward Room membership. The leadership within this community is based primarily on military rank and areas of responsibility. For example, if the Weapons Officer and the Supply Officer carry the same rank and the same amount of time at that rank, the Weapons Officer will hold a higher position based on the responsibility for control of the weapons systems. The junior officers will primarily be employed for administrative duties while the senior members are the tactical experts.  With the exception of the Commanding and Executive Officers, Ward Room members live in two to three person staterooms. These staterooms are equipped with the creature comforts of running water, closed circuit television, and internet access.. They share a communal shower and toilet facilities. Their meals are eaten in formal environment with linen napkins, ceramic plates and polished silverware. Their dining area also serves as a lounge and tactical meeting area. Select members of the Blue Shirt community act as their waiters and provide cleaning services for their individual staterooms and communal facilities.

The CPO Mess is the group of senior enlisted personnel who by virtue of their experience maintain the functionality of the various equipment and ship’s systems. Like the Ward Room, the CPO Mess is a small community comprising of approximately 20-25 Chiefs for a 350 person crew. Unlike the Ward Room, membership into the CPO Mess is multi-staged selection process where only the most experienced members of the Blue Shirt community are selected for indoctrination into the CPO Mess. Once prospective members pass a written exam their accomplishments in several areas are examined by a board of senior members of the Navy-wide CPO and Ward Room communities. On average less than five percent of all eligible Blue Shirts are selected each year for indoctrination into the CPO Mess. Leadership within the CPO Mess is a democratic process where the Command Master Chief approves nomination for all positions and the community votes to fill each position. The CPO Mess is unique in that all members are considered as equals regardless of their actual rank. The CPO members live  together in a larger 20 to 30 person berthing area with a communal shower and toilet facility. However the berthing area lacks the luxuries of television and internet access. The dining area is also a general gathering area with the creature comforts such as closed circuit television and internet access. This area is known as the Chief’s Mess and has strict access control. With the exception of the Commanding and Executive Officers, no personnel outside to the CPO community are allowed entry without invitation. Additionally the Chief Petty Officers are the only members of a ship’s crew that can freely cross all social boundaries.

The Blue Shirts are the group of junior enlisted personnel who are tasked with the operation and maintenance of the various equipment and systems required to keep the ship running. The term Blue Shirt is derived from the fact that the standard working uniform of the junior enlisted personnel is a blue shirt, the officers and Chiefs  wear khaki colored shirts.  Outside of the military ranking structure there is no formal leadership within this community. Promotion within the Blue Shirts is controlled by Navy-wide written exams. The Blue Shirts live in an area similar to the Chiefs, however their living area houses 40-60 personnel. They eat their meals in an area very similar to the average high school cafeteria. Their dining area also doubles as a central meeting and conference area for all personnel.

One of the dangers of extended deployments for ships and their crews is the apathy caused by the boredom of routine operations. Since the ships are self-sustaining units the majority of the crew works around the clock seven days a week. In order to combat the boredom and boost the morale of the crew, the leadership hosts social functions that provide the crew members to a chance to relax and intermingle amongst the various communities.

One function used by most modern small combatants is termed as an ice cream social. For these functions, the crew gathers in the Blue Shirt dining area and enjoys the simple pleasure of eating ice cream. This is a popular function because of the scarcity of ice cream on a warship. It is designed to allow the crew to relax and build the bonds of friendship. This is also an opportunity for the officers and Chiefs to interact with the crew outside of the work environment and reinforce the single team concept.

The flight deck picnics are usually held on Sundays or holidays and are the set up similar to a backyard picnic. The Wardroom, CPO Mess, and First Class Association take turns hosting the picnics. In addition to the barbeque grill, these picnics also provide recreational activities like basketball, volleyball, deejays and live music during the day and are often followed by an outdoor movie at night. Jazz and Cigars at Sunset was a daily event held onboard USS NITZE during independent operations hunting pirates off the coast of Somalia. The senior leaders were all avid cigar smokers. To end the long days and ease the tensions associated with navigation amongst and boarding of coastal merchant vessels, the crew would gather on the ship’s flight deck to enjoy cigars and jazz music while watching the sunset. While these functions were intended for the improvement of morale, when they are scheduled too often, they become a part of the routine and can have negative effects on morale. Conversely, if they are rarely scheduled, the crew tends to see them as a precursor to bad news and morale can suffer. The hard part is keeping enough of a variety as to prevent the social events from becoming routine while keeping the crew actively engaged with each other outside of the work environment.

