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Opinion

Memorial Day 2010: Don't let the USS Olympia sink from memory

Failing to repair and keep afloat the USS Olympia, a heroic ship of the Spanish-American War, would say a lot about America’s priorities.

By Allen C. Guelzo / May 31, 2010



Gettysburg, Pa.

The USS Olympia was best known for serving as the flagship for Commodore George Dewey and the little squadron of warships that resoundingly defeated the Spanish Navy at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898.

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“You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,” said the imperturbable Dewey to his flag captain, C.V. Gridley. In a legendary feat of naval prowess, Gridley swept the Spanish ships away without a single American battle casualty.

Now for the surprise: The very spot on the Olympia’s bridge where Dewey gave Gridley that order can still be seen, since the USS Olympia floats today, 112 years after the battle, at the Independence Seaport Museum on Philadelphia’s waterfront.

Philadelphia has been Olympia’s home since she was decommissioned in 1922, the year after she brought home the body of The Unknown Soldier in state from France.

Not for long, though.

The museum recently declared that it “can no longer afford the ship’s upkeep.” Repairs to the ship’s corroding steel hull are estimated at $20 million. Instead, the museum is leaning toward having her towed to Cape May, and sunk – yes, sunk – as an artificial reef.

There’s something slightly unsettling in these times to talk about lavishing resources on an artifact of war – especially a war which launched the United States toward acquiring a colonial empire in Asia and creating a corrupt client-state in Cuba. Saving the Olympia simply strikes us as too much like saving your great-great-grandmother’s hoop-skirt – too irrelevant to be interesting, or else too suggestive of a lifestyle we’ve junked.

But by that logic, we might as well junk Memorial Day, too, and all that goes with it.

We went into World War One to save democracy...and got Hitler. We went into World War II to save freedom...and imprisoned thousands of Americans who just happened to have Japanese names. Besides, all those parades full of doddering pensioners seem about as cool as Betty Crocker. And all that sentimental gush about departed comrades only feeds the glorification of war. We might better turn Gettysburg into a nature preserve, and recycle its war-mongering Civil War monuments as land-fill.

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