The American Legion Magazine - May 1977 Vol. 102 - #5
Notes On Our Desk
MEMORIAL DAY brings to mind visions of immaculate national cemeteries at home and military cemeteries abroad where so many thousands of Americans rest in peace, but author Melba Edmunds reminds us of a tiny corner of America that is marked and preserved in far-off Libya, on the shores of Tripoli.
This is how she found it:
Already the glare of the morning sun had beaten the waves into submission. From the modern asphalt highway, weathered stone steps made their way toward the sea. On one side was the whitewashed wall of the British Rod and Gun Club, on the other a well repaired stone wall. The steps turned abruptly and clung to the cliff. The rocks below were green from the dampness of the Mediterranean.
The stone steps stopped at a small opening in the wall. Inside, the vaulted doorway framed a picturesque landscape. A tanker rode on the blue purple sea. White birds floated in and out of view.
The Arab who approached could have been a traveler on the road to Emmaus, or he could have watched the Turkish Pasha on the palace ramparts. The unbleached wool he wore served as protection from the cold at night and the heat of the sun by day. His skin had lost the dark swarthy color of his youth. It made a fragle pale frame for his still intense dark eyes.
"Kiel halek," he said in greeting. He held out his hand for a coin. Then, leaning on his cane he withdrew to sit silently in the shade.
The walls enclosed an area not larger than half a city block. On top of the stone floor were positioned burial crypts about the size of a coffin. Markers noted the deceased. Most were members of embassy families who had served in Tripoli during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Babies, children and young mothers seemed to dominate the tiny Christian cemetery. One marker mourned a young man who had lived without enemies, but had been killed by assassins.
In the northwest corner of the room-like cemetery a gnarled olive tree spread its limbs over five stone coffins. On each crypt a bronze marker has been placed:
"Here lies an American sailor who
gave his life in the explosion of the
U.S. ship Intrepid, who lost their
lives in the battle against the Bar-
bary Coast pirates Sept. 4, 1804.
"The honor we accord them for
their heroism is no less because
their names are unknown.
" - errected by The Wheelus Air
Force Wives Club."
The waves could be heard splash-
ing gently against the rocks below.
Americans have left Wheelus Air
Force Base. The old Arab seemed to
have faded into the colorless wall.
The sun shortened the shadows and
increased the heat. But the five
young American sailors continued
their long sleep under the ancient
[Bill Kelly Notes: There are a few mistakes in this article, though it is the most comprehensive report since that of James F. Cooper of a century before. It is Richard, not William Somers, who commanded the Intrepid into Tripoli harbor on its last mission, and the mystery of the five Intrepid graves at Old Protestant Cemetery has been resolved. While this account falsely reports that the five men buried together in the cemetery washed ashore nearby and were buried on site, it is now known that all thirteen men were buried together in a grave 720 feet from the old castle fort. In the 1930s, the Italian occupation army, while building a road, uncovered the remains of five of the men, and they were reburied at Old Protestant Cemetery. The others remain at the original grave site. More on this to come.]
TRIPOLI GRAVES DISCOVERED
U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE PROCEEDINGS - April, 1950
By LIEUTENANT (J.G.) ARTHUR P. MILLER, JR. U.S. Naval Reserve
The bodies of five American Naval heroes of th Barbary Wars which have been lying unmarked, untouched, and unclaimed for nearly a century and a half have been discovered in Tripoli, North Africa.
The five were among thirteen officers and men who were killed in the explosion of the ketch U.S.S. Intrepid September 4, 1804. The graves were found by an American consul in Tripoli with the help of an Arab harbor-master after a painstaking search which was begun by the State Department in 1938.
The overwhelming bulk of circumstantial evidence collected through hundreds of interviews of descendants of inhabitants of the town in 1804, and from other sources points to the fact that the bodies were five of possibly six which were mentioned as having washed ashore after the explosion close to the site where they were rediscovered.
The five bodies were reinterred in the spot where they were discovered, a high-walled cemetery on the outskirts of Tripoli overlooking the harbor. U.S.S. Sp;okane (CL 120), one of the fleet's newest cruisers, was dispatched from the Mediterranean to Tripoli where her officers and men paid their final respects to these heroes of yesterday's Navy where they were lowered into the ground for the last time, their graves now plainly marked.
