By John Brady, President, Board of Directors, Flagship Olympia Foundation
The USS Olympia, the former Navy cruiser who brought World War I Unknown Soldier home from Europe, is celebrating her 125th birthday this year. To mark the momentous milestone, we’re sharing stories about her crew. These men include the African American cabin stewards and mess attendants who served aboard the ship when the United States entered World War I.
The ship’s crew muster list is located at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Accessing the information requires a research card which is free. The next step was to request to view the list. The request was made and within an hour, we were delicately pouring through one hundred year old documents. Three hundred and forty two men served aboard the USS Olympia in June 1917. They enlisted in the Navy in a multitude of cities – Kansas City, Cincinnati, Dallas, Charlotte, New Haven, Milwaukee, Washington, DC, and Atlanta. The majority of them enlisted before the United States entered the war.
The crew muster list is divided by name, place and date of enlistment, and job. Cicero Barge served as the cabin steward in 1917. Wallace Jenkins was the cabin cook. Walter Coleman, George Coles, Elmer Cummings, Armstead Dixon, George King, and George Pye served as mess attendants. Little more could be found about these men at the National Archives so we started searching for information on them on Ancestry.com.
Ancestry.com’s database contains a wealth of information – census records, newspaper clippings, photos, and phone books which helped us piece together the lives of the African Americans who served aboard the USS Olympia.
Cicero Barge was born in North Carolina in 1886. The year of his birth is recorded in the 1900 Census. Barge and his family were living in the Cross Creek Township of Cumberland County. For readers in the military, you know the area as Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne. Barge’s father was born 1859 and was a slave before the US Civil War.
At some point between 1900 and 1910, Barge joined the Navy. He was assigned to the USS Iowa in 1910. He served at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1920. By 1930, he was living in Norfolk as was a proprietor of a printing shop. But then the United States entered World War II, and Barge is back on the military’s radar. Barge is listed on the March 31, 1942 crew muster list for the Naval Air Station Norfolk as retired. Cicero Barge died on August 4, 1948 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Norfolk, Virginia with a military headstone.
Armstead Dixon served as a mess attendant 1st class. Dixon lived at 213 E Street SW in Washington, DC in 1900. He then enlisted in the Navy on November 5, 1913 and served aboard the USS Olympia in 1917. In 1920, he was assigned to the USS Nero. Like Barge, he was required to fill out a World War II draft registration card which can [be found] on Ancestry.com.
When the USS Olympia arrived in November 1921 carrying the World War I Unknown Soldier, the ship arrived at the Washington Navy Yard, located less than a mile from where Dixon lived as a child.
We tried to find additional information about Coleman, Coles, Cummings, King, and Pye on Ancestry.com and at the National Archives but were unsuccessful in doing so. There is no record of them serving in the Navy during a census year. Similarly, there is no record of their family seeking a military headstone for them upon their death. The one record we have is the USS Olympia crew list.
We researched the 1917 USS Olympia crew because they were serving aboard the ship when World War I started. These men came from Northern and Southern families who fifty years prior had fought one another in the Civil War. Some were the sons of slaves while others were immigrants. Together, they proudly and valiantly served their country.