In 1883, Moses Gulesian legally emigrated from Armenia to the United States. Reportedly penniless, his hard work and ingenuity made him a self-made millionaire. In 1905 when Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte proposed sinking the USS Constitution by using her for target practice, Gulesian’s sense of patriotism for his new country led him to send a telegram to Bonaparte: “Will give ten thousand dollars for the Constitution, Old Ironsides. Will you sell?”
Although the offer was refused by the U.S. government, it created the same groundswell of support for the ship that had once compelled Oliver Wendell Holmes to pen his own poem in 1830 that saved her from being scrapped. The USS Constitution remains the oldest commissioned warship afloat (only Britain’s HMS Victory is older but she is in permanent dry dock). USS Constitution remains an integral part of this country’s naval heritage, a reminder of the maritime dangers that led the early Republic to build her and sail her in harm’s way. She is a visible reminder for every one who passes through Boston and the half million people who walk her decks every year.
Today another historic ship faces numbered days. Commodore George Dewey once stood on Olympia’s deck commanding the U.S. fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War and issuing the order: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” Today, she remains unique – the world’s oldest steel warship afloat. More importantly, she represents the beginning of America as a Mahanian power.
According to the Independence Seaport Museum’s website, raising the estimated $20 million in capital necessary to restore and maintain her has been difficult. The Museum stated it’s approached “the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Navy, the federal government, and private funders.” Given the current fiscal challenges in both the public and private sectors, raising the funds can be problematic. But some have pointed out that even within government, funds for projects might be diverted to the Olympia. As pointed out by at least one milblogger, according to a July 7 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Pennsylvania’s new budget includes $20 million to housing the papers of the late Democratic Congressman John P. Murtha, and the soon to be retired Democratic Senator Arlen Specter.” On the federal level, approximately $20 million was spent for road signs promoting the so-called “American Jobs and Recovery Act.”
As a result of the inability to raise funds, the cruiser Olympia may be sunk, possibly as an artificial reef. According to ISM’s website, “the Navy has advised ISM that they are willing to authorize ISM to responsibly dispose of the Olympia.”Because of lack of funds, the museum was to cease public tours today, November 22, but recently announced that it had received sufficient funds to keep it open temporarily. To address this issue, “the museum also said it’s going to hold a summit early next year to discuss the ship’s future and funding. Officials from the Navy, National Park Service and Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission are expected to attend.”
If neither public nor private funds alone can be identified, then the answer may be in a third way: recommission Olympia.
There are many precedents for recommissioning ships for operations but perhaps the best precedent is that of the USS Constitution, recommissioned several times, the most recent in 1931. Like Japan’s Mikasa or England’s Victory, Olympia could simply be placed in a permanent drydock on exhibit, if not in Philadelphia, then perhaps at the Naval War College or the Naval Academy. Both sites have direct and historical ties to our Navy and maritime heritage, tourists, and students.
Recommissioning should not be a catch-all justification to preserve any ship, but should be reserved for those few that hold a unique status in our nation’s maritime heritage. If USS Constitution represented the boldness of a young, inventive republic challenging great powers in single-ship actions (not including her defeat of Cyane and Levant), the Olympia reflects the industrial and military force of the republic as it took its place among the great maritime powers.
If Olympia is allowed to be scuttled or scrapped, we might paraphrase a World War II quote: “Where is our naval heritage? The world wonders.”
LCDR Claude Berube, USNR, teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is a frequent contributor to Naval Institute Proceedings and Naval History. The views expressed are his own and not those of the Naval Academy or the Navy.