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The USS Olympia was once known as the "White Slaver" and a Hoodoo ship.


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Did you know that 125 years ago,  April 30, 1895,  one of our national treasures, the venerable cruiser, USS Olympia, was maligned  by some as cursed and her men fed starvation rations, with unfounded and false reports that dozens of her crewmen were deserting?     The cruiser of the "Gilded Age" that ushered in the American Century and the dawn of the United States as a world power, on the legendary words of Commodore George Dewey, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley" and  23 years later had the singular honor of bringing home the  Unknown Soldier from an anonymous, European World War I battlefield grave to be enshrined for eternity at Arlington, early in her life was considered a Hoodoo ship whose men were treated like slaves.  This unfortunate reputation arose from a series of mishaps that cost life and limb during her construction and the first several months of her "shake down" operations off the California coast, following her commissioning on February 5, 1895 at Mare Island, CA and before the ship stood out from San Francisco that August to become flagship of the Asiatic Squadron and a rendezvous with destiny,  three years later, on May 1, 1898 at the decisive and wildly,  one-sided Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898.

The Unlucky USS Olympia.jpg

The Hoodoo  USS Olympia.jpg

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The tragic and gruesome death of 5-inch Gun Captain, Coxswain John Johnson, during a gunnery exercise off San Diego 125 years ago, on 24 April 1895, illustrates the danger faced by the 19th and early 20th century gun captains, who aimed and fired with their heads positioned just behind the breech.   In a similar accident, monitor USS Amphitrite Gun Captain Ernest R. Sherwin also died from a crushed skull when he was pinned between the  lowered 10-inch gun breech and turret floor plates, on 13 July 1899. The Olympia's deck log is terse and clinical in its recording of the incident, though the resutling technical, forensic report generated by the junior officers assigned to investigate the incident by Captain John J. Read is several pages long.  On a humanistic level,  Johnson's tragic and unncessary death, owing to human error and not a supernatural Hoodoo, was grieved by his shipmates who contributed from their modest pay to erect a magnificent monument at his gravesite in San Diego, complete with a detailed, relief carving of Olympia. 

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log april 24 1895 death of John Johnson.jpg

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The Olympia's ship's newspaper,   "The Bounding Billow", prosaicaly described the sad event:

"On April the twenty fourth we cleared for action, preparatory to having target practice with great guns. On this day a horrible accident occurred ; one that will remain for ever engraven on the minds of those that saw it. Coxswain John N. Johnson, captain of gun number three, stepped to his place to fire, with a joke to the gun's crew and a smile on his lip. The next instant, with the smile still lingering on his face, he was hurled into eternity. The great gun recoiled off its carriage, snapping like pipe stems the massive steel bolts that held it in place, crashed down on poor Johnson, hurling him to the deck and killing him almost instantly. Every man stood aghast at the fearful sight. There lay their shipmate, but a moment before in all the glory of healthy, vigorous manhood, now a crushed and bleeding corpse. In spite of themselves a sob arose in the throats of many, and the tears that could not be suppressed coursed down many a harden- ed cheek and, though they strove to hide them, they were tears to be proud of, for a man weeping over the loss of a comrade and friend shows the true nobility and manliness of his nature. There were many conjectures as to the cause of the accident. On investigation it was found that the tube through which the recoil cylinder is filled, was stopped up and when the fluid was poured in, it ran over. This cylinder contains three gallons of fluid, composed of 8 percent of glycerine and 20 per cent water, which working on flanged head of a piston takes up the recoil. The men naturally thought it was full. However Lieutenants E. J. Dorn and W. W. Buchanan were called before a court of inquiry, found blameless and restored to duty. Poor Johnson was buried next day in the cemetery at San Diego with military honors, and the crew subscribed for a handsome stone as a mark of the respect and esteem felt for him. The following memorial, composed by the writer (Apprentice 1c (later Yeoman 3c) Louis S. Young), was printed with the financial assistance of the crew."

" With a smile on his face, lie fell at his post,"

A man among men " of America's host,

No chance for a prayer, not a word of farewell

To shipmates around that loved him so well ;

He has gone to the angels that welcome his soul,

A true, honest heart has arrived at its goal.

The good ship " Olympia " at her anchorage lay,

And proudly she rode on the waves of the bay ;

Our flag floated o'er her, so gay and so bright,

To be lowered in sorrow that sad April night.

It was off San Diego, far out on the lee,

And bright shone the sun on the blue of the sea.

We'd prepared the big guns to fire that day ;

Far out o'er the waters the great target lay.

"Ready ! " the sailor cried as he stepped to his place,

"When the incrashing gun struck him full in the face,

His form, crushed and quivering was borne to the deck,

"No hope," said the surgeon, "it has broken his neck."

A groan of deep anguish arose from the crowd,

While many strong men were seen sobbing aloud.

Oh, how can we bear to lose dear old John ?

He will ne'er be forgotten, altho' he is gone.

A rough, calloused sailor, but a heart true as gold,

And a hand whose warm clasp is now weak and cold.

He lived a gcod life though in humble sphere,

When the last trump shall sound our John will be near,

To answer the call of our King our Lord,

We know he will sit by the right hand of God,

Who in infinite mercy rules both land and sea,

And we hope will judge lightly, weak mortals like we.

He has taken our John in His heavenly band,

Our shipmate's dropped anchor in Canaan's bright land."

In a twist of ironic fate,  Ensign George Mallison, an 1892 Annapolis graduate and native of the Tar Heel State,  the officer who wrote the deck log entry for the accident that killed Coxswain (Boatswain's Mate 3c) Johnson, was himself seriously maimed just four days later in another accident that occurred after the ship had traveled up the California Coast and was anchoring off Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco.   Again, the post incident report logically explained the physical malfunction that caused the mishap.  And again, the "Bounding Billow" report is worth reading, if only for being a wonderful example of how some men could turn a phrase 125 years ago.

"Two days after this sad occurrence we returned to San Francisco, where we arrived and anchored off Sausalito on the twenty-eighth. The old adage that "troubles never come singly " held good in our case, (in fact we used to get triplets as a rule) for, in letting go our anchor, the chain became un- shackled and came flying out of the locker, dragged by the ponderous anchor weighing nearly four tons. As the end came sweeping along the deek it struck the leg of Ensign Mallison, crushing it nearly off and dragging him to the hawsehole. The injured leg was hanging by a few shreds of flesh and had to be amputated. He was carried from the forecastle to the ward- room without losing consciousness. Now the men began talking of a " hoodoo " on board. It made a good many very uneasy and desertions were frequent. On the 30th of April we went to San Pablo bay and thence, on the second of May, to Mare Island where we anchor- ed in midstream. Here we sent Ensign Mallison ashore to the hospital. The next day the ship's company received forty-eight hours liberty (shore leave) and the majority of them went to 'Frisco, where they devoted themselves to shaking long accumulated " sea kinks" out of their legs."

While Ensign Mallison lost one of his legs below the knee, the initial report that his naval career was ended was incorrect and premature.  He continued on active duty until 1907 and returned to service during World War One, and lived to be 69 years old.   The reports of Olympia being a "White Slaver" and a Hoodoo ship were also premature.  Her place in American History is secure and she is alive and well considering she is nearly 130 years old and the oldest steel US warship ship still afloat.  More accurate words to describe Olympia from the first article are,  "Green old age comes gently down on her and her still- sound frame rests in peace along some ripple- lapped beach."

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olympia log 4.30.95 findings of accident sized.jpg

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