Thursday, July 20, 2017

Three Years Behind the Guns of USFS Olympia

I am happy to present the preface for a brand new edition of the classic Three Years Behind the Guns. Originally published in 1908, this book is a gritty, rambunctious memoir describing a young sailor's life aboard USFS Olympia from 1895 through 1898, including his first-hand account of the battle of Manila Bay.

The book is a treasure, and anyone with an interest in naval history in general, or the museum ship Olympia in particular, should read it. The publisher is donating part of the proceeds to the upkeep of the ship.

Click here for more info. 
May 1, 1898 is often cited as the exact date when the United States of America transformed from a relatively minor regional power, to a bona fide player on the world stage. On that day, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey in his flagship Olympia, utterly crushed the fleet of the fast-fading Spanish empire at Manila Bay in the Philippines.

Though it was penned during these heady days, Three Years Behind the Guns is not so much a chronicle of this turning point in history, as it is the unique perspective of one young sailor on the events leading up to it. It is a pithy memoir of life aboard a man-o’-war as the age of “wooden ships and iron men” was giving way to the era of big guns, heavy steel, and high speed. Of these new ships, the protected cruiser Olympia was both a prototype and an outstanding example. Though our author is the main character of this memoir, U.S.F.S. Olympia is the leading lady.

Little is known about the author of Three Years Behind the Guns. On the earliest editions of the book, he is listed cryptically as “L. G. T.” In later editions, he is identified as “Lieu Tisdale.” A check of Olympia’s crew roster at Manila Bay, however, reveals no one of that precise name. Instead, there is a listing for “John B. Tisdale, Landsman.” This is probably our fellow, given that within the book itself, he is addressed on numerous occasions as “Jack” by his shipmates, a Japanese girl, and even by himself while soliloquizing. The reason he chose to publish the book anonymously is unknown. [Olympia's crew roster at Manila Bay may be found here.]

Since the days of Ulysses, sailors have been known for their tall-tales, and our Jack is no exception. His numerous anecdotes sparkle with wit and verve, even when they sound suspiciously apocryphal. The reader will find literal fish-stories here—such as when Jack captures a two-foot-long flying fish on the deck or when a shipmate nearly loses a toe while doing some illicit angling. But there are also descriptions of more somber events that are easily verified by outside sources, such as the death Coxswain John Johnson who was killed during gunnery practice, and the wreck of the steamer On-Wo with the loss of 255 passengers and crew. Jack and his Olympian crewmates pulled 38 survivors from the water and were commended for their efforts.

Olympia in a typhoon.
Perhaps the most impressive thumbs-up for the memoir’s authenticity comes from none other than Admiral Dewey himself, the hero of Manila Bay. In an antique advertisement, the admiral provides a generous endorsement of the book, saying: “Many of my friends and I have read it with the greatest interest. I can vouch for many of the facts; and the description of the Battle of Manila Bay is one of the best I have ever seen published. The type and active life of our American seamen is well and interestingly portrayed, and the book is well worth the attention of both young and old.”

When originally published in 1908—ten years after the battle—Jack’s anonymous memoir met with critical acclaim. The New York Times called it: “An intimate record of life aboard an American man-of-war, and is written with such detail, vivacity, and the knack for vivid expression that it keeps one turning pages until the last one is reached. This Jackie has keen eyes and quick ears, and can put the things he saw and thought about into particularly vigorous English.”

The New York Observer added: “Though sufficiently simple and direct in style to hold the interest of the young reader, this book will be found by grown-ups to be absorbing as a novel.”

When first published, the book was billed as a behind-the-scenes look at life aboard a modern American warship at a time when the U.S. was building giant dreadnought battleships by the dozen and recruiting thousands of young fellows to man them. But time and technology were flying by and within another decade, the catastrophe of the Great War had thrown into eclipse the comparatively minor incident of the Spanish-American War. The subsequent epic struggle of World War II with its colossal ships, ocean-spanning battles and city-shattering weaponry made Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay seem as ancient and obscure as Trafalgar or Salamis.

I believe that the modern reader, particularly the student of history, will find Three Years Behind the Guns even more captivating than the reader of 110 years ago. For young readers of today whose grandparents were born during the 1950s, reading about life aboard a warship from the 1890s is like a visit to an old Victorian mansion. If you’ve toured Dewey’s Olympia in Philadelphia where she exists to this day, you know that is a literal truth. The lovely dark wood paneling and antique furniture in the officers’ quarters contrasts sharply with the painted steel and spartan decks of the crew areas, and the grime and oppressive atmosphere of the engineering spaces. This is the scene where the authentic “steam punk” of Tisdale’s story plays out, complete with coming-of-age hijinks, grinding machinery, clouds of black smoke and moments of sad contemplation.

Like Olympia herself, Three Years Behind the Guns is a hybrid—part solid fact, part work of art. Both ship and book are unique historical artifacts of a bygone era, which is one of the reasons why a portion of the sales of this book will be donated to the continuing upkeep of U.S.F.S. Olympia and her steward, the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. Such beautiful mementos deserve to be maintained if for no other reason than as concrete reminders of how we got here.

A sailor on board Olympia.
This new edition of this classic work will be published in a format that is easily accessible for modern readers. The text is practically untouched from the original. Jack’s unique voice and witty observations come through loud and clear as they did over a century before. His vivid account breathes life into Olympia which he knew not as a retired museum ship, but as the powerful, hardy seahawk that she was in her prime. “The flag-ship is a thing alive,” he wrote. “It has parts and being. We have heard it breathe, and who will question that in Captain Reed, it has both brain and soul?” 

Tisdale originally dedicated Three Years Behind the Guns to “every man who has walked the decks of a man-of-war.” This new edition should be dedicated in particular to the repose of the soul of John B. Tisdale. He was a man who not only walked the decks, but who recorded his impressions with such trenchant good humor and eloquent detail, that people a century and more afterwards might feel as if they are walking along right beside him.

Indeed, if you every find yourself aboard Olympia, go and look for him. You may glimpse his shade still standing faithfully at his post—behind the guns.

To pre-order Three Years Behind the Guns on (due to publish, July 28, 2017), click here.


damarkley said...

Should be USS Olympia, not USFS Olympia.

Florentius said...

USFS (United States Flag Ship) Olympia is how the ship is referred to in the book by the author, so it was kept for consistency's sake.