Nov 8

The Final Overseas Mission of USS Olympia

Friday, November 8, 2013 2:48 PM
Casket containing the body of America's "Unknown" dead as it rested on the Olympia with a guard of two sailors before being taken ashore for the journey to the capitol. - Courtesy of NHHC-Ann Dietrick Collection.

Casket containing the body of America’s “Unknown” dead as it rested on the Olympia with a guard of two sailors before being taken ashore for the journey to the capitol. – Courtesy of NHHC-Ann Dietrick Collection.

Unknown Soldier of World War I carried from USS Olympia to Capitol Hill Rotunda to Arlington National Cemetery. - Courtesy Arlington National Cemetery

Various photos of the burial of the Unknown Soldier of World War I on Nov. 11, 1921 at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va. Photos courtesy of Arlington National Cemetery

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

She served as the flagship during the Spanish American War, Caribbean Division in 1902, the U.S. Patrol Force in 1917 and American Naval Forces in the Mediterranean in 1919.

But USS Olympia’s most memorable overseas mission was her last: carrying the body of the Unknown Solider for burial at Arlington National Cemetery in 1921.

Just like the Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Soldiers of today, the last steel-hulled cruiser played her part in leaving no warrior behind and giving solemn passage home for those who made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting their country.

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USS Olympia has been preserved since 1957 by the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia.

A Hero’s Return

Upon arrival at La Havre, France, Olympia remained at the pier during a solemn ceremony for the Unknown Soldier’s final journey attended by both French and American troops. Afterward, the casket was placed on Olympia’s flower-deck stern.

The casket of the Unknown Soldier is removed from the USS Olympia at the Washington Navy Yard on 09 November 1921.

The casket of the Unknown Soldier is removed from the USS Olympia at the Washington Navy Yard on Nov. 9, 1921. Photo courtesy of navsource.org.

With flags at half-mast, her wood polished and brass rails gleaming, the ship sailed out of the harbor Oct. 25, 1921, under the salute of 17 guns from a French destroyer. Olympia answered in kind, the last time her guns would blaze. For the next 15 days, the cruiser traveled the Atlantic before pulling into the Washington Navy Yard on this date 92 years ago.

The flag-draped casket was then delivered by the Navy to the Army and taken to the Capitol Rotunda. There the casket, watched over by a multi-service honor guard, lay in state, just as the remains of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley had lay-in-state before. Thousands of people, including the highest officials of government and diplomats from across the nation, paid homage to the Unknown Soldier.

The casket was removed the following morning under military escort, and taken to Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. During the funeral ceremony, the Unknown Soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross, followed by representatives of foreign governments conferring the highest military decorations from their countries. After a brief committal service and a 21-gun salute, the ceremony closed with the sounding of Taps.

Olympia was decommissioned a year later in 1922. Her history was remarkable, most notably as Commodore George Dewey’s flagship during America’s rise to naval dominance in the Spanish-American War of 1898. It was from her bridge that Dewey delivered his famous order during the Battle of Manila Bay: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

The cruiser still holds many historic artifacts and has been preserved since 1957 by the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Despite already spending $5 million on repairs, the museum is no longer able to afford the expense of refurbishing a steel hull every 20 years. Efforts to raise money to keep her afloat are at navycruiserolympia.com.

While the train car that carried the Unknown Warrior for the United Kingdom is preserved by the Kent and East Sussex Railway, the oldest, steel-hull American war ship that carried the Unknown Soldier for the United States is leaking and in danger of either sinking on her own or being sunk to form a reef.

But those who appreciate the history ingrained within her wooden decks and forged into her steel hull, are hoping to stave off the sounding of Taps for USS Olympia.

 

 
 
 
  • Capt Napier

    Please update this page! As of this writing [November 2014) OLYMPIA continues to be cared for by the ISM and will be be kept in Philadelphia. Her material condition is constantly being improved by a small crew of dedicated workers and volunteers. A dedicated Living History Crew meets every month to interpret the Spanish American and Great War and naval history and technology.

  • DJ Blythe

    All Americans must now do what they can to save the USS Olympia, before her final grave becomes a ‘shovel-ready job’