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Sunday Cruiser Blogging: USS Olympia

USS Olympia, Battle of Manila.jpg
USS Olympia, Battle of Manila. By Murat Halstead – Our Country in War by Murat Halstead (1898).

Two weeks ago I visited USS Olympia, currently preserved a a war memorial in Philadelphia.

Olympia displaced 6600 tons and carried four 8″ guns in two twin turrets, fore and aft.  Olympia was commissioned at roughly the same time as USS Texas and USS Maine, both of which were eventually classified as second-rate battleships. Olympia differed from those ships by armament for speed; while the battleships carried 10″ or 12″ guns, Olympia could make 21.7 knots. The USN initially hoped to use her as a surface raider, with sufficient firepower to attack enemy commerce but sufficient speed to escape from any capital ships. The work of Alfred Thayer Mahan helped change this thinking, refocusing US attention on larger capital ships. In any case, the fact that the United States increasingly depended on maritime trade as much as its plausible foes (even in the Age of Rail much US domestic trade transited the Mississippi along the Gulf and East Coasts) likely necessitated some changes in thinking.

At the time of Olympia design and construction, the terms “cruiser” and “battleship” remained in flux; thus Olympia’s similarity in size to the two battleships under construction at the time.  It remained uncertain at the time whether the cruiser-battleship dichotomy would encompass size or function, or both.  This remained the case even after the emergence of the pre-dreadnought type, when large, fast, lightly armed “armoured cruisers” competed with battleships for attention.  After Dreadnought, thinking on this question generally tended to accept that “battleships” and “battlecruisers” were two variants of the same general type, while “cruisers” represented a different family.  The Washington Naval Treaty gave this thinking concrete legal form.  Of course, things played out differently across the world’s navies.  

In any case, Olympia was built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco, and entered service in February 1895.  She crossed the Pacific between August and November, and in November became flagship of the US Navy Asiatic Squadron.  The Asiatic Squadron was generally tasked with looking out for US interests in the Western Pacific, and was largely based at Hong Kong.  Commodore George Dewey took command of the Squadron in January 1898, as relations between the United States and Spain became strained.  Although the Philippines had little to do with the dispute, the very presence of the Asiatic Squadron would become legally problematic at the beginning of hostilities; the US had no coaling installations west of Hawaii, and in the event of war the Asiatic Squadron could be impounded for the duration by its hosts.  In part because of these considerations, the McKinley administration ordered Olympia and the rest of the squadron to attack Spanish forces in Manila.

On the morning of May 1, 1898, Olympia and the rest of the squadron steamed into Manila Bay and engaged an obsolete, undersized force of Spanish warships.  After several rounds of gunfire the major Spanish warships were sunk or in flames, with trivial losses on the US side.  Spanish dispositions did not enable the fleet to take advantage of available coastal defense guns.  Olympia remained on station for the duration of the war, assisting in the US conquest of the Philippines when feasible.  She played no significant role in the opening stages of the Filipino-American War, and returned to the United States in 1899, at which point she was decorated and promptly placed in reserve.

Until 1917, Olympia alternated between periods in the reserve fleet and periods of light service, including training, patrol, and some expeditionary operations.  In 1917 she underwent a substantial refit, losing her 8″ gun turrets and her 5″ secondary armament.  Both were replaced by new 5″ guns, and Olympia resumed a patrol role along the Eastern seaboard. In April 1918 Olympia was tasked with escorting an expeditionary force to Murmansk, part of America’s effort to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution in its crib. She arrived in Murmansk in June, and carried out operations against Arkhangelsk. After leaving Russia, she spent most of 1919 and 1920 in the Mediterranean.  She remained one of the US Navy’s most distinguished ships, and was often designated as a flagship.  In 1921 she returned the Unknown Soldier from France to the United States.

By 1922 Olympia was hopelessly obsolete, and was placed in reserve.  In 1931 she was designated to become a war memorial.  She was lucky to escape the scrappers in World War II, who unnecessarily carved up USS Oregon, the other famous survivor of the Spanish-American War.  In the 1950s she was restored to her 1890s configuration and opened as a museum ship in Philadelphia.  Over the years the management of Olympia has seen a great deal of tumult, and periodically the ship was suffered from under-maintenance.  At one point last decade, it seemed likely that Olympia would be scrapped or scuttled as a reef.  Significant assistance from the National Park Service and from private donors prevented this, however, and some work has been done to ensure Olympia’s continued structural integrity.

To my eye, the visible aspects of the ship appear to be in excellent shape.  Olympia is docked just across the river from USS New Jersey, a contrast that is helpful for appreciating both ships.  Unfortunately, the engineering sections of Olympia are not open to tour.  The historical education exhibits are generally quite good, including one plaque on how Olympia was affected by the Spanish Influenza. The layout of the decks offers some sense of what it must have been like to prepare for battle at Manila Bay.

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