Pollywog Mutiny:
A Goodwill Naval Adventure

by Virgil N. Kovalenko

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    How many LDS Explorer Scouts have been involved in a mutiny at sea, piloted a warship, and camped without water on a seaside desert? That’s what happened recently to several members of the Aaronic Priesthood quorums of the Panama District, Costa Rica San Jose Mission.

    It started with a discussion about pollywogs, and it ended in a full-scale rebellion.

    “Man, it was scary for awhile,” remembers teachers quorum president Ferron Coombs, 14. “They herded us all together and turned on some high-powered fire hoses. That cooled everything down in a hurry.”

    The mutiny occurred aboard the USS Manitowoc (LST—1180), which was enroute from the Panama Canal to Ecuador to deliver donated medical supplies and equipment. The LDS young men were part of a group of 27 Canal Zone Explorer Scouts and seven adult advisers who made the voyage at the invitation of Rear Admiral Robert H. Blount.

    The ship’s skipper, an Eagle Scout, invited the young men to participate in all shipboard activities, and the Explorers worked alongside the crew, chipping and painting, swabbing decks, splicing line, standing watches, and learning the intricacies of operating a modern naval vessel. Nicholas Kovalenko, second counselor in the Pacific Branch teachers quorum presidency, became an able helmsman.

    “That was one of the most exciting things I “ll always remember about the cruise,” Nik says. “Once the ship’s crew saw that I had the knack of it and knew how to read the steering instruments, they let me steer the ship by myself. The longest single watch I stood at the helm was about three hours.”

    Late in the afternoon of the second day at sea, the dreaded alarm “Man overboard” sounded. It became more ominous when the words “This is no drill” were added. The ship’s lookout believed he heard a splash and a cry for help. One adult leader recalls, “I was sitting in the officers’ wardroom, convincing myself I was going to become gloriously sick. But when the alarm sounded, I was no longer aware of anything except the fact that I had two sons out on deck somewhere.”

    Fortunately, after a person-by-person muster was verified three times during search-at-sea procedures, there was a collective sigh of relief aboard when the ship’s captain announced all hands were present. The worried adult laughingly remembers, “That’s when it dawned on me that I was no longer seasick. I told the pediatrician who was with us that I thought I had discovered a sure cure for mal de mer—adrenalin!”

    The cruise wasn’t all work and no play, however. Since the ship would cross the equator on October 10, appropriate initiation ceremonies were planned for the “pollywogs.” A pollywog in the U.S. Navy is someone who has never gone across the equator on a navy ship. Once you’ve been initiated, you’re a shellback. The pollywogs included the Explorers and their adult advisers as well as the majority of the ship’s crew. Roy Meyer, 15, one of the LDS Explorers on the Manitowoc, describes the initiation activities as wild. According to Roy, “The night before we actually crossed the equator, there were all kinds of pollywog uprisings and rebellions. Anyway, since there were only 22 crewmen who had been across before, we outnumbered them more than ten to one. After we knocked off from our chores in the evening, the pollywogs tried to capture the shellbacks and harrass them because we knew they’d get back at us during the regular initiation.

    “Boy, we had mutinies going on all over the ship, but they paid us back in full the next day.” In the finest tradition of the sea, the 22 “trusty shellbacks” of the Manitowoc crew insured that all participating pollywogs received their just rewards for various uprisings, rebellions, and other unspecified “crimes.” That’s when the firehoses were used to “control” the unruly pollywogs. Even the adult advisers were found guilty of various offenses.

    “Yeah,” laughs a young man whose father is a U.S. Air Force officer, “they really got my dad. I had already been initiated, so I got to watch him be judged. They issued a subpoena for him that accused him of being a ‘High Flying Fowl from the U.S. Hair Farce,’ and the Royal Judge of King Neptune’s Court decided that was a very serious crime. Dad really got sentenced.”

    After the initiation ceremonies all the shellbacks—old and new—joined together to give the ship a thorough and much-needed cleaning.

