Kristen Elise Clark

Crossing the Line

Seaman, singer and storyteller Frank Woerner is beloved in New York City’s folk music community for bellowing out century-old sea songs. The songs tell tales of hard drinking, big catches, harrowing storms, and women in every port. But Frank, a ex-Navy man, has had his own share of adventure. Here’s the story of his time aboard the USS Herbert J. Thomas, where tropical islands, a mysterious rite of passage, and the thrill of seeing the world inspired his life-long love of the sea.

Note: The in-line audio tabs may take a minute or two to appear.  Make sure to click on them, to hear the incomparable Frank in his own words (it’s the best part).

Here’s Frank to start us off.

Frank Woerner was a teenager in 1953 when he caught his first glimpse of “Victory at Sea,” the series of half-hour television documentaries portraying U.S. Naval forces in WWII. He was captivated. Right there in his living room in Flushing, Queens, Frank made up his mind–he was going to join the Navy.

Back in those days, Frank says, he wasn’t exactly the clean-cut kid you’d expect to be signing up for a life of drills, orders and shined boots. But he got an extra nudge from his mother, who thought he could use some discipline.  Frank was sworn into the Navy at Whitehall Street in Manhattan on January 18th, 1955—shortly after his 17th birthday.

Frank Woerner (bottom left) poses for a graduation photo in 1955

Frank Woerner (bottom left) poses for a graduation photo in 1955.

After graduating from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois, Frank was a given his choice of assignment.

“They put on the blackboard these here ships,” he says. “There was one in Norfolk Virginia, one in Pensacola Florida, one in Brooklyn Navy Yard.”

…Those were not exactly the exotic locations Frank had in mind. But out of the corner of his eye he caught the words “Hawaii” and the “Philippines” on the board;  the USS Herbert J. Thomas, a Naval destroyer deployed in the South China Sea, was in need of crew. Frank couldn’t believe his luck.

In the late 1950s, USS The Herbert J. Thomas was part of a squadron sent to the Formosa Strait—a body of water that separated Formosa (now Taiwan) from the Chinese mainland. It was the Cold War, and the U.S. was intent on maintaining a military base in the region and keeping Formosa independent from communist China.

The USS Herbert J. Thomas (yearbook photo courtesy of Frank Woerner)

The USS Herbert J. Thomas (yearbook photo courtesy of Frank Woerner).

Frank quickly settled into the routine: six months or so patrolling the strait and six at a base in Long Beach, California. Things started to look familiar—too familiar. He repeatedly asked to be transferred somewhere a little more exciting, like an aircraft carrier or a cruiser. But Frank says he was too reliable for the ship to let go.  Little did he know, excitement was exactly what was in store for the Herbert J. Thomas. When the time came for the destroyer to go on a goodwill tour, Frank’s superior officers said they were headed in a new direction.

Frank had never been to the Southern Hemisphere before, let alone to Brisbane. His imagination filled with wild animals and expeditions into the Outback.

And the news kept getting better.

Pago Pago, American Samoa (yearbook photo courtesy of Frank Woerner)

Pago Pago, American Samoa (yearbook photo courtesy of Frank Woerner).

What Frank didn’t realize was that there would be more to heading South than beautiful women in hula skirts: first, he’d have to “Cross the Line.”

"Mermaids" aboard the USS Herbert J. Thomas prepare to take another sailor across the line

“Mermaids” aboard the USS Herbert J. Thomas prepare to take another sailor across the line. Yearbook photo courtesy of Frank Woerner.

“Davy Jones” and another sailor confine a “pollywog” to the stocks. Photo courtesy of Frank Woerner.

The time-honored Naval tradition is something between a fraternity hazing and medieval-style public humiliation.The ordeal left him with some serious bruises and half a head of hair.

photo courtesy of Frank Woerner

Sailors shave the head of a shipmate as they cross the Equator. Photo courtesy of Frank Woerner.

A sailor crossing the line is blasted with a fire hose. Yearbook photo courtesy of Frank Woerner.

A sailor crossing the line is blasted with a fire hose. Yearbook photo courtesy of Frank Woerner.

But, says Frank, it was more than worth it. The USS Herbert J. Thomas was the first American destroyer to enter the Port of Brisbane since WWII, and Frank and his shipmates found themselves more popular than they could have ever imagined.

And as for that Kangaroo hunt they’d planned? Let’s just say that after arriving in Brisbane, Frank had more pressing concerns.

Frank Woerner with his concertina (photo by Jan Christensen)

Frank Woerner with his concertina. Photo by Jan Christensen.

Here’s Frank Woerner singing “Paddy West,” a song about a 19th century boarding house-turned-sailing school with some… unorthodox teaching methods. Listen for the reference about “crossing the line”; you can follow along with the lyrics here.

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