It helped ease tension from my experience. We never pulled in any earlier and usually following an impromptu event like this there were words over the 1MC about an extension of some kind. Still, being able to relax with your shipmates and not worry about petty arguments and things from earlier always boosts morale.                                                                                                                                     Cruiser 94

… it breaks up the day-to-day routine, it gives the chance for the Wardroom or Mess or 1st Class Association to give back and it brings sailors together improving morale.  In fact I would take it one step further and say that good food overall is very important to crew morale.  If the food is cold terrible coupled with having a bad day at work will magnify poor morale.  Then again morale is like a tide and the crew will change their opinion all the time therefore as a leader we shouldn’t focus on trying to make people happy.  On the flip side, events such as the above question will help alleviate stress and morale.                                                                                             CHENG 94

This I saw as more of a break in the monotony, just something special so people could relax for a while and maybe get to know people better who they did not normally associate with.  The more common it became the less significant it also became.  My first sea tour we only did steel beach 2 or 3 times in six months, my last it was every week at sea.  It became more of a chore than a break.                                           Bubba 55

I definitely think that the events listed above helped crew morale. [ice cream socials, pizza night, flight deck picnics] Particularly during deployments with minimal port visits and many consecutive days at sea, such as the NITZE 2007 cruise. However, when these events become routine they lose their excitement and can even become a burden to those [who] have to consistently set up and put together [these] events.                                                                                                                                          DCA 94

During an  extended tour in the Horn of Africa operating area, C.O. 94 issued a challenge to the crew to increase the amount of money they had pledged to the Navy and Marine Corps Relief Society. In order to break a long standing record for contributions in the small combatant category, the ship needed to raise an additional $3,000.  To increase the likelihood of meeting this goal, C.O. 94 made a wager with the crew – if they increased their contributions enough to exceed the current record C.O. 94, X.O. 94 and CMC 94 would have their heads shaved in full view of the assembled crew. In this instance the crew morale was greatly enhanced by the common goal of seeing the two most senior officers and the most senior enlisted man getting their heads shaved as a part of the weekly flight deck picnic.

I have also often heard about when the CO, CMC, and I had our heads shaved for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Fund Drive campaign [CO 94] dared the crew to raise another $3K before the campaign was over; if they did, the 3 of us would get our heads shaved– I think we raised twice that figure in the final 24-48 hrs. (and we had beautiful bald heads as a result!                                                                                         X.O. 94

 Another example came in the form of impromptu training challenges issued by C.O. 94 that were referred to as “Quick Draws”. Each afternoon between noon and the evening meal C.O. 94 would choose a random group from the crew and challenge them to perform a task such as target shooting with a 9mm hand gun. The catch was that the crew members had no idea who would be challenged, or what the challenge would be. In several instances the simple act of shooting targets with a handgun was complicated by the fact that the hand gun was completely disassembled and the magazines were unloaded. Here the challenge was to be the first to assemble, load, shoot, unload, and disassemble the weapon. Challenges like this were routinely assigned to personnel who did not normally work with weapons, like the ships cooks and medical personnel. Other challenges were directly related to a specific crew member’s area of expertise or associated with damage control and firefighting activities. For example, one afternoon the ship the team assigned to the operation of the ships propulsion engines was called off station and assembled on the flight deck and forecastle, depending on which set of engines they were in charge of. Next the ship was brought dead in the water and all engines were shut down. The challenge for the teams was to quickly return to their engine rooms, start all propulsion engines and bring the ship to its maximum speed. The first team to bring their engines to full power was declared the winner. These exercises kept the crew excited about training which in return resulted in a better trained crew with a greater respect for each other.

Quickdraw” events on deployment were very popular and really got the crew excited (and guessing about who was going to be called next…)                                             X.O. 94

To mitigate boredom, we train, and undertake the activities in your second question [social interactions]. But anything that is different, and at least perceived as difficult and a shared experience does bond people together and improve morale. One of the best things that happened to the crew was the line shaft bearing repair.  I view that repair as the highlight of my command tour, and whenever I run into former NITZE snipes, that is the first thing we talk about.                                                                  C.O. 94

The Blue Nose and Shellback ceremonies are time-honored traditions practiced in several Navies throughout the world. A Blue Nose is a sailor who has crossed over the Arctic Circle and a Shellback is a sailor who has crossed the Equator. Those sailors who have not yet been initiated into these groups are referred to slugs (Blue Nose) and ‘wogs or pollywogs (Shellback). In both ceremonies the week or so leading up to the actual crossing of the respective lines is filled with war council meetings where the initiated plan the trials for the uninitiated and the uninitiated plan and execute pranks on the initiated.

