Wednesday, September 10, 2008

204 Years to the Day



"Here then lie the remains of Somers, and his two gallant friends; and it might be well to instruct the commander of some national cruiser to search for their bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land. Their identity would at once be established by the number of the skeletons, and the friends of the deceased might find a melancholy consolation in being permitted to drop a tear over the spot in which they would be finally entombed." – James F. Cooper

Two hundred years to the day that US Secretary of State Condi Rice set foot in Tripoli, the bodies of thirteen Americans washed ashore Tripoli harbor.

On September 5, 2008 Condi Rice visted Tripoli and met Col. Quadaffi in the same tent that the US military bombed twenty years previous.

On September 5, 1804, the doors to the dungeon at the old castle fort creaked open to allow Dr. Cowdery and a detachment of other prisoners from the captured frigate USS Philadelphia to properly bury the bodies of the American sailors who were killed in a tremendous explosion heard by everyone in the city the night before.

According to the contemporary journal of a seaman in the American squadron blocking Tripoli harbor, "….the Ketch Intrepid got under way and was sent into Tripoli as a fire ship. Commanded by Capt. Somers, he had our green cutter to make their escape from her. At three quarters past 9 she blew up in which unfortunately perished Capt. Somers, Mr. Wadsworth, Mr. Israel, Midshipman and 10 Men. It is supposed that she took fire in the magazine sooner than was intended or that they were attempted to be boarded by the Tripolitians and blew her up sooner than suffer her and themselves to fall into the hands of the Tripolitians, as she had 100 barrels of powder on board…The loss of those brave officers and men are much to be regretted by their country and friends. Capt. Somers was as brave and enterprising an officer as ever stepped the Deck of a ship possessing every Virtue that the human heart is susceptible of…"

"…All of the thirteen bodies were recovered…by the Tripolitians, reports Garden W. Allen (in Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs [Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co. p. 209-210], Two were found in the bottom of the ketch, which grounded on the rocks at the north side of the western entrance, one was in the six-oared boat, which drifted ashore to the westward, four were floating in the harbor, and six were picked up on the beach southeast of town…..Dr. Cowdery (of the captured USS Philadelphia), distinctly states in his journal that he ….was able to pick out three of them as officers, although of course it was not known in Tripoli how many officers were in the party, or how many in all. His opinion was based on the softness of their hands and a few fragments of clothing…The bodies were buried south of the town, the three supposed officers by themselves."

Another report states, "(Captain) Bainbridge (of the Philadelphia) and his men buried them on the beach and erected…a fieldstone above them….to protect against the ravages of wild dogs that took the place of scavengers and street cleaners in Tripoli. The little wooden crosses they set up were knocked down by the populace as abhorment to their faith."

James Fenimore Cooper, in Graham’s Magazine (Vol. XXI, No. 4) wrote a profile of Richard Somers in which he authoritatively reported, "…The ten seamen were buried on the beach outside the town near the walls; while the three officers were interred in the same grave, on the plain beyond, or cable’s length [200 yards] to the southward and eastward of the earth. Small stones were placed at the four corners of the last grave, to mark its site; but they were shortly after removed by the Turks, who refused to let what they conceived to be a Christian monument, disfigure their land."

In her biography of Richard Somers, Glory at Last, Barbara Koedel wrote, "In 1949, as a result of research by Mustafa Burchis, harbor master of Tripoli, and the United States Counsul Orray Taft, Jr., the graves of five men killed from the explosion of the Intrepid on 4 September 1804 were found in the Protestant Cemetery there. On April 2, 1949, the U.S.S. Spokane put in at Tripoli. In a short address, Rear Admiral Cruzen spoke of the exploits in the Barbary War; Captain W. J. Marshall narrated the Intrepid mission; and Consul Taft told of the research to identify the graves and unveiled a plaque: "In honored memory of five unknown American seamen buried here who died in the explosion of the USS Intrepid, Tripoli Harbor, 1804.’ Captain Lt. E. J. Sheridan read a short paper; an honor guard of Marines fired several volleys over the graves and played taps."

A photo of the graves, with U.S. Counsel Orray Taft, Jr., Rear Admiral Richard Cruzen, Capt. W. J. Marshall and Prince Taher Bay Karamanli standing above it is posted on the internet and available from the Navy Archives. Unsaid, and what’s interesting, Prince Taher Bay Karamanli is a direct descendant and namesake of the Bashaw Karamanli who ruled from Tripoli castle in 1804.

