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USS Olympia: Symbol of a Sea Change

By Jon Guttman 
Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: April 30, 2014 
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Olympia innaugurated the United States' transition into a global seapower at the May 1, 1898, leading an American fleet in defeat of the Spanish at the Battle of Manilla Bay. (New Vanguard #143 US Cruisers 1883-1904, by Lawrence Burr, © Osprey Publishing, LTD; illustration by Ian Palmer)
Olympia innaugurated the United States' transition into a global seapower at the May 1, 1898, leading an American fleet in defeat of the Spanish at the Battle of Manilla Bay. (New Vanguard #143 US Cruisers 1883-1904, by Lawrence Burr, © Osprey Publishing, LTD; illustration by Ian Palmer)

Displacement: 5,870 tons
Overall length:
344 feet 1 inch
Beam: 53 feet 5/8 inch
Armament: Four 8-inch guns, ten 5-inch guns, fourteen 6-pounder guns, six 1-pounder guns, four Gatling guns and six 18-inch above-surface torpedo tubes
Complement: 33 officers, 395 enlisted men

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Weighing 5,870 tons—the heaviest of seven new cruisers authorized by Congress in 1888—the protected cruiser Olympia incorporated major improvements amid the U.S. Navy's modernization program. Its larger hull dimensions (344 feet 1 inch long with a beam of 53 feet 5/8 inch) accommodated vertical triple-expansion engines rather than horizontal steam engines, enabling it to exceed 21 knots. It was also the only protected cruiser to house its main armament of four 8-inch guns in two double turrets, which along with ten 5-inch guns in beam casemates was a more efficient arrangement than those of its predecessors or contemporaries. Built at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, Olympia was launched on Nov. 5, 1892, and commissioned on Feb. 5, 1895.

Designed to engage an enemy fleet before it could approach American shores, Olympia inaugurated the United States' fateful transition into a global power—just a few years after "showing the flag" in the Pacific—when it served as the flagship of Commodore George Dewey's Asiatic Squadron of four cruisers, two gunboats, a revenue cutter and two transports as he entered Manila Bay on May 1, 1898. A Civil War veteran and disciple of Admiral David Farragut, Dewey was an aggressive tactician. He decisively defeated Rear Adm. Patricio Montojo y Pasarón's attempt to coordinate his more numerous but outgunned ships with shore batteries, annihilating the Spanish fleet and leaving the Philippines ripe for the taking.

After service in the Caribbean and as a training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Olympia patrolled the Atlantic during World War I, participated in the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War and in 1921 carried the remains of the Unknown Soldier back from France for interment at Arlington National Cemetery. Placed in reserve in 1922, it was restored into a floating museum ship in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1957 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Time and the elements have taken their toll and the survival of the oldest steel U.S. Navy warship still afloat will require an estimated $10 million restoration, which may be close to fruition. Given the historic transition Olympia represents, it deserves preservation.


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