My Blue Nose initiation occurred onboard USS DAHLGREN during my first major deployment. We had spent the majority of our time at sea protecting US Flagged oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean operating areas as they transited the Straits of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war. As a final task for our deployment we were designated as the aggressor ship in war games against the USS AMERICA battle group. This allowed the Commanding Officer control of where to steam the ship. Since we were so close to the Arctic Circle and were denied the chance to cross the equator due to a last minute schedule change, it was decided that the ship would join the realm of Boreas Rex. The ceremony began at just after four in the morning with the Blue Noses running through all berthing compartments banging on trash cans and ordering the slugs to muster on the forecastle in the uniform of the day. For this ceremony the uniform of the day was “skivvies and t-shirts, inside out and backwards”. Before I go on I should mention that this happened in mid-February. Once the slimy slugs were assembled on the forecastle, the ship increased speed to full power (37 knots) for the transit across the Arctic Circle. As we officially crossed the Arctic Circle, the assembled group of slugs was hosed down with salt water to demonstrate the contempt that Boreas Rex had towards them for daring to enter his realm uninitiated. Once the ship transited the Arctic Circle, the ship was brought dead in the water and welcomed aboard Boreas Rex and his court. In order to be deemed worthy to bow before Boreas Rex and beg his forgiveness for our transgressions, we were tasked with transiting an obstacle course that would deliver us to the court. In this case, the court was stationed half way up the port side of the ship. Our journey began by crab-walking backwards down the starboard side of the ship through what appeared to have been remnants of the past weeks food scraps. At random times during this trip we were ambushed and sprayed down with saltwater. This leg ended on the fantail. Once on the fantail we were broken into groups and positioned as if we were various Arctic islands or island chains, my group was the Aleutian Islands. Once in position, the islands were bombarded by the winter storms, again more saltwater spray. After enduring this storm we were granted audience with Boreas Rex where he would deem us worthy to serve in his realm as long as we bowed to his power and ate the olive from his navel.

My Shellback initiation occurred onboard USS MCCLUSKY during a routine six month deployment. This ceremony has a similar theme to the Blue Nose ceremony with the exception that there are three categories of Shellback. While all Shellbacks cross the equator, the Golden Shellback crosses at the International Date Line and the Emerald Shellback crosses at the Prime Meridian. I was to become a Golden Shellback. This is a status symbol amongst the initiated, the Emerald Shellback is the highest honor with the Golden Shellback higher than the Shellback. The uninitiated are referred to as pollywogs, or ‘wogs. The uniform of the day for the ‘wogs was the same as that of the Blue Nose – skivvies and t-shirts, inside out and backwards. Unlike the Blue Nose ceremony which was conducted in the dead of the morning, the Shellback ceremony is conducted at high noon. The ‘wogs were assembled on the 01 level overlooking the assembly of Shellbacks. This signified the beginning of the ‘wog rebellion and acted to prove to Neptunus Rex that we were of proper fighting spirit. This began the trial phase of the ceremony. We were broken up into smaller, easier to handle groups and sent to various stations throughout the ship. At my first station we were instructed to board the paint skiff which was placed on the 01 level on blocks. Once onboard the skiff we were doused with buckets of very warm water mixed with a yellow dye. We were then sprayed down with saltwater and instructed to paddle our skiff away from the storm. We kept this up until we caught our Shellback tormentor off guard and reversed the hose on him. As punishment for the rebellious act we had to walk to our next station with our hands under the balls of our feet – not an easy task when transiting steep ladders. We were next assembled on the forecastle and placed in a wading pool filled with a green dye. This was then followed by several buckets of water thrown at us from various directions to simulate a hurricane or typhoon. We were then deemed worthy enough to transit to the fantail where the court was staged. However, to get there we had to walk through a partially flooded passage way filled with obstacles and more of last week’s lunch scraps. When we finally arrived at the fantail our next task was to swim through a trough of green freshwater in order to make ourselves presentable to Neptunus Rex and Davey Jones. If you were deemed worthy to serve in the Realm of the Deep you were then tasked to eat an olive or cherry from the navel of the youngest Shellback, who was naturally dressed like a baby. After all of the trials are completed, the newly initiated Shellbacks crawled into the rain lockers while the tormentors cleaned up the ship before starting the flight deck picnic as a celebration for appeasing King Neptune. The night is capped with a talent show where the newly initiated Shellbacks recap the day by mimicking their tormentors.

