PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (WHTM) — The year 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the selection, return from Europe, and interment at Arlington Cemetery of the Unknown Soldier.
Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia chronicles the seafaring history of Pennsylvania. “People don’t think about Pennsylvania as a maritime state, and yet we are,” Peter Seibert, CEO and president of the museum, said. Its most famous exhibit — the cruiser Olympia.
“The historic Olympia is an amazing vessel,” Seibert said. “She is truly the last of her kind. She was built at the end of the 19th century as a steel and iron warship, meant to show to the world that America was on stage, and we were a world power.”
Commissioned in 1895, Olympia gained national fame during the Spanish-American War as the flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. Its service to the country didn’t end there.
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As Seibert explained, “She served in the Spanish-American War, then during the First World War, in guarding troop transports. She was there during the Spanish flu epidemic, helping out in the Adriatic. She was then in Russia supporting American efforts against the Red Russians and supporting the White Russians. She had a really, really long history that was so much a part of the story of the early 20th century.”
This history made Olympia an obvious choice to bring the Unknown Soldier home from France.
The museum has a special temporary exhibit on board the ship, detailing what happened on that trip. It is called “The Difficult Journey home” for good reason.
Olympia left France on Oct. 25, 1921, with the coffin on the afterdeck at the stern of the vessel. The ship’s crew wanted to move the Unknown inside for the rest of the voyage, but the hatches were too narrow for the coffin.
“And no one wanted to be disrespectful by turning it up on end or tilting it,” Seibert explained, “so they agreed they would probably try to find a place for the body to rest outside on the ship, and they would lash it down.”
The Unknown ended up on the signal deck, encased in a specially made box, wrapped in canvas, and secured in place with every lashing they could find. A detachment of Marines stood guard 24 hours a day.
The special exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum includes animations created for the museum by contributing partner Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and Assistant Teaching Professor Dan Rose.
The animation shows what it was like when Olympia sailed into the paths of not one, but two tropical storms — the remnants of “Hurricane #5” and the “Tampa Bay Hurricane.” (The idea of giving hurricanes proper names didn’t catch on until the 1950s.)
“And the Olympia was tossing around like a cork. And the marines who were designated to guard the Unknown, they actually lashed themselves to the coffin, to the ship itself, which must have been terrifying to be out here, tied on this way.
“It wasn’t straightforward sailing, it was up and down, up and down, so you had to keep a good head of steam going on Olympia. That was an all-hands operation, and it really, really was,” Siebert said.
The Olympia is equipped with two triple-expansion steam engines, the same type of engines that powered the Titanic and every Liberty Ship built during World War II. Keeping a good head of steam meant burning coal, and lots of it.
As Siebert explained, that presented a couple of problems during the storms:
“The coal was stored in bunkers that ran along the sides of the ship, and that was to be added protection as well, in case of attack. But it meant that these guys had to be downstairs, shoveling coal on a constant basis. There was no mechanical stoker that you put in the coal and it feed it out.
“Coal produces ash, and so every roughly four hours, they had to get the ash out so you wouldn’t fill up with ash and lose your efficiency. And that had to be brought up on hoists, out of the bowels of the ship, and dumped overboard.”
Burning coal and dumping ash made the ship lighter, which meant the hull rose further out of the water. That changed the center of gravity, which made it less stable, which meant it rolled farther — on a ship that already had a long-standing reputation as a “roller.” At one point, the Olympia heeled over a full 39 degrees, just a few degrees away from capsizing.
“And then of course the ship is rocking at the same time,” Seibert said. “It’s groaning, it’s moaning, the ship itself is adjusting to being battered. So you can just imagine how terrifying it would have been.”
The crew of Olympia spent much of the 15-day voyage fighting foul weather and high seas. Finally, on Nov. 9, Olympia docked at the Washington Navy Yard, where the Unknown was transferred to a caisson and taken to the Capitol to lie in state in the rotunda. Sailors and Marines could take pride in a job well done, and probably breathe sighs of relief.
For the Olympia, transporting the Unknown was the last hurrah. In 1922 it was decommissioned and languished at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Then in the early 1950s, the Navy announced plans to scrap some of the older vessels, including Olympia. History-minded Philadelphians came together to rescue the ship, and in 1958, it became a floating exhibit on Philadelphia’s waterfront.