It was early November 1921, and the storm-tossed waves of the Atlantic Ocean wrought by the great Tampa Bay Hurricane continually pounded the deck of the USS Olympia as she valiantly fought to stay afloat. Waves approaching 15 feet repeatedly slammed into the ship causing it to roll a precarious 39 degrees. Crew members witnessed the deck plates shifting up and down and feared they might come apart. As chronicled in Marine Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Nicholson’s In Good Hands, Private Frederick Landry said that “all hands and the ships’ cook speculated on how close she would come to capsizing on the next roll.”
Lashed down to the deck of the USS Olympia was a canvas-covered box containing precious cargo. Its importance was so great that a Marine guard was ordered to be stationed by its side around-the-clock. Two additional sentries were also ordered to stand close by and assist should the storm loosen the cargo from its signal bridge mooring. Nicholson wrote that the seas were so heavy that these Marines were “lashed to a stanchion to prevent their being swept from their stations by waves swishing over the decks.”
Tasked with forming and commanding the 40-man Marine Guard to accompany the cargo aboard USS Olympia was Capt. Graves B. Erskine, a battle-scarred World War I veteran who fought at the battles of Belleau Wood, Soissons, and St. Mihiel. Erskine said that when he thought of the cargo washing overboard, “I might as well jump over with” it. His sentiment was certainly understandable, for the box contained the casket that held the remains of America’s Unknown Soldier of the Great War.
Several months prior, the United States Congress approved the burial of an unidentified American serviceman from World War I in the plaza of the new Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. The bodies of four unknown American soldiers were then exhumed from their battlefield graves in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, a Great War veteran and recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal for bravery, randomly selected the Unknown Soldier from among these four unmarked caskets. Amidst great fanfare and newspaper coverage in America and Europe, the famed USS Olympia, flagship of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish–American War in 1898, was selected to transport the body from the French Port of LeHavre. An entire nation anxiously awaited its arrival as a solemn ceremony with President Warren G. Harding officiating was planned for November 11th, the three-year anniversary of the end of the Great War. Numerous foreign dignitaries were to present their highest service awards during the ceremony.
Consequently, the crew of the Olympia was well aware of what was at stake, and as the storm continued to batter the beleaguered vessel on November 5th and 6th, its captain, Capt. Henry L. Wyman, feared that Olympia would sink. He knew that his courageous crew would do everything they could to keep the ship afloat, giving their lives if necessary, but the captain now believed that he needed divine intervention.
He summoned for Lieutenant Edward A. Duff, a Navy chaplain who, by chance, joined the crew in Portsmouth, England to simply hitch a ride home. Duff, from Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School Class of 1903, served in Europe aboard the USS Nevada during the war. He was among the over 1,500 Roman alumni who were World War I veterans. An astonishing sixteen Roman alumni served as chaplains in World War I, including the highly decorated and revered 28th Division’s Reverend Lieutenant Joseph L. N. Wolfe.
Per the captain’s orders, all off-duty sailors and Marines gathered below deck in the mess area where Duff would lead them in prayer to save the ship. A silence fell over the crew as they tightly held on to the stanchions and pipes of the wildly swaying, creaking ship. Nicholson described the scene:
“…while the ship quivered, they fixed their attention on Duff. He told them that God was with the ship and that He was watching over the crew. Duff stressed the importance of a safe passage because a grateful nation was awaiting the ship that carried the Unknown Soldier. Finally, he prayed aloud that the lone soldier lying unknown in a canvas-covered coffin on a deck far above them would reach the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Miraculously, in the hours following Duff’s prayer, the storm’s intensity gradually subsided. For the brave crew, it did indeed seem that God was with them, and all breathed a sigh of relief when Virginia’s Cape Henry Lighthouse was sighted in the mid-morning hours of November 7th.
Duff stressed the importance of a safe passage because a grateful nation was awaiting the ship that carried the Unknown Soldier. Finally, he prayed aloud that the lone soldier lying unknown in a canvas-covered coffin on a deck far above them would reach the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“Never has there been a happier bunch of Marines than when we sighted Cape Henry Light,” Pvt. Landry recalled. The crew of the USS Olympia had fulfilled its duty. The Unknown Soldier was finally home.
In the years after Olympia’s heroic voyage, Wyman continued to serve in the U.S. Navy and was awarded the prestigious Navy Cross for distinguished service as captain of the USS Denver during the Nicaraguan Campaign of 1926-27.
Erskine eventually served in World War II as commander of the 3rd Marine Division at Iwo Jima. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his actions at Iwo Jima and in 1951 he was named commanding general, Fleet Marine Force, Atlantic.
Duff, decorated in 1920 by the king of Italy with the Chevalier of the Crown of Italy for his service aboard the Italian battleship Puglia in the Adriatic, was promoted to captain in 1925. In 1937 he was named Chief of the Navy Chaplain Corps, the first Catholic to hold that position. His lectures on the Unknown Soldier were estimated to have been heard by over 300,000 people. Unfortunately, a heart ailment forced his early retirement and he died in Philadelphia at the age of 58 in 1943.
As for the venerable USS Olympia, she was decommissioned in 1922, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and is now docked in Philadelphia as part of the Independence Seaport Museum. It is the oldest steel American warship still afloat.
On October 25, 2021 I attended a ceremony aboard Olympia commemorating the anniversary of the start of its epic voyage. Numerous military personnel and veterans were present, including an attaché from France. The most poignant moment occurred when attendees placed roses at the location on the deck of Olympia where the box containing the body of Unknown Soldier was lashed to the ship.
November 11, 2021 marks the 100-year anniversary of the first interment ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and for Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School this centennial commemoration holds special significance. Not only is a revered alumnus forever linked to the Tomb’s founding, but Roman’s Alumni Association also has its own “Unknowns” of the Great War. For the last several years we have been searching for the names of the 34 Roman alumni who gave their lives in World War I, and while 19 have been found thus far, 15 names still remain unknown. It seems fitting then that the words of Edward A. Duff from the Class of 1903 not only serve as inspiration for Roman to ‘bring home’ our unknown dead of the Great War, but are also a reminder to all Americans of the importance in honoring the Unknown Soldier:
“You know him and I know him. He was one of the simple, unpretentious boys of the neighborhood. One of the fellows we played with and grew up beside. He is the boy who answered the call to help save his country. There is hardly a mother whose son did not come back alive, nor a veteran who left a buddy on the battlefield, who does not hope and think that man has finally returned home as the Unknown Soldier.” (Edward A. Duff)
Chris Gibbons is a freelance writer from Philadelphia and President of Roman Catholic High School’s Alumni Association. His recent book, Soldiers, Space, and Stories of Life, is a compilation of 78 of his published essays.