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Save The Olympia!

July 2024
3min read

The flagship Dewey took into Manila Bay still survives, but it needs help

As April 30,1898, turned into May 1, the USS Olympia steamed down the west coast of Luzon Island in the Philippinesj and entered Manila Bay through the Boca Grande, the wider of the two channels created by thej island of Corregidor. The J cruiser, flagship of the United States Asiatic Squadron, was blacked out except for a single) stern light to guide the three other cruisers, two gunboats, two colliers, and cutter that steamed in two lines behind her.

The squadron’s commander, Commodore George Dewey, could see the pearly glow of Manila, far across the wide bay, lighting the sky to the northeast. Just south lay the Spanish naval station of Cavite, where he knew the Spanish fleet awaited his arrival. He approached Manila to within a mile, and then, at dawn, he steamed toward his objective. At 5:15 A.M. the Spanish opened fire, but Dewey, nervous about his supply of ammunition, held off until he thought his ships were at optimum range. Finally, at 5:40, standing on the starboard side of the flying bridge of the Olympia , he gave the now-famous order to his flag captain: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

The American fleet, modern, mobile, well maintained, and massively gunned, far outclassed the ancient, decrepit, and anchored Spanish ships. In a few hours the latter were little more than twisted heaps at the bottom of the anchorage, 381 of their sailors dead or wounded. The American fleet, virtually unscarred, had suffered only 7 casualties and no combat deaths.

In future years historians would note that this was a moment of profound transition for the world. The country that had built and dispatched Dewey’s fleet had spent the previous century growing, in splendid isolation, from a fledgling republic into a colossus. Now for the first time it was projecting its immense power far abroad, and it would spend the next century, ever increasingly, as the world’s dominant military, economic, technological, political, and cultural power. For Spain, on the other hand, the Battle of Manila Bay was the pathetic end of nearly four hundred years of empire.

Today the Olympia , moored on the Philadelphia waterfront, is the very embodiment of the era of technological and geopolitical transition in which she lived. The full-rigged sailing ship had dominated sea warfare for three centuries after its development in the late 1400s, and the last battle fought entirely under sail, Navarino, had taken place as recently as 1827, during the Greek War for Independence. But the Industrial Revolution affected naval warfare no less profoundly than it affected everything else. At first, steam merely supplemented sails for power, and wood remained the primary construction material. Then, in 1860, the Royal Navy built its first iron-hulled and armored ship, HMS Warrior . But the Warrior remained, essentially, an updated version of the old ships of the line, with a full suit of sails and many relatively small guns arrayed along her sides.

The USS Monitor , built two years later, was the first truly modern warship, for her two massive guns were mounted in a turret that could turn to fire in any direction. The Iowa -class battleships of World War II were really nothing more than vastly enlarged and elaborated Monitors .

The Olympia is roughly halfway between the Monitor and the Iowa in terms of development. She carries four 8-inch guns in two turrets along with ten 5-inch guns and numerous smaller ones. But the “officers’ country” is still located over the stern, where it was in sailing days, rather than forward, as in twentieth-century warships. And the officers’ quarters more closely resemble those on a yacht than on a modern warship. The admiral’s cabin even has a fireplace. Meanwhile, the enlisted men still slept in hammocks, slung wherever there was room, just as Nelson’s sailors had a hundred years earlier. The Olympia ’s engines, powered by coal that was shoveled by hand, could drive her at twenty-two knots, but they were of a piston-driven, reciprocating design that, basically, dated back to Robert Fulton. The stokers and others who labored in the engine space had to endure nearly inhuman conditions.

In 1906, fourteen years after the Olympia ’s launch, HMS Dreadnought introduced the all-big-gun design and turbine engines that quickly rendered ships like the Olympia obsolete. Still, the Olympia had a long career after her day of glory in Manila Bay. For more than a decade she served as the flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron, and she remained in commission until 1922. The year before, she was chosen to convey the body of America’s unknown soldier back from France to rest in honor at Arlington National Cemetery.

She was laid up at the Philadelphia Naval Yard and was very nearly broken up at the outbreak of World War u, when the Navy was desperate for scrap steel. Only President Franklin Roosevelt’s deep interest in naval history saved her. But the Navy was uninterested in its own history, and the Olympia languished in decay, as did such other historic vessels as Farragut’s flagship, the USS Hartford . In the 1950s most (including, inexcusably, the Hartford ) were broken up, and the Olympia was systematically vandalized of many bronze fittings, which were illegally sold for scrap. Nevertheless, she survived, and a local group, the Cruiser Olympia Association, opened her as a historical exhibit.

Today she remains a singularly important relic of the past, not only a central player in a very important moment in American history but also one of only half a dozen ships—dispersed all over the globe in Russia, Britain, the United States, Chile, and Japan—that survive from the long period between the end of the age of sail and the beginning of World War II.

The Olympia was recently turned over to Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, which has impressive expertise in historic preservation, and she remains open to the public. She was long in shocking disrepair, but today her situation is beginning to change. She was totally repainted in the fall of 1997, at a cost of no less than $250,000, and her decking and electrical wiring was replaced. But another $5 million, at a minimum, must be found to put the Olympia in the tiptop shape so important a relic deserves. If you would like to contribute to this worthy project (fully tax-deductible), write to the Independence Seaport Museum at the Olympia Fund, 211 South Columbus Blvd., Philadelphia, PA 19106-3199.

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