In the 1960s, Major Jack Templeton visited the graves while stationed at Wheeler Air Force base. He wrote that, "As a USAF pilot stationed in Libya for three years, living in Tripoli, I can attest to a simple grave site in the center of town (100 yards from the shore) with the names of five U.S. Marine who lost their lives there, ‘On the shores of Tripoli.’"

These five graves were removed from the original grave site by Italian soldiers who were building a road and reinterred at the cemetery site. While it is not yet ascertained which remains belong to who, we do know the names of the thirteen men who lost their lives on September 4, 1804 and whose remains were recovered and burried the next day.

Besides Lt. Somers, the Captain of the Intrepid, Lt. Henry Wadsworth (uncle of Longfellow) and midshipman Joseph Israel, there were six men from the USS Constitution – William Harrison, Robert Clark, Hugh McCormick, Jacob Williams, Peter Renner and Issac Downes, and four from the USS Nautilus – James Simms, Thomas Tompline, James Harris and William Keith.

Sometime in the 1970s, two tourists from New Jersey, Patricia Dougherty, a member of the Leonia Borough Council, and her friend, Melba Edmunds, "…discovered the cemetery, all but hidden in weeds, while vacationing,…They found markers placed on the graves in Tripoli and commemorated by the Navy in ceremonies in 1949." The article about the graves in American Legion magazine sparked another attempt to repatriate their remains and an act of Congress was passed to make room for the return of the men for reburial at Arlington National Cemetery, sponsored by Rep. William Hughes (D. N.J.).

More recently, while in Tripoli covering the recent visit of a Congressional delegation led by former Congressman Rep. Curt Weldon, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sudarsan Krafrica easily found the grave site and reported [in an email], "…I visited the cemetery, but the Libyans wouldn’t let me take a picture. I’m trying to change their minds…" He later said that the cemetery is in a sad state and not surprisingly, didn't look like was being cared for at all.

A New Jersey historian exchanged letters with an Italian soldier who participated in the removal of five of the remains from the original grave site to the cemetery site in the course of construction of a road during the Italian occupation, but this information is contained in a missing manuscript on the life of Somers.

But the location and state of the graves is well known to anyone interested. There is the original grave site in the Green Park next to the Old Castle Fort, which should contain the remains of eight individuals, including the three officers, and then there are the remains of five reburied at the Old Protestant Cemetery. Most recently a DIA newsletter reported on the efforts of the officers of the US Embassy in Tripoli to secure and maintain the cemetery site.

On September 5, 2008, two hundred and four years to the day that the men of the Intrepid washed ashore, Secretary of State Condi Rice visted Col. Quaddafi in Tripoli, signaling a new relationship between our two countries, and ending hostilaties that began over two centuries ago.

While other issues seem to take priority, the issue of the repatriation of the remains of the Americans must eventually be brought to the table.

The remains of these men should be treated like any other US military servicemen who were killed in combat in enemy territory, and honorably repatriated. Unlike the procedures used by the North Koreans, who delivered the remains of 50 US servicemen in a single box of bones, there is a proper procedure for securing these remains, and a Department of Defense unit [DOD POW/MP office] responsible for doing it right.

This U.S. Military detachment includes forensic pathologists who can properly identify the remains of all the Americans buried in Tripoli. These remains should be treated in the same way that all casualties are treated today, and returned via Germany to Dover AFB, Delaware, where they can be properly processed before being buried with full military honors at the Arlington graves awaiting them.

As J.F. Cooper so aptly put it over 150 years ago, the time has come "…to instruct the search for the bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land."

Photo #: 80-G-707157

Ceremonies at Tripoli, Libya, 2 April 1949

Conclusion of memorial ceremonies for five unknown Sailors killed in the explosion of the U.S. Ketch Intrepid in Tripoli harbor on 4 September 1804. Attended by the crew of USS Spokane (CLAA-120), the ceremonies took place at Tripoli's Protestant Christian cemetary.
Those present are (from left to right):
Captain William Marshall, Spokane's Commanding Officer
Orray Taft, U.S. Consul at Tripoli;
Rear Admiral Richard H. Cruzen, Commander Cruiser Division Two; and
Prince Taher Bey Karamanli of Libya.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

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