The "Living History Crew of the USFS OLYMPIA"

by Patrick McSherry 
A few of the members of the Living History Crew of the OLYMPIA pose at the forward turret.
Click here to take a virtual tour of the USFS OLYMPIA, the Living History Crew's abode.

Click here to read about the group's work on the televsion documentary "The Spanish American War: Birth of a Superpower"
Click here to read about the Living History Crew's Brass Band's trip to Montpelier, Vermont celebrating the centennial of Dewey's Return
Click here to read about Crewman Mike Borsuk, who passed away on June 30, 2000
Click here to read about the Crew's involvement in the filming of a documentary about the Battleship MAINE


There is only one place in the world where there can be a truly authentic recreation of the life of the Spanish American War navymen - aboard the USFS OLYMPIA in Philadelphia, PA. Why? The reason is simple. She is the only warship of the Spanish American War battlefleets that has survived to the present day. She is now the base of operations for the “Living History Crew of the USFS OLYMPIA,” a highly dynamic group of military historians.

Historical Background:

Seaman Reinsmith attacks!The American navy of the 1890’s was a navy reborn. In the 1870’s and early 1880’s, the United States navy had practically disappeared. Few ships remained, and those that still afloat were highly outdated veterans of the American Civil War. Up to eighty percent of the crews of the naval vessels were not even American citizens, with large numbers of British, German and Scandinavian mariners. Discipline was unduly harsh and invoked for even the smallest of offenses. American navymen were not welcome in most shops and restaurants in the country they chose to represent, where signs stating “men in uniform not served” were common.

The late 1880’s and 1890’s saw a revolution in the U.S. Navy. New steel ships were built, some rivaling the best in the world. Discipline was made more humane. The new naval leaders, such as Mahan and Luce believed in the education of the growing fleet. The Naval War College began moving ahead. Suddenly, American citizens were attracted back to service in the U.S. Navy, with the balance of the navy crews now being American citizens. A tremendous esprit d’ corps developed that was virtually unrivaled in American naval history.

Jack McSherry working in the pilot houseThe men of the U.S. Navy developed an amazing confidence in their abilities and in those of their ships. Still foreign nations, used to seeing the antique American vessels and armament plying the seas, were not all cognizant of the great change that had occurred. This change was a major event  in a time when the might of a nation was measured by the strength of its navy.

The leaders of the American navy understood the need for the nation to develop a strong navy and develop world-wide coaling bases if the nation as a whole would prosper and grow. Men such as George Dewey, William Sampson, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt were waiting for the right moment to push their policies of expansion (or ”jingoism”). The Spanish American War provided that chance.

The History of the “Living History Crew of the USFS OLYMPIA”:

“The Living History Crew of the USFS OLYMPIA” was founded in 1996 to accurately portray  the life of the American navymen of the Spanish American War era. Its members were carefully chosen for their living history abilities, and their ability to work together in close quarters under adverse conditions (the vessel is neither heated nor cooled, for instance). The living historian’s daily schedule is lengthy and very strenuous. It demands stamina and a tremendous dedication to the vessel. All crewmen commit toa long-term relationship to the ship and crew, and therefore, by necessity, most be reasonably local (Crewmen who can only make a commitment for an individual cannot be used, since the high amount of training, generally done elsewhere and not aboard ship before the public is necessary, and the work is geared to develop a local volunteer corps).

The goals of the “Living History Crew of the USFS OLYMPIA” are three-fold:

  1. Members themselves must want to strive to learn about the Spanish American War era navy and all aspects of the general history of the era. They must be driven to learn as much as they possibly can about this era.

  2. Members must want to pass along this learned information to the general public in an entertaining manner, and be willing to develop methods and modes for meeting this goal.

  3. Crewmen must want to work towards the eventual restoration and maintenance of the vessel and utilize the above two goals as a means of aiding in this process.

Chief Cook Johnstone at work in the galley.The crewman’s ideal must be to strive to understand the mind of the typical crewman aboard the  USFS OLYMPIA in the Spanish American War period. They must want to learn how these men lived, what they thought, what they ate, and what they did. They must want to learn the customs of these men, of the era in which they lived, and of the area of the world in which they served at this time (basically, Far East, 1890’s). The crewmen must want to portray these men, their lives, their camaraderie, their hopes and fears in a way that will bring history alive to all who visit the vessel, and hopefully even for the crew members themselves. Crewmen work to present a “first-person” impression at all times.

