Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Capt. Greg Miller at the Cemetery
U.S. Navy Reserve Capt. Greg Miller of Cleveland kneels beside one of the tombs of American crewmen of the Intrepid that have stood in a Libyan cemetery overlooking Tripoli harbor since 1804.
U.S. Navy Reserve Capt. Greg Miller of Berea restoring U.S. tombs in Libyan cemetery
Posted by Brian Albrecht, The Plain Dealer August 15, 2009 20:04PM
Five fallen U.S. sailors from what has been described as America's first war on terrorism lie in a crumbling cemetery in Libya, their graves identified only by their heroism on a night more than 200 years ago.
They represent a lingering legacy of the Intrepid -- a small ship used in a daring raid in 1804 to destroy the captured American frigate Philadelphia anchored in Tripoli Harbor, denying the enemy use of the former U.S. warship.
Much the same tactic was attempted six months later when the Intrepid sailed into the same harbor, packed with gunpowder for use as a floating bomb to destroy the Tripolitan fleet.
But just as the Intrepid entered the harbor, it exploded, either by accident, an enemy cannon shot or intentionally blown up by its own crew as the vessel was attacked and boarded. All 13 officers and crewmen perished.
History was vividly in mind when U.S. Navy Reserve Capt. Greg Miller, 48, of Berea, recently walked through the cemetery after meeting with Libyan officials to explore the possibility of refurbishing the burial grounds and tombs of the Intrepid seamen.
His visit was the first such joint Navy/Libyan effort at the site since 1949 when memorial services were held there and a plaque, now missing, was installed on a cemetery wall, commemorating the Intrepid sailors.
Miller is a member of the Reserve's Maritime Partnership Program, created to work cooperatively with African coastal nations to improve maritime security and anti-piracy, anti-terrorism efforts.
Miller said that mission, when it came to Libya, was problematic, given this country's stormy and sometimes violent relations with Libya's leader, Muammar Gaddafi, from 1970 to 2002. Those relations have improved in recent years, including establishment of a U.S. Embassy in Tripoli this year.
Some kind of initial nonthreatening, apolitical, mutually beneficial, cooperative project was needed so the maritime project could progress in Libya, according to Miller.
Something like what happened in 1971 when the U.S. pingpong team helped open the door to improved U.S. relations with China.
The Libyan cemetery could provide some suitably common ground between two formerly antagonistic nations, Miller said. And the more he studied the concept, the more fascinated he became with the history behind the project.
America first went to war with Libya in 1801, when it was known as Tripoli, part of the coalition of Barbary Coast states in North Africa that demanded, and got, tribute from countries for safe passage of their ships across the Mediterranean Sea. The ships of countries refusing to pay tribute were pirated, their goods confiscated and crews held hostage for ransom.
When Thomas Jefferson became president, he refused to pay the tribute and sent American warships to blockade and raid cities along the Barbary Coast. The Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor during one such action, resulting in the successful raid to destroy the ship, led by Lt. Stephen Decatur on the Intrepid.
The second, doomed attack of the Intrepid was described as "a suicide mission" by Miller, even though plans had been made for the crew to escape in smaller boats before the floating bomb was set off.
Miller said that although U.S. Navy officials concluded the Intrepid had been blown up by its own crew as it came under attack, he was told by Libyan officials that they believe a "hot shot" (heated cannonball) fired from shore fortifications hit the ship's magazine, causing the premature explosion.
The captured crew of the Philadelphia, held hostage in Tripoli, may have gathered the remains of the Intrepid seamen and buried them, including five interred on a knoll overlooking the harbor, Miller said. (Exact location of the other burials have been lost to history.)
That site later became known as the "Old Protestant Cemetery" where Christians, largely members of diplomatic families and seamen who died in Tripoli, were buried, he added.
The five Intrepid remains are encased in tombs, each marked with an inscription: "Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of the United States ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor, Sept. 4, 1804."
See Photo of tomb inscription. Courtesy Capt. Greg Miller
Tombs of the Intrepid seamen are only identified by an inscription probably added to each of the five in 1949. The inscription reads: "Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of the United States Ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor September 4, 1804."
Miller said the inscriptions probably were added to the tombs in 1949 during memorial ceremonies attended by officers of the USS Spokane and Libyan officials.
The cemetery has been protected from surrounding commercial development and vandalism, but the combined impact of blowing sand and saltwater during the past two centuries have taken a toll on now-crumbling and eroded sandstone walls surrounding the 58 graves.
Portions of the walls are hovering near collapse, according to Miller, a home builder during his off-duty time from the Reserves.
He recommends reconstructing portions of the wall and applying a protective latex coating, restoring the spalled and time-worn individual Intrepid tombs, and installing spotlights to emphasize the cemetery's role as a historic landmark. The effort could cost several thousand dollars, he said.
The Libyans, particularly Giuma Anag, of the Department of Archaeology and Antiquities, have expressed strong interest in the project, Miller said.
He noted that Anag also talked about someday raising whatever remains of the Philadelphia and Intrepid in the way of cannons, anchors, chains, etc. now buried under a portion of the old harbor that has been filled in and paved over.
"You have to be very tactful," Miller said. "There's a sensitivity there. This is historically significant for them. They view this as something in which their side fought courageously, too."
And while the past may be crumbling in a little hillside cemetery in Libya, its continued presence still can remind us of a small group of American sailors who long ago embodied the name of their ship on its final voyage.
As Miller remarked of his visit to the Intrepid tombs, "It's really a humbling experience. When you think about what these men did, you realize what a bold, courageous thing it was, and it's very gratifying to see that they haven't been forgotten."