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.

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.

“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.

Except for this: Americans have never really had much of a romance with war. In 1781, George Washington fretted that the American Revolution might actually fail because Americans are “a commercial and free people” with little taste for war. Ulysses S. Grant could not stand the sight of blood.

What we remember on Memorial Day – and on the battlefields, and even on the bridge of the Olympia – is how reluctantly we have gone to war, and how determined we have been to achieve what Lincoln called “a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The Olympia is not a exhortation to bloodshed; she is a monument to the lengths Americans will go when they are provoked.

The sun has not yet sunk below the yardarm for the Olympia, at least for this summer. James McLane, the president of the Independence Seaport Museum, will hold the Olympia open for visitors until the fall, with the hope that someone may yet step forward to save the ship. And Harry Burkhardt, the president of the “Friends of the Cruiser Olympia”, is struggling to recruit enough donations to preserve the Olympia as a living history museum.

But I suspect that finding the money isn’t the ultimate problem, even in these days of shrunken wallets.

The ultimate problem is that we can’t find the shame.

So if, this fall, the Olympia takes her final voyage down the Delaware, I hope she takes with her all the memories of Dewey and Gridley that are left (and there probably aren’t too many, courtesy of the inept priorities of our school systems), all the memories of The Unknown Soldier and the War he died in, and all the memories of the Stars and Stripes, flung out to a stiff Pacific breeze in the days when the nation felt young and self-confidence pumped through every vein.

On the day she takes her final voyage down the Delaware, I wouldn’t want those memories hanging around to remind us of what the Olympia did for us, and what we didn’t do for her.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, and the author of “Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President.”

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