    At the completion of the cruise, each new shellback received an official certificate of membership into the Royal Domain of King Neptune.

    The ship arrived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on October 11 and was welcomed by approximately 50 Ecuadorian Scouts and their leaders. Later that night after a tour of the city, a fogata (bonfire) was held in a vacant section of Guayaquil’s Plaza de Juventud (Young People’s Park). The fogata consisted of skits by the Americans and Ecuadorians and a ceremonial exchange of gifts.

    The following day the American Explorers and Ecuadorian Rovers set up a joint camp on a beach near Salinas, Ecuador, where they learned of one another’s camping methods. The beach was part of an equatorial desert where it rains only once every three years. They had an ocean at their tent doorways but no water to use other than what they brought with them.

    Religious services were held Sunday morning. Catholic Mass was celebrated by an Ecuadorian Scout leader who was also a priest, and another Ecuadorian Scouter—a Protestant minister—held services for Scouts of various protestant denominations. I conducted religious services for the Mormon Explorers.

    “It was a humbling experience,” reports Dean Norris, an LDS Explorer. “We knelt together under a tower in an army obstacle course, and Brother Kovalenko administered the sacrament to us and then talked about our responsibilities as living examples of our priesthood and religion.”

    When the Explorers returned to Guayaquil, they shopped for souvenirs and visited some of the historical sites of the city. Walter P. Crespo, the Scout executive for Guayas Province, explained the history of the various monuments and their significance to the citizens of Guayaquil. He even showed them where a branch of the Church held its meetings.

    “Boy, to think that just a few months before, my family was sitting in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City,” Nik comments, “and then to realize I was in South America—what a great time to live!”

    During their tour they spotted some LDS missionaries. “We saw two of them in the city as we rode through on our bus,” recalls Ferron, “and it wasn’t hard to identify them. They wore white shirts and ties and were carrying their zipper-cased scriptures.” Later in the day the USS Manitowoc was opened for public visits, and several of the elders laboring in Guayaquil visited the ship.

    “They surely were surprised when we asked them what part of Utah they were from,” says Michael Kovalenko. “We told them how many of us were LDS and where we’re from. They gave us some copies of the Book of Mormon to give to any crew members who might be interested. It was great seeing the elders; it makes you glad you’re a Mormon!”

    On October 15, 1974, the Manitowoc docked at Manta, Ecuador, the final stop on its goodwill cruise. When the American Explorers disembarked and met their Ecuadorian counterparts, it marked the first time Scouts from any other country had ever visited that city or province. In honor of the visit, Gustavo Escandon, Manta’s Scout executive, arranged for the visitors to see several authentic Indian dances that represented the ancient culture of Ecuador. These dances have rarely been seen by tourists.

    Mutiny, man overboard, spiritual moments, and international brotherhood—it was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for these young Latter-day Saints from the Canal Zone.

    Photos by Virgil N. Kovalenko, Ray Coombs, and J. R. Therrien, courtesy U. S. Navy

    Camping equipment is unloaded from the USS Manitowac in preparation for a seaside desert campout in Salinas, Ecuador

    Back home in the Canal Zone, LDS Explorers held a special court of honor to present awards earned during the cruise

    Explorers Dean Norris and Ferron Coombs are instructed in the basics of navigation while cruising toward Ecuador

    Firehoses cooled down pollywogs sentenced by King Neptune’s Court as the Manitowoc crossed the equator

    Canal Zone Scouts meet Ecuadorian Scouts in Manta, Ecuador. It was the first time American Scouts had visited the city

    Aboard the Manitowoc Eagle Scout Michael Kovalenko learned that a sailor’s job is never done

    The Explorer’s campsite at Salinas, Ecuador. An equatorial desert, it rains here only once every three years

    The LDS Explorers held a combined priesthood and sacrament service crouched under a shelter to protect them from the scorching desert sun

    After the cruise, General William B. Rosson presented a Gold Palm to Nicholas Kovalenko