Nov. 9, 1921 – USS Olympia arrives at the Washington Navy Yard from France carrying the body of the Unknown Soldier for interment at Arlington National Cemetery. From the Ann Dietrick Collection
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.
The first – and last – of her class cruiser, she was selected to carry the Unknown Soldier. 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.”
Following a solemn ceremony with both French and American troops, the casket was placed on Olympia’s flower-decked stern. With flags at half-mast, her wood polished and brass rails gleaming, the ship sailed out of the harbor of La Havre, France, 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 before it. 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. 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.
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.