Richard Somers Update - April 2009
From the Somers Point (NJ) Historical Society Newsletter
Spring, 20009 Sally Hastings President and Editor
– Bill Kelly
The renewal of diplomatic relations and the appointment of the first American ambassador to Libya in decades should facilitate the repatriation of the remains of Richard Somers and the men of the USS Intrepid.
On September 5, 2008 Secretary of State Condi Rice became the first major American diplomat to visit Tripoli, 204 years to the day the bodies of Somers and his men washed ashore Tripoli harbor. They were buried in the shadow of the walls of the old castle fort by prisoners of the USS Philadelphia, who were being held for ransom. Those prisoners were eventually released, but the remains of Somers and his crew remained buried there in an unmarked grave until the 1930s, when Italian soldiers, while building a road, reburied five of the remains at the Old Prodestant Cemetery, about one mile east on the old coast road.
The cemetery site, faithfully maintained by the wives of the officers stationed at nearby Wheelus Air Force Base, has been secured by US Embassy officers, and the Libyans are building a park around the site, which is marked by a plaque in Arabic that reads: “This site holds great importance and is therefore under the protection according to the Law of Preservation of Antiquities. Site Registration Number: 41/1.”
The military, the state department and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) have done reports on the cemetery site (41/1), apparently recommending that it be secured and remain intact, but none of these reports concern the original, unmarked grave site, which was reportedly identified by the Libyans and partially excavated with the discovery of “buttons and bones,” that were apparently replaced and the grave site resealed. Originally a park with paved paths winding around islands of plants and trees, the original grave area may have been paved over entirely, as it is now within a public area known as Green Square, a popular gathering place on holidays and for demonstrations.
A military review has apparently concluded that the cemetery site should remain undisturbed, with the Libyans eventually granting the United States the same or similar gravesite maintenance arrangement that are in place with the French at Normandy, the Italians at Anzio and the Tunisians at Carthage, not far from Tripoli, under the administration of the American Battlefield Monument Administration (ABMA).
In the meantime, the cemetery grave sites needs repairs to its walls, a proper survey and inventory of what is there, and the replacement of the American flag pole adjacent to the historical marker that reads: “Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of the USS ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor, September 2 (Sic 4), 1804.” (See Photo attached).
One mile away, the original grave site, in the shadows of the old castle fort, has not been properly identified or secured, and contains the remains of eight men of the USS Intrepid, including the three officers, Lieuts. Somers and Wordsworth and midshipman Israel.
The American officials in Tripoli have requested the Libyans permit the U.S. Navy to conduct a proper survey of both grave sites, and New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg has taken the lead in Congress ensuring the new agreements between Libya and the United States are upheld, holding up the appointment of the U.S. Ambassador and obtaining the final reparations for the families of the victims of Lockerbie. But Sen. Lautenberg, the new President and the next ambassador must be convinced that the repatriation of the remains of the American sailors in Tripoli should be a priority, and make it happen sooner than later, so a letter, fax, phone or email message could facilitate the process further.
Please let Sen. Lautenberg know that you want the remains of our native son heroes returned and properly buried, and not laying in an unmarked grave under a parking lot in a foreign land.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg
One Gateway Center
Newark, N.J. 07102
(973-639-8700) Fax: 639-8723
One Port Center
Suite 505, Fifth Floor
2 Riverside Drive Camden, N.J. 08101
(856) 339-8922 Fax: 338-8936
Hart Senate Office Building
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(202) 224-3224 Fax: 228-4054