One hundred years ago this week, the USS Olympia set off from France, carrying the remains of an unknown U.S. soldier who died in World War I. It was bound for the Washington Navy Yard, where those remains would be buried in the newly-established Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Today, the Olympia is docked on the Delaware River as part of Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum.
At a centennial ceremony aboard the ship Monday afternoon, city and military leaders recounted the ship’s historic 16-day voyage across the Atlantic ocean and the harrowing storms that nearly swept the unknown soldier — and the Marines charged with safeguarding his body — overboard.
“There were 41 marines on this boat … honor-bound to stay that casket through all that the sea could hurl upon them,” Brigadier General Walker M. Field said, describing the dangerous conditions as the Olympia sailed through the remnants of two hurricanes.
“Twenty-foot seas broke over the pilot house,” he said. “So treacherous was the surge that a marine’s hip boots were torn off.”
Field described how the casket was tied down with “an impossible amount of rope,” and how the soldiers lashed themselves to the ship’s stanchions so they wouldn’t fall overboard.
“My time in the Marine Corps, I’ve heard a lot of stories,” he said. “They all pale in comparison to lashing oneself, Captain Ahab style, in the middle of a hurricane to do their duty on behalf of the country and at that point the national treasure that we now so well know as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Created in 1921 as a simple marble slab honoring soldiers killed in World War I, the tomb in Arlington National Cemetery has become a tribute to all unidentified service members who perished in U.S. conflicts. The soldier who arrived on the Olympia was the first to be buried at the site.
“While the journey home was difficult and those aboard faced the ultimate test of endurance as the ship found its way through hurricane remnants, they did persevere,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said at Monday’s ceremony. “Their dedication should be an inspiration to us all.”
As the ceremony concluded, guests laid white roses on the spot where the unknown soldier’s casket sat one hundred years ago.
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