These were huge crew cohesion builders, I remember when I first crossed the line, as do you. Similar to CPO Indoc, it becomes part of a shared major event, that bonds a group together forever                                                                                                            C.O. 94

…how do i view shell back or blue nose ceremonies well i was a part of both and being that it’s a navy tradition for a long time having to go through this with my fellow shipmates was a great honor it drive us to have great spirit and togetherness after the ceremonies we got a certificate that we could frame and put on our wall of fame for reflection on such achievement                                                                                               Al 94

I viewed the shellback ceremonies as a time where we could bond on a different level and actually get along with others better. I saw it as a great factor for crew cohesion cause you had to trust others                                                                                               Rich 94

I don’t know that the individual act is so important but things like this tend to bring people together and they bond through shared experiences, it creates an esprit des corp.  Also everyone wants to feel special and by things like this they are able to feel more a part of the whole and more seasoned or experienced, you could always see the guys that just made it talking smack about those that had not been there.  It also gave people from all rates a common ground.  Engineers, Twidgets, Ops guys all went through the same thing, just like boot camp it gave them a common area to relate to each other.                                                                                                                                 Bubba 55

When I went through the ceremony there was a significant amount of shellbacks and few of us wogs, so it was an us versus them.  The build-up was part of the excitement because the wogs would pull pranks and the shellbacks, would of course retaliate.  The ceremony was an all-day event and after we went through the sludge and sucked the cherry out of Baby Neptune, and beg Poseidon and Company for forgiveness there was a steel beach picnic provide by the “old” shellbacks and for the rest of the evening there was skits, movies and laughter.  It is an important tradition and may be outdated from outsiders but it broke up the day-to-day schedule, it built team unity and it is a time honored tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.                                                                                                                           CHENG 94

In my opinion, ceremonies like these should be a requirement. I will always carry my Bluenose card in my wallet wherever i go. Not because it’s some cool certificate i got while up around Norway, But because it makes me remember my friends from back then. It definitely gave me a better sense of teamwork after the fact.(If you put your hands on the boot toes of the guy behind you then crabwalks aren’t so bad on non-skid) Generally it made me respect the guys and gals that went through it with me even more                                                                                                                        Cruiser 94

I think that ceremonies such as shellback and bluenose are time honored traditions of the US Navy and must be upheld to remind us of where we have come from as a Naval Service. Such ceremonies are very important to enhancing crew cohesion, morale, and camaraderie. Each of the events and storylines that make up the ceremonies have meaning that we as sailors can understand and relate to regardless of rank, and there is no better way of showing the bond and dependency between the officers and enlisted crew than to have them side by side as Polywogs versus Shellbacks       DCA 94

In my opinion, both SB and BN ceremonies are fantastic– and absolutely serve to improve crew cohesion. I think well into the next deployment, folks (who were there) looked at the blue-painted bullnose with a lot of pride. SB/crossing the line? Ditto– folks love those things and I think it’s one of those intangibles that not only improves crew cohesion, but influences people to stay in the Navy.                                           X.O. 94

It gives the crew a sense of accomplishment and a chance to participate in traditions of Naval history.                                                                                                                         MPA 94

Only for those people that were interested in doing the ceremony, because when you actually talk too or see individuals after they finished there was sense of accomplishment. To only hear about it vice going through the ceremony is totally different                                                                                                                                  Smoke 94

