Thursday, August 26, 2010

Historic warship may weigh anchor for final sortie .....

This summer, during an all-too-brief stop in Philadelphia, I hiked down to the riverfront to visit, once again, the U.S.S. Olympia ... at the time, I didn't know that it may have been a farewell visit.

A grand old ship that stayed the course in the face of the Spanish Navy more than a hundred years ago, the Olympia has been ravaged by time, the relentless barrage of the elements and - admittedly - an inadequate maintenance program. She's the oldest steel warship still afloat, and the last of her kind in all the world. But, barring a dramatic change in her fortune, she may soon go to the bottom forever.

The Olympia is a snapshot in time, and a glimpse of the revolutionary changes in the practice and technology of naval warfare that were taking place in the late 19th-century. Her gun turrets resembled those that were introduced by the U.S.S. Monitor during the American Civil War, though they were dramatically improved. She brought a new, larger and more lethal generation of deck guns into the fray, as well. Her armament also included above-surface torpedo tubes, which would see their heyday in later ships, in the next century. And while she was powered by a new type of coal-fired steam engine, she still had masts capable of carrying a set of sails for emergency propulsion. And she was one of the first of the Navy's ships to have electricity and powered steering gear.

It was not only a transitional period for warship design worldwide, but one for warship policy in the United States, as the U.S. Navy's focus shifted outward from coastal defense, to project our growing influence around the globe. The Olympia and others of her generation (including the U.S.S. Maine) were a preview of the Great White Fleet that would circumnavigate the world 15 years later, demonstrating America's military power and "blue-water" navy capability.

In a number of ways, the Olympia would make her mark in history. She is perhaps best known for her services as Commodore Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manilla, during the Spanish American War. It was from her deck that Dewey spoke the famous words "You may fire when ready, Gridley," launching the attack that resulted in the sinking or capture of the entire Spanish Pacific fleet, and silencing the shore batteries at Manila. I remember my first visit to the Olympia, as a youngster, scrambling up to the deck, and standing on the brass footprints that marked where Dewey stood when he said those words.
In the years that followed, Olympia was active in the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. She served as a training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy. She was a barracks ship in the port of Charleston, South Carolina, until America's entry into World War I, when she went back to sea. She saw service in the Russian Arctic as part of the brief Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. In 1921, she brought home the body of America's Unknown Soldier from World War I. Shortly after that, the U.S.S. Olympia was decommissioned.

Today, she is part of the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. It's been reported, though, that the museum is no longer able to fund the ship's preservation costs. It's been noted that "historic steel-hulled ships should be dry docked for maintenance every twenty years, but Olympia has been in the water continuously since 1945." Essential repairs are estimated at $10-million ... a staggering cost to say the least. The Independence Seaport Museum has set November 22 as the date it will close the Spanish-American War era battle cruiser Olympia to the public. What will happen to the national historic landmark after that remains uncertain. Plans to scuttle the Olympia, making her into an artificial reef are under consideration.

An independent non-profit corporation known as the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia was recently organized with the goal of preserving the Olympia. I wish them good luck and Godspeed in their efforts. In the "for what it's worth" department, I plan to send a contribution to help them in those efforts ... and I ask you to give thoughtful consideration to making a contribution, as well.

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