Commemorating the Centennial of the Return of the Unknown Soldier

USS Olympia (ISM)

Published Apr 5, 2021 1:27 PM by Billy Cook

The Independence Seaport Museum (ISM) has announced its plans to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Return of the Unknown Soldier on the historic cruiser USS Olympia

After the end of World War I, the U.S. Navy chose the cruiser Olympia to return an unknown American soldier’s remains to the United States. Launched in 1892, the cruiser Olympia represented the best of American ingenuity and naval strategy for her generation. She was equipped with electric illumination, artificial refrigeration, rotating gun turrets and heating for crew spaces. Olympia rose to fame as Commodore (later Admiral) George Dewey’s flagship during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and she patrolled the American coast after the U.S. entered World War I. She also played a crucial role in the 1919 Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War and promoted peace in the unstable Balkan countries. 

Fittingly, her final act of service was the transportation of the remains of the American Unknown Soldier from Le Havre, France, on October 25, 1921, to her destination at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921.

Given her status as the era’s most famous vessel, Olympia’s selection to bring home the remains of the Unknown Soldier served to commemorate both the ship’s and the soldier’s service. However, the journey home proved difficult as Olympia and the Unknown Soldier’s Marine Detachment Unit encountered tropical storm-force winds and 20 to 30-foot waves for most of the 15-day voyage. Thanks to the crew’s bravery, Olympia weathered the storm and safely delivered its precious cargo to the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921. 

The Unknown Soldier’s remains were laid to rest in the newly established Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Olympia was officially decommissioned in 1922, ending 27 years of service.

In 1957, the U.S. Navy donated Olympia to the Cruiser Olympia Association, which restored the ship and opened her as a museum the following year. Olympia was officially granted National Historic Landmark status in 1966. The association eventually transferred ownership to ISM in 1996, beginning the Museum’s stewardship of Olympia.

The Museum has since overseen further restorations and made the historic cruiser open for touring visitors. ISM’s long-term goal is to raise funds to eventually dry-dock Olympia to ensure her preservation for years to come.

“For many Americans, the Unknown Soldier represents the supreme sacrifice in the cause of freedom,” said ISM President & CEO Peter Seibert. “As a boy, I remember visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and being so impressed by the precision and the silence of the changing of the guard. It showed me the solemnity of the story of the Unknown Soldier.”

The monument is dedicated to all of the missing and unknown service members who gave their lives to protect our nation. The tomb is the final resting place of the American Unknown Soldier from World War I, as well as other unknown fallen heroes from later wars. It is guarded at all times by the Society of the Honor Guard, who stand watch over their graves in humble reverence, ensuring the Unknowns rest in peace. 

"The flawless execution of the critical mission handed to the crew and Marines of the USS Olympia in 1921 set the tone for our nation to remember and honor the service and sacrifice of our Unknown Soldier,” said President & Public Affairs Chair of the Society of the Honor Guard, Gavin McIlvenna. “I applaud Independence Seaport Museum for preserving Olympia and the legacy of the Unknown Soldier’s difficult journey home so that future generations may remember the sacrifices made by so many.”

On May 28, ISM will open a new exhibition aboard Olympia titled "Difficult Journey Home," which will detail the dramatic story of the Cruiser’s voyage transporting the Unknown Soldier across the Atlantic. For its annual Memorial Day ceremony on May 31, the Museum will unveil a permanent historical marker on Olympia that commemorates the Unknown Soldier and memorializes his story for future visitors. 

ISM’s Centennial Anniversary events will culminate with two joint ceremonies with the Society of the Honor Guard honoring the official Centennial Anniversary of the Return of the Unknown Soldier. The first will observe the Unknown Soldier’s departure from Le Havre, France, on October 25, 2021, followed by the second honoring Olympia’s arrival to the Washington Navy Yards on November 9, 2021.

Billy Cook is a communications consultant for ISM. Throughout 2021, ISM will host virtual and in-person events related to the Centennial Anniversary programming, including virtual panels discussing the history of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and an event with Opera Philadelphia to discuss their film, Soldier Songs. Learn more on the events page of the ISM website.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.