2021 Marks the Centennial Anniversary of the Return of the Unknown Soldier

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The arrival of the remains of the Unknown Soldier at Washington Navy Yard, Nov. 9, 1921 (Library of Congress)

By the time the protected cruiser USS Olympia departed from the United States on Oct. 3, 1921, it was already one of the most storied ships in the entire U.S. Navy.

Its next mission, which would be its last, was no less important than the rest of its service life. The Olympia was to transport the remains of the United States’ Unknown Soldier of World War I from the port of Le Havre, France, back to the U.S. capital.

Olympia was launched in 1895, the largest ship ever constructed on the U.S. west coast at the time. It was faster, more heavily armored and heavily armed than comparable ships in the British Royal Navy, the leading sea power of the age.

But the United States wasn’t about to go to war with England. In January 1898, the legendary American naval leader Commodore George Dewey boarded the Olympia, making it the flagship of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. Four months later, war broke out with Spain and Dewey’s fleet steamed toward the Philippines.

It was aboard Olympia that Dewey oversaw the Battle of Manila Bay. The U.S. Navy soundly defeated the Spanish fleet in a lopsided victory that saw the destruction of the enemy fleet. Dewey then landed a force of United States Marines on the islands to knock out the coastal defenses. The Philippines would soon fall to the Americans as well.

The USS Olympia fires on the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay. (Library of Congress)

When news of the victory arrived in America, Dewey and the Olympia became instant celebrities. The Olympia returned to its home base in China before being recalled to Boston. After serving as a training ship, it again entered service.

This time, it was for World War I, but the Olympia didn’t go to Europe. It was the flagship of the U.S. Patrol Force, guarding the Atlantic Coast. Olympia didn’t see action during WWI, but it did transport members of the Polar Bear Expedition to Russia when the U.S. intervened in the Russian Civil War of 1918, briefly occupying the port city of Arkhangelsk.

After leaving Russia, the Olympia became the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron before coming home to American waters. That’s how it ended up in Philadelphia, steaming for France for one last mission.

On March 4, 1921, the U.S. Congress was looking for a way to memorialize the sacrifices of American soldiers and sailors in the Great War. It decided to bring the remains of one soldier back home, to be immortalized forever in Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown.

Aboard the Olympia with its cadre of Marine Corps guards, the journey home was not an easy one. The ship encountered the remnants of two hurricanes, making the voyage perilous for the steamer. For two-thirds of the 15-day trip, it rode 20- to 30-foot waves while crossing sea lanes. To make matters worse, the crew was unable to store its precious cargo below deck. The casket and its remains could only be held topside as the storms wreaked havoc on the cruiser.

Despite the weather and rough seas, the Marines never left the Unknown Soldier. They lashed themselves to the ship's decks and maintained their watch.

The ship and the Unknown Soldier arrived in Washington’s Navy Yard on Nov. 9, 1921. The ship fired its guns in salute to the soldier.

He lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda until Armistice Day, Nov. 11, when he was transferred to his final resting place at Arlington. President Warren G. Harding officiated the interment ceremony, where the unknown was awarded the Victoria Cross by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty, on behalf of King George V.

The USS Olympia arrives in Washington Navy Yard carrying the remains of the World War I Unknown Soldier. (Library of Congress)

Olympia eventually returned to Philadelphia, where it was decommissioned in 1922. Due to the ship’s historic importance, it was restored to its original condition in 1957. Today, Olympia is the oldest American steel warship still afloat and is preserved in Philadelphia as part of the Independence Seaport Museum.

In October 2021, the museum will commemorate the centennial of the soldier’s return in a joint ceremony with Le Havre, France, to remember the perilous journey of the Olympia carrying the Unknown Soldier’s remains back to the United States.

To learn more about the Olympia or the centennial event, visit the Independence Seaport Museum’s Centennial website. To learn more about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or to plan a trip, visit Arlington National Cemetery’s website.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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