The transition of a Blue Shirt into the CPO Mess is one of the most sacred and time honored ceremonies in the Navy. The bonds of brotherhood within the CPO Mess are shared world-wide amongst all Navies of the free world. The selection process begins after a Blue Shirt has held the highest rank within his or her group for a minimum of three years. At this point they are administered a written test to assess the level of knowledge in the areas of their expertise, Naval history and customs, and Naval regulations. This test is administered in January and begins the first stages of liminality for the candidate. The test results are delivered by the end of April, during this time the candidates are not segregated from their community but beginning to meet the requirements of the next phase if they are chosen to proceed. This entails reviewing their Enlisted Service Record for mistakes and missing entries like awards or performance evaluations. As they start the process of gathering the required documents, they begin to show separation from the Blue Shirt community while they gather amongst themselves to compare strategies. If the test scores are sufficient, the candidates Enlisted Service Records are reviewed by a panel consisting of senior enlisted personnel and high ranking officers. This board convenes in June and by the end of July  will have selected the best of the candidates for each job specialty for advancement to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Once selected for indoctrination into the CPO Mess, the chosen are dubbed as Selectees During this time they will still live in the Blue Shirt community berthing areas but in most cases they will be consolidated into a segregated area. With the exception of normal work routine, the Selectee no longer associates with the rest of the Blue Shirt community. This begins the true liminality of the transition, they are no longer considered as a functional member of the Blue Shirt community but they have not been accepted into the CPO Mess. The transition phase lasts for around a month and a half, during this time the Selectees will undergo rigorous physical fitness training, team building exercises, training in Naval history and tradition, as well as general, often demeaning, tasks to prove their worthiness to the CPO Mess.

I was selected for transition into the CPO Mess on my third attempt. There were a total of seven of us in my group onboard USS MCCLUSKY. We were gathered at midnight before the CPO Mess and informed that we were now Selectees and ordered to move from our current berthing assignments into an overflow area which was segregated from the rest of the crew. We were issued our charge book and instructed to make a wooden, lockable box for it by the end of the week. The charge book is used to gather the wisdom of the respected Chief Petty Officers. Our task was to approach every Chief Petty Officer that we encountered and ask that they impart their wisdom in our charge book. Unfortunately each and every Chief had a specific procedure that had to be followed before they would grant our request. When we finally figured out how to ask the right question the Chief would then provide some words of wisdom and usually issue a challenge that had to be met by a specific date. One task asked of me was to produce a 1975 US quarter. The catch is that there are no US quarters dated 1975, that was the bicentennial quarter and all quarters minted in 1975 and 1976 held the date 1776 – 1976. This was the first in a series of the ‘exercise in futility’. With the exception of filling the charge book, all activities of the Selectees were required to be conducted as a group. If any of the group was missing at a required meeting, the rest of the group was required to perform a random number of push-ups, in complete unison. If any Selectee became out of sync, the count started again at one. The normal daily routine started at around 4:30 AM with a three to five mile run, depending on who led the run and our behavior the previous day. This was followed by a short break for us to shower and get cleaned up from the run.  We were then required to serve the Chief Petty Officers breakfast. After the Chiefs finished their breakfast, we were given a chance to eat and relax before the training sessions began. The training sessions were classroom oriented lessons on Naval history and traditions as well as uniform regulations and grooming standards. We were also required to serve the Chiefs lunch and dinner before being given the night off to work on tasking. However, this time off was in no way guaranteed because we could be called upon at any time for additional training or tasking. In addition to the training and food service tasking we were required to hold fund raisers with a minimum goal that was set by the CPO Mess. At the time of the fund raisers we were not provided with any details or reasoning behind the need to raise the money but the funds raised were to be used to reimburse the CPO Mess treasury funds that were used to purchase our first set of Chiefs anchors and combination cover. This phase of the transition period lasted for around eight weeks. During this time we participated in several team building exercises that included a community service project of cleaning the graffiti from the wall of the base daycare facility, a Veterans of Foreign Wars flag retirement ceremony, and speaking at a local high school’s NJROTC rally. This balance of servitude, physical and technical training, and team building allowed the transition process to be demanding, grueling, and rewarding all at the same time. The final phase of the transition was a night filled with individual and team trials that culminated with being brought before the judge to determine if we were worthy enough to become  Chief Petty Officers.  This final night was a test to show that we had faith in our brothers and sisters in the CPO Mess by running through a gauntlet of challenges. The night began with a ceremonial burial at sea for our white hats. The white hat is the traditional Dixie cup hat that sailors are seen wearing, only the Blue Shirt community wears this style of hat. Once we were led to the outside of the ship each of the Selectees placed their white hat on a plank and lowered it into the sea in the same manner as a traditional burial at sea, during this time the CPO Mess lay person[24] read the burial invocation. We were then returned to the CPO Mess where we were given several tasks designed to prove our worthiness. Our first task was to voluntarily drink an eight ounce glass of fish oil, we had to volunteer to drink the fish oil due to Naval Regulations concerning hazing in the CPO transition ceremonies. Of our group of seven, I was the only one who volunteered to drink the fish oil. While the end result was less than pleasant, I wound up vomiting up the fish oil within 30 minutes, the end result was respect from the Chiefs for stepping up to the challenge. The next task was a donut race. For the donut race, we were teamed up in groups of three and four and challenged to push a donut through an obstacle course using only our noses, cheating and other undermining tactics were encouraged. My next challenge was a trust exercise, I was brought in front of a box of broken glass and blindfolded. I was challenged to remove my shoes and walk across the glass – a true Chief Petty Officer can walk on glass without getting cut. The glass was replaced with a box of ice cubes as the challenge was being issued. The goal was to demonstrate my trust that no harm would come to me, any hesitation would demonstrate a lack of complete and total trust. Another trust exercise was to hold my arms in front of my chest in a V shape while a Chief rolled a bowling ball towards my chest, here the bowling ball was replaced with a volleyball and the goal was the same as the glass test. After all of these trust exercises I was brought before the judge. The judge would read the charge book entries and ask a series of questions that were guaranteed to produce an incorrect answer. Since I had figured out that there was no correct answer to any questions, I tried my best to just irritate and annoy the judge. I figured that no matter what I said, I was wrong, why not have some fun with it. Anyway, my punishment for annoying the judge was a five minute confinement in the ice coffin. The ice coffin was a wooden box about ten foot long, four foot wide, and two foot high that was filled with ice. I was more than happy to lay down in the ice for five minutes because by this time of the night (around 5 AM) I was hot tired and smelled pretty foul. However, my taking a nap in their ice coffin only served to irritate the judge more. In the end I was the only one of the group that had to make three trips before the judge, but I also had a little bit more fun with the process than my fellow Selectees. After all was said and done, we were welcomed into the CPO Mess and given the opportunity to take a long hot shower and get some sleep before the pinning ceremony. The pinning ceremony is the time when your sponsor in the Chiefs Mess pins on your anchors and places the CPO combination cover on your head. It is the only private ceremony that is held on the ship, the only personnel outside of the CPO Mess that are invited are the Commanding Officer and any officers who were former Chief Petty Officers. This pinning ceremony is followed by lunch where we were served by the Chiefs.

