Cruiser Olympia and the Unknown Soldier

Centennial Anniversary of the Journey Home

"The burial of the Unknown Warrior should give the whole country an opportunity to express in a National way, their tribute to the glorious dead.  It will bring consolation and assuage the grief of the twelve hundred families whose sons died unknown and unidentified, for each and every family will proudly claim this by as that of their own son."

                                                                                                                 -Congressman Hamilton Fish III, March 9, 19211

Just steps from the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington Nation Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia lies Unknown Soldiers from various conflicts, Unknown Soldiers, that will rest "...in honored glory [...] known but to God."2  The first Unknown Soldier to be buried with such honors was the American Unknown Soldier from World War I in 1921. 

2021 marks the Centennial Anniversary of the American Unknown Soldier from World War I's transportation home from France to the Washington Navy Yard.  But what some people may not know is the story behind the selection of the Unknown Soldier and the perilous journey aboard Cruiser Olympia as she made her way across the Atlantic Ocean.  And the brave men who risked their lives to protect the soldier they, nor the nation, would never know.   

Selection of the Unknown Solider

On March 4, 1921, Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American soldier from World War I in the plaza of Arlington National Cemetery's new Memorial Amphitheater.  The journey of the World War I Unknown to Arlington began in France in September 1921 when four American bodies were exhumed from unmarked battlefield graves.  U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger (a World War I veteran who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal) selected the Unknown Soldier from among four identical caskets at city hall in Chalons-sur-Marne, France.  [...] the chosen casket was then transported to Washington, D.C. aboard the Navy cruiser USS Olympia.  Those remaining in France were interred in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery."3

 

U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger pictured at right.

 

The Difficult Journey Home

Cruiser Olympia (CL-15) left LeHavre, France on October 25, 1921, with not only a full crew but also with a Marine Detachment Unit whose duty it was to guard the Unknown Soldier until they safely arrived in Washington, D.C.  For the crossing, the casket containing the remains of the Unknown was placed within a larger transport container for protection.  Due to the size restrictions of the doorways aboard Olympia, the crew was unable to move the case below deck without disturbing the remains inside.  This meant that the remains had to be stowed topsides in a secure location just below the after signal bridge for the turbulent crossing.  Ship Captain H.L. Wyman, Olympia's Commanding Officer, ordered Captain Graves B. Erskine, Commander of Olympia's Marine Detachment, to command his Honor Guard to watch the Unknown Soldier around the clock.  To keep the transport case safe, it was lashed down securely as possible to prevent loss.

While sailing westbound, Olympia encountered the remnants of  "Hurricane 5" and "Hurricane #6," also known as the 'Tampa Bay Hurricane" of 1921.  Both had crossed Florida within a week and continued to track (albeit it weakened) into the North Atlantic Ocean in Olympia's direction.  These combined tropical storms subjected Cruiser Olympia, the crew, and the Unknown Soldier's remains to ride 20 to 30-foot waves for 10 of the 15-day voyage.  

The cross-waves were especially threatening, as the ship was at risk of capsizing.  During the storm on the Atlantic, the intrepid marines aboard lashed themselves to the ship to prevent from being swept overboard as huge waves violently pounded the veteran ship.  As Erskine recalled later on:

We lashed the fellow down with everything that we could tie on him.  Many times the waves would go up the bridge...and in the wardroom, we had at least four inches of water most of the time...We had some very rough weather coming home, and there were times we thought we might not make it home.  The chaplain and the captain got together and he had a special service, praying to God that the ship wouldn't sink.4

Marine Private Frederick A. Landry was quoted as saying: "I began feeling sorry for myself standing there in a small area with wind and rain pelting me in the face, but my self sorrow didn't last long.  I soon realized that what I was doing was little enough compared to what the Unknown Soldier had done - given his life."5

Because of the bravery of those who were aboard at the time, the Marine Commander and his Honor Guard, Olympia's commanders, navigators, coaling engineers, sailors, and stewards, the ships was able to weather the storm and deliver the Unknown Soldier's remains safely to the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921. 

Remembrance

As stewards of National Historic Landmark ship Cruiser Olympia, Independence Seaport Museum proudly partners with the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (SHGTUS)'s Centennial Committee, and others in solemn commemoration as we honor the Centennial Anniversary of the Unknown Soldier's journey home to his final resting place.  Throughout 2021, we will be sharing stories, presenting programming, hosting discussions, and premiering digital content that highlight not only the difficult journey home but also what it meant to be a soldier and an American citizen during World War I and how the challenges they faced more than 100 years ago still resonate today with new generations. 

Check this website and the Museum's social media channels (@phillyseaport) for up-to-date programming information.

References

For more information on National Historic Landmark ships Cruiser Olympia: https://phillyseaport.org/olympiahttps://flagshipolympia.org/

For more information on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Tomb-of-the-Unknown-Soldier

For more information on the Society of the Honor Guard and the Centennial Celebration: https://tombguard.org/centennial/

Page References

1: Quote provided by the society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknown Solider

2: Quote provided by Arlington National Cemetery's website. 

3: Information provided by Arlington National Cemetery's website. 

4: Erskine quote taken from interviews recorded between the fall of 1969 to early spring of 1970.  The complete interview is part of Independence Seaport Museum's Cruiser Olympia collections. 

5: Last Voyage by Dennis D. Nicholson, Jr. pg. 44