By Sam Cox, Rear Adm., U.S. Navy (Retired), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to make my first visit to the historic ship USS Olympia (C 6). Berthed at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, she is truly representative of the beginning of the modern era in U.S. Navy ship construction, design and capability.
As a fan of warships, I wanted to see in person this important part of our Navy’s history. As the Navy’s curator, I wanted to learn more about the challenges involved in the preservation and display of historic naval vessels, an area of significant concern for NHHC.
After touring the ship stem to stern, into the deepest recesses with the museum president and CEO John Brady, there is no doubt this ship is a national treasure. She’s the most incredible time capsule I have ever seen, displaying the astonishing degree of rapid technological innovation that occurred in the late 1800’s,
all in one place. A naval officer going aboard Olympia today would recognize the beginnings of virtually every technology now resident on 21st century naval vessels.
Olympia had one of the first attempts at SONAR, was one of the first ships with electricity, refrigeration, experimental radio, triple expansion engines, bow mounted torpedoes and many other innovations. She also incorporated several “lasts” – she was the last major U.S. warship equipped with sails, and the last with a ram.
Shortly after being commissioned Feb. 5, 1895, Olympia, like many ships caught in the middle of a technology transition, departed from her original design as a protected cruiser built for commerce raiding, and sailed for the Asiatic Fleet for forward presence missions. There she spent two years training with the fleet and making goodwill port visits. She eventually became the flagship for Commodore George Dewey, with Capt. Charles Gridley as her commanding officer who sailed her into history at the Battle of Manila Bay May 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Her more notable service did not end there.
The ship served in a variety of roles, when active, until she became flagship, Patrol Force Atlantic Fleet, 13 April 1917. She patrolled off Nova Scotia and escorted convoys before departing Charleston 28 April, 1918 for Murmansk, Russia. There, on 24 May 1918, she joined an allied force during the crisis brought on by Russia’s revolution and her peace treaty with Germany. Olympia landed Sailors to garrison Murmansk, and contributed others to the Allied expedition on Archangel.
In the fall of 1921, Olympia brought home the remains of the Unknown Soldier for interment in Arlington National Cemetery.
And, as a member of the Historic Naval Ship Association, Olympia is about to undergo a new transition. When ships are in the fleet, they go through periodic maintenance called an overhaul. Overhauls serve a vital purpose to ensure ships remain operationally ready. So how do historic ships remain operationally ready to educate the public and preserve our Navy’s history?
Personally, I love seeing every one of these great ships, but USS Olympia is truly special, and her unique historic value would put her at the top of my list of ships deserving of extraordinary effort to preserve them for many decades to come (followed closely by USS Texas).