All members of the crew are cross-trained in many different drills and activities. For instance, a bandsman is not only  a bandsman. He must be able to serve on a gun crew, drill at singlestick or small arms, give personalized presentations on other topics of his choice, and still be able to play three concerts a day. All crewmen are expected to contribute ideas and research to the group.  Crewmen are also expected to make the commitment to spend the time required to learn about the war, their role with the crew and to teach others. Also, crewmen have to bear the expense of their travel, uniforms, food, and all pieces of equipment they intend to bring aboard the vessel. For the crewmen, working as a member of the living history crew is more than a hobby.

Through their intensive study of the Spanish American War, these men have striven to show the life of the common sailors of the times, and the activities they performed aboard the vessel. At present the crew provides the following ever-growing  list of demonstrations and presentations:

5" gun drill
6 Pounder gun drill
"Single stick" (cutlass) drill
French foil fencing
Small arms drill
Signaling (both Myer and International Code of Signals)
Engine Room operations discussion
Chanty singing
Knot-tying and ropework
1898 era church services held by the crew's chaplain on the ship's fantail.
Concerts by the 14 piece recreated USFS OLYMPIA Brass Band  which plays the favorite music of Spanish American War sailor, including a variety of traditional  and Sousa tunes.
In addition, the crew's meals are prepared by the ship's cook inaccordance with the period navy cookbook, in the ship's galleyand served to the crew in the  adjacent mess area.
The daily life of the sailor is portrayed throughout the crew's stay.
Ensign Miller instructs in single stick drillThe equipment used by the crew are not merely stage-type props. If a crewman is operating a  piece of equipment, such as a sextant, signal flag, rifle, or a length of line, it is not just "for looks." The pieces of  equipment are real and the crewmen using them must truly be able to operate them as intended. The vessel's navigator canactually navigate using his sextant and his own hand- drawn charts. Those crewmen portraying engineering personnel understand how items such as triple expansionengines actually work, and are able to explain how they operate. Men carrying swords must know the art of fencing. The men on the gun crew must actually understand their position and how the gun operates, etc.

All equipment used and worn by the crew is documentable to the Spanish American War. Some of it is original. The remainder is copied from originals of that time period. Uniforms are made for the crewmen in accordance with the original navy uniform regulations (World War One and Two uniforms are not acceptable). The uniforms are copied even down to the weight per ounce of  the original material. Shoes are identical matches to those worn during the war.

Because of its abilities and authenticity, the crew has been given many honors. It appeared in The Lou Reda Production documentary entitled “The Spanish American War: Birth of a Superpower” which was shown on the History Channel. The crew also appeared in Television Espana’s six-hour documentary on the Spanish American War. An article on the crew also appeared in Military Magazine (July, 1998). The crew’s band played at the official Centennial of the Battle of Manila Bay Ceremonies held aboard the USFS OLYMPIA where its members were officially complimented by Rear Admiral Thomas Marfiac. The crewmen were also honored guests at the Naval Memorial in Washington DC in April of 1998. Later, in October of 1998, the crew had the honor of taking part in a ceremony honoring the donation of one of the OLYMPIA's original battleflags, the gift of the descendents of Capt. Lamberton.

During 1999, the crew had the opportunity to take part in a ceremonies commemorating the Battle of Manila Bay, and Philippine Independence Day.

In April of 2000, the crew was photographed for use in Avalanche Press' new Spanish American War strategic wargame called "1898." Also, in 2000, the crew appeared in Lou Reda Productions' "Battle History of the U.S. Navy," which appeared on the History Channel. This was the third major production in which the crew has appeared.

Sadly, April, 2000 also marked the last time that Mike Borsuk, one of our original crewmen, was able to be aboard, albeit, only for a visit. Mike passed away on June 30, 2000. In Mike's honor, the crew created the "Michael Borsuk Fund for OLYMPIA Preservation" to aid in raising funds to preserve the ship on which Mike expended so much effort.

In July of 2001, the Living History Crew of the USFS OLYMPIA enjoyed the opportunity to act as the crew of the ill-fated Battleship MAINE in the filming of a documentary centering on the rediscovery of the wreck of the MAINE off the coast of Cuba. Several of the crew members were interviewed because of their expertise in various aspects of the MAINE story, and other crewmen portrayed the MAINE crewmen in the period before and during the terrible blast that destroyed the ship and over 260 of her crewmen. During the filming, the crewmen enjoyed the oportunity to meet Randy Heneberger, the descendant of the MAINE surgeon, Lucien Heneberger. To read more about this filming project, click here.

For more information on the Living History Crew of the USFS OLYMPIA, please contact Patrick McSherry.

For dates when the crew will be aboard the OLYMPIA, please see the general events schedule.

Part of the USFS OLYMPIA Brass Band

Return to Main Page

Return to Re-enactors Page