I think the team building exercises and the ones that are meant to build trust were the best.  I enjoyed my time as a trainer much more than my time as a selectee although the selectee bonding process was much stronger.  Learning to trust others and learning to seek help from someone did not mean you were weak or stupid it simply meant you were smart enough to realize that no one has all the answers.         Bubba 55

To me I think Retiring the National Flag. I have never experienced or have done anything that important before and to actually do it was also good. I don’t know how many people that can say that they have retired a national flag and know the history of it. I have a more deeper respect for the national flag now, because of knowing what I know about it                                                                                                                        Smoke 94

In a military environment social borders are vital for successful completion of the mission at hand.  This is especially true when you have 350 personnel living on 500 foot long warship. However, at times these social borders become social barriers and these barriers can easily destroy the morale of the crew.  With this concept, we can see that properly planned events that break the monotony of the daily routine are vital to establishing and maintaining high crew morale.  Low crew morale is like an unpredictable storm that is lurking on the horizon,  sometimes the clouds form soon enough to steer clear but frequently the storm crashes and morale falls with it. These storms of low morale are more frequent with crews that have not bonded well.

…morale is like a tide and there will be days with the morale is high and days when the morale is low.  One thing I’ve learned is having set goals and a plan to get there.  The crew knows there will be long days but the first step is for the leadership to sit down and come up with a solid plan/game plan.  The second step is to get the word out.  Everyone should know what the boss is thinking and the plan to get there.  There is nothing worse than coming into work and watching people just go in a million directions without a plan in place.  The third step is for leadership to re-evaluate and follow-up with the crew.  If the crew knows well in advance that they have a couple of long weeks ahead of them then they can better prepare for the upcoming mission/task.  Nothing is worse when the crew’s time gets jerked around.    CHENG 94

Over the passage of time the Blue Nose and Shellback ceremonies become less of a hazing event and more like a backyard picnic with a slightly odd theme. While the majority of the shipmates that I talked with agree that the traditions are important to crew cohesion, many of the older sailors dislike this trend because “it’s not like it used to be”. However, the reality is that we can honor these traditions without the need for the harsh hazing practices of the past.

