Tag Archives: Belmont Forsythe

Crossing the Line

Elizabeth Woods's Equator crossing certificate

Elizabeth Woods’s Equator crossing certificate

The custom of holding strange initiation rituals to commemorate a seaman’s first crossing of the Equator dates back several centuries.  WKU graduate Jean E. Keith, later a historian for the Corps of Engineers, wrote of his experience in October 1943 to his French teacher Marjorie Clagett.  “My head is completely innocent of hair. . . by reason of having crossed the Equator,” he reported, part of a “quaint custom among us sailors to mutilate each new one who does so.”  For two days, he and other newbies–“Pollywogs”–suffered at the hands of the “Shellbacks,” veterans of the crossing whose job it was to oversee the appropriate torments for their successors.  Highlights of the initiation included crawling through a gauntlet of fire hoses shooting salt water, bobbing for hotdogs in a bucket of mustard, and enduring a patch of tar smeared on the scalp and “rubbed in good” down to the neck.  After another dousing by fire hoses, the “Royal Court of King Neptune” officially elevated the Pollywogs to the status of Shellbacks.

Equator-crossing ceremonies are also observed among civilians.  During a cruise to South America, WKU foreign languages teacher Elizabeth Woods received a certificate from “Neptune, the Great God of all the High Seas,” declaring her “duly initiated into the mysteries of Our Realm.”  Referring to the customary mock trial before Neptune’s court, she noted that afterward the condemned “is flung unceremoniously into the swimming pool.”  One hopes the 73-year-old Miss Woods merely witnessed and did not suffer this indignity.

After crossing the Equator and the International Date Line on a single trip, Lt. Col. Belmont Forsythe obtained a unique souvenir: a “Short Snorter,” a $1 bill signed by fellow travelers including, in this case, U.S. Senator and Kentucky Governor Albert “Happy” Chandler.  The holders subsequently identified themselves to each other by producing their Short Snorters; if one was unable to do so, he owed the other either a $1 bill or a drink.

Belmont Forsythe's Short Snorter

Belmont Forsythe’s Short Snorter

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives holdings of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The POW Olympics

Inter Camp Olympics souvenir booklet

Inter Camp Olympics souvenir booklet

On November 15, 1952, three months after the summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, another Olympic-style opening ceremony began on the other side of the world.  Some 500 athletes entered a field carrying “brightly colored banners adorned with the symbolic peace dove.”  An official lit a torch, then the athletes took an oath and filed off the field to the tune of the “March of Friendship.”  Over the next 11 days, they competed in track and field, volleyball, wrestling, soccer, football, basketball and boxing.  They enjoyed food, fun and high spirits, even nightly entertainments featuring songs and sketches.

That was the official version.  But these games were a sham, for the location was Pyuktong, North Korea, during the Korean War.  The “athletes” were prisoners-of-war drawn from every camp in the country, pawns in a propaganda exercise intended to portray the North Koreans in a positive light and emphasize the hospitality they lavished on their captives.

Inter Camp Olympics opening ceremony

Inter Camp Olympics opening ceremony

The activities of the “Inter Camp Olympics” were summarized in a souvenir booklet produced by and for the prisoners.  In bizarrely effusive language, contributors described their experiences.  “It was the most colorful and gala event to come about during our stay here in Korea under the guidance of our captors,” gushed Clarence B. Covington.  “I am certain that no one in his sane mind will ever say that prisoners of war over here are not the best cared for in the whole world today.”  George R. Atkins agreed.  “At all times the cooperation, generosity, enthusiasm, and selfless energy displayed by our captors was perfect . . . .  The lenient treatment policy has long ago passed its title of lenient, it has instead become a brotherly love treatment.”  One can only wonder which of three voices is speaking: that of the brainwashed prisoner, psychologically conquered by his tormentors; the pragmatic collaborator, dutifully repeating what his captors want to hear; or the wise guy, laying it on thick and knowing that nobody back home would be fooled by such a charade.

In 1953, while serving in Korea with the 1st Marine Corps Division, Major Belmont Forsythe, a native of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, was appointed to a United Nations team receiving prisoners of war returning from North Korea.  One of them gave him a copy of the souvenir booklet for the Pyuktong Olympics, and this fascinating propaganda piece is now part of the Belmont Forsythe Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For other collections relating to the Korean War and to prisoners-of-war, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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