By Heidi Welte
Real Clear Wire

Every hurricane or severe storm to hit the capitol of the United States brings with it photos of the soldiers who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier solemnly carrying out their watch despite the terrible weather. None of these moments, however, can possibly surpass the eventful journey that brought the Unknown Soldier back home from France, or that of the USS Olympia, the ship tasked with this special mission which very nearly ended in tragedy.

On Oct. 25, 1921, the USS Olympia departed France on her final voyage before decommissioning. Admiral George Dewey’s former flagship, famous since the Battle of Manila Bay, was to take the body of an unidentified American soldier from France to Arlington National Cemetery to be interred at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There was, however, a serious problem discovered while trying to bring the body aboard -- the casket was too large to fit belowdecks, and the Marines guarding the body were, understandably, unwilling to turn the casket on its side or on end to try and make it fit.

The crew of Olympia rose to the challenge and improvised marvelously. The ship carpenters built a weatherproof wooden box to protect the casket during the voyage. This was initially placed on the quarterdeck -- the rearmost part of the top deck that is exposed to the elements, also called the weather deck -- but it was soon moved to a different part of the weather deck beneath the signal bridge. This offered far greater protection from the elements than the barren, windswept quarterdeck. Although not fully enclosed, the casket was still exposed to foul weather. Improvisations in place, Olympia was at last ready to make her final journey across the storm-tossed North Atlantic. It would not be an easy journey, for even in peacetime does treachery lurk within the wind and the waves.

Olympia experienced at tough journeys

Early in her career, Olympia was the flagship of the Asiatic Squadron and thus, was no stranger to to tough journeys and rough weather conditions. Ironically, during her first voyage -- across the Pacific Ocean to take her place as flagship -- in 1895, she found herself steaming though a typhoon. Twenty-six years later, she found herself once again in perilously heavy seas, this time due to the remnants of Hurricane No. 6, is also known as the Tampa Bay Hurricane.

On Oct. 20, 1921, the storm system strengthened into a hurricane and peaked as what today would be classified a Category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale the following day. After entering the Gulf of Mexico, the storm system weakened to a modern day Category 3 hurricane before making landfall near Tarpon Bay, Fla., on Oct. 25 -the very same day USS Olympia departed Le Havre, France, bound for home. After crossing central Florida, the hurricane weakened to a tropical storm by Oct. 29 before dissipating the following day, and after doing an estimated $10 million in damage and killing eight people.

Though no longer recognizable as a storm, that energy was still dissipating through the Atlantic Ocean -- the same ocean being traversed by Dewey’s old flagship. So, although she steamed with relatively calm skies and fair winds, the seas still roiled with the yet unspent energy from this deadly storm. For 10 of the 15 days it took her to make the transatlantic journey, USS Olympia, under the guidance of her Commanding Officer Captain Henry Wyman, plunged ahead through 20-30 foot seas.

The biggest threat to her seaworthiness was the powerful crossways that sporadically collided with Olympia. One of the Marine Honor Guards reported that at one point, the ship rolled 39 degrees, a mere 10 degrees away from capsizing. The same Marine also recorded that a cook speculated how close the next roll would come to capsizing their ship.

High seas make simple jobs challenging

The 100 or so men who comprised Olympia’s engineering department still needed to man their posts in her engine rooms and fire rooms. The firemen were junior enlisted sailors whose job it was to keep her six scotch fire-tube boilers continually fed with coal, and they still had to do so amidst her severe pitches and rolls caused by the violent seas -- without losing their balance and falling against the red hot boilers or breaking their rhythm. Failure to shovel coal at the appropriate frequency risked the boilers remaining lit. Without the boilers staying lit, water could not be heated into steam, steam that was essential to power Olympia’s two triple expansion engines which turned her two screws that propelled her forward through the water.

Because the firemen have to continually shovel coal for their four-hour watch, someone must then bring the coal to them from Olympia’s many coal bunkers located at or below the waterline throughout the ship. This was the job of the coal passers, the most junior enlisted men in the engineering department. For every fireman, there were two coal passers; one to retrieve the coal from the coal bunkers, and the other to place it in front of the fireman in question so he could keep feeding the coal-hungry boilers without needing to stop. This was a hazardous task in the best of times, never mind when a ship is being tossed by the waves like a bath toy, with the coal shifting about with every pitch and roll of the ship.

Thus, it was judged too hazardous to move the coal stores from her more remote coal bunkers into more easily accessible ones; that would have to wait for calmer seas. Perhaps USS Olympia reduced her speed to conserve coal during the storm, since her coal passers were only able to access those coal stores in the most easily accessible bunkers and the greater Olympia’s speed, the more coal her boilers burn though.

Risks of working in engine rooms, fire rooms, and coal bunkers aboard a ship constructed during an era of virtually nonexistent safety regulations aside, at least the men of the engineering department were out of the elements and warm -- fire room temperatures usually ran between 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to the forced air draft system, which brought in fresh air from outside to keep the boiler fires properly oxygenated, while engine-room temperatures usually ran a humid and steamy 90-120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Casket never left alone

Outside beneath the signal bridge, the Marine Honor Guard didn't have it so good. It was under orders from the commanding officer to remain with the casket at all times, and as the sea state worsened, the Marines lashed the casket -- and themselves -- to the ship to lessen the chances of waves, which washed over the weather deck, taking either the casket -- or themselves -- overboard.

Given the Olympia rolled within ten degrees of capsizing, it was not only the lives of the Marine Honor Guard that were in danger, but those of the entire crew. Olympia’s officers and crew comprised 450 men, not including the Honor Guard escorting the Unknown Soldier. Olympia capsizing would have resulted in great loss of life. Had Olympia capsized, those who weren’t drowned in the heavy swells, or due to being trapped within the sinking ship, would have found themselves adrift in frigid waters.

How long would it have taken to locate survivors? Would Olympia have even been able to send out any kind of SOS signal in such an event? If not, how much time would have passed before the Navy realized Olympia was missing? How many of our hypothetical survivors would have yet perished from hypothermia and exposure to the elements whilst awaiting rescue? Would any of them been plucked from the water alive? Conditions did worry the captain and crew enough for the captain, together with the ship’s chaplain, to hold a special church service, where they prayed for their safe passage through the storm.

It seems their prayers were answered when the ship moved into calmer waters. At last could the remaining coal stores be moved to the more easily accessible bunkers, as they were needed to complete the journey -- hundreds of tons of the stuff. The Marine Honor Guard assisted the exhausted coal passers in completing this arduous task. Finally, on Nov. 9, 1921, Olympia arrived at Pier 3, Washington Navy Yard, having successfully completed her important mission. She survived her final, perilous journey and was, at long last, safe and sound.

Olympia’s final mission seems to have been largely forgotten or perhaps overshadowed by other events. That is unfortunate, for the steadfastness of her crew and the bravery of the Marine Honor Guard deserve to be remembered just as we remember the sacrifice of the Unknown Soldier and all those he represents.