The Bluenose and Shellback ceremonies in my view have a few purposes. It builds crew morale on one hand, but on another it creates a bit of a caste system between those who were already Shellbacks, Golden Shellbacks, so on and so forth. These ceremonies also give grown people an excuse to act like adolescent teenagers by abusing their peers so that they may become ‘worthy’. For me it was a letdown going through the initiations because I had always heard how difficult and gross it was when you became a Shellback. I think they took it easy on us because it is the ‘kinder gentler Navy’. So that pretty much ruined it for me.                                                     Tiny 94

One question that I asked was concerning detractors from crew morale, for the most part this question went unanswered by the interview subjects. The fact that most respondents did not provide examples of detractors to crew morale indicates to me that for the most part, these social gatherings and crew bonding ceremonies are successful when properly planned. However, the following quote, while in the minority for this group of interviews, shows that there is room for improvement.

Overall I think the events that most detracted from crew morale was the CO’s masts. Especially when they proved to be unjust. People would go to mast and be punished because out to sea they have NO RIGHTS! It is absurd! It proves to be an abuse of power by some and onboard ship we cease living in a democracy and we enter into a dictatorship! And that is how it is ran! Very rarely does the crew have a say on what happens concerning anything there may be latitude on when it comes to morale.                                                                                                                                                                      Tiny 94

CO’s mast is a non-judicial punishment administered by the Commanding Officer for violations of Naval regulations. Only significant or severe violations of Naval regulations are processed by CO’s Mast. Since the accused does not have the option of legal counsel, it is often misconstrued by outsiders and many junior personnel as following the idea of ‘guilty even if proven innocent’.  However, the reality of the situation is that before a case is brought before the Commanding Officer at CO’s Mast, the charges are thoroughly examined by a senior officer who has no connection to the accused. Once the determination is made that the charges are valid, the accused is interviewed by the CPO Mess. If the CPO Mess determines the charges are valid the case is then sent to the Executive Officer who makes the final determination on passing the case to the Commanding Officer. Throughout this process, there is no formal defense outside for the accused but his immediate supervisors will be interviewed at all stages to ensure that the truth is brought to the surface.  The quote above from Tiny 94 shows to prove that the justice system onboard Naval vessels is misunderstood by the junior personnel to the point that they believe it to be unjust.

The final area that was explored was the transition of a Blue Shirt into the CPO Mess. This is the one subject that nearly all participants will agree on. While I only had two interview subjects other than myself who are Chief Petty Officers, I have participated in seven additional transition ceremonies. During the early parts of  the liminal stage few Selectees understand the seemingly crazy and often futile tasks that they are assigned. But as they progress through the ceremony they all come to realize the importance of relying on our brothers and sisters to “have our back” and that an exercise of futility is often the best method for proving a point.

Given the close confines and relative seclusion associated with life at sea on a vessel of any size, crew morale and cohesion is vital to the safety and success of the ship and crew. The crews that bond as a family will without fail succeed in all assigned tasks. This family bond cannot be achieved without the planned and unplanned social events that provide the crew time to forget about the mission at hand and just relax and enjoy the company of their brothers and sisters in uniform.

One job that I held while on a shore based command was training ships at sea. Since our presence was an indication of long days ahead with training drills bound to go well into the evening we were often treated as unwelcome guests. This was most evident on the ships with obvious walls built amongst the work centers, the officers, the Chiefs and the crew. Consequently, ships with this attitude rarely fared well in the execution of their missions. Conversely, the ships that welcomed our presence and treated us as if we were long lost relatives and friends usually had strong working relationships amongst all members of the crew and were successful in all tasks.

As is seen through the eyes of the interview subjects, the vast majority believe that the organized social interactions are vital for high crew morale and cohesion. This is especially true during the family holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and even Halloween. Acts as seemingly simple as Christmas door decoration contests, Easter egg hunts, or trick-or-treating are vital to bonding the crew as a family.  It may be counter-intuitive to imagine adult sailors trick-or-treating while deployed on a modern warship in the Arabian Gulf but it is a great morale building experience.

Believe these were critical for crew morale. … I believe a good ship will keep everyone fully employed (preventing the idle hands/devils workshop issues) but have diversions that people would look forward to. As a small goal to get to. …

There is a CO adage that we recruit sailors, but we retain families, so that if they are not part of the equation, then we lose.                                                                              C.O. 94

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