The location of the five bodies after all these years recalls to mind one of the most dramatic and heroic chapters of American naval history. The thirteen officers and men - which five of the thirteen these are is not known - had bravely met their death on a mission which was a calculated risk and which, had it been successful, would have ct half the Tripolitan fleet into splinters. The Tripolitan fleet had been anchored close together along the seawall. The Bashaw's castle stood....The Intrepid and her crew of thirteen volunteers was to be sent into the harbor as a "fireship" to be set off amongst the enemy ships. Had the dangerous plan worked, many of the enemy ships would undoubtedly have been sent to the bottom and even the heavily fortified castle might have been seriously damaged.
The scheme was a perilous mission in the finest tradition of the U.S. Navy. Commodore Edward Preble, who at the time was in command of the American squadron in the Mediterranean, knew the risk as did the gallant men who took part in the venture.
In addition, there was at least one other man who knew, a man who at the time was in Tripoli, a prisoner of the enemy in the Bashaw's castle. He was Commodore William Bainbridge who conceived the plan and smuggled his idea to Preble on the outside.
Bainbridge and his officers and men had been captured by the Tripolitan pirates after his ship, the frigate U.S.S. Philadelphia, had run aground on some unchartered rocks while chasing a smaller enemy ship some months before. The Philadelphia had been captured intact by the enemy and Bainbridge and his crew had fallen into the hands of the Tripolitans. They were henceforth thrown into prison, from where, incidently, they had an excellent view of the harbor.
Once in prison, Bainbridge had been able to get the confidence of Nicholas Nissen, the Danish consul in Tripoli. Through Nissen, Bainbrige was able to smuggle secret letters out of prison, letters which carried an innocuous message in regular ink and another secret message written between the lines in lime juice which was invisible to the naked eye. When a match was run under the paper by Preble, the message immediately showed up.
It was through Nissen that Bainbrige had been able to get a message to Preble suggesting the plan of sending a fireship into the harbor laden with high explosives, there to be exploded among the enemy shipping. According to the plan, the volunteer crew which was to man the fireship should escape out of the harbor in small boats after applying the match to the train.
Preble had tried this type of hit and run tactic before, and it had paid off handsomely in that case. That had been several months previously when another volunteer crew had sneaked into the harbor in a ketch and burned the Philadelphia, rendering her useless to the Tripolitans.
Many of the officers and men who lost their lives when the Intrepid exploded had been among the crew of volunteers who had entered the harbor that night to board and burn the Philadelphia. In a fierce battle, they had climbed over the rails of the ship, killed most of her enemy crew and burned her to the waterline. The leader of that earlier encounter was another early American Naval hero, Stephen Decatur.
Now, Preble decided to try once more, tactics similar to some used by the British and American commandos and raiders in World War II. he put Bainbridge's idea into action.
He chose the ketch Intrepid for the mission. The Intrepid had been captured originally from the Tripolitans in a running engagement in the open sea and had been converted to an American man-of-war. Perhaps Preble thought that by using a ship whose lines would be familiar to the Tripolitans and by sending her into the harbor on a black night as a friendly merchantman, he could disguise the true purpose of the fireship. In any event, he chose the Intrepid and ordered her to be fitted out as a floating incendiary bomb.
A special compartment was built into the hold of the ketch just forward of her mainmast. one hundred barrels (approximately 15,000 pounds of powder in bulk) were placed in the hold. On top of this lethal load, 100 thirteen-inch and nine-inch shells were stacked, loaded and fused,....for action.
A tube was run from the powder ...to another compartment alft in
Inside the tube was laid a train cal...burn for fifteen minutes - time for all volunteer crew to escape from the doomed....
The compartment aft was filed with combustibles which were to be set afire...setting the fire in the after compartment...keep any boarders off the ship until it was too late.
Lieutenant William Somers (Sic) captain...brig U.S.S.Nautilus, was chose,...man to guide this fireship or "inferno" as it was then called, into the harbor...had acquitted himself well in a battle...enemy gunboats only a few week previous. WHen they heard that Somers was ....the mission, the entire crew of the Nautilus asked to accompany their captain.
Somers however, chose only four from his own crew. they were Thomas,..James Harris, William Keith and...Simms, all seamen. From the U.S.S. Constitution he chose William Harrison,...Clark, Hugh McCormick, Jacob Will....Peter Penner and Isaac Downes, all seamen.
Originally, one other officer besides Somers was to undertake the mission. He was Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth of the Constitution. At the last minute, however, Midshipman Joseph Israel of the Constilation came aboard the Intrepid with a message from Commodore Preble. He pleaded with Somers to take him along, and Somers finally obtained the consent of the Commodore to allow Israel to join the band as the thirteenth member.
Somers impressed upon his crew the seriousness and heavy risk of the venture and gave to each and every man the chance to stay behind if he wished. But each of the ten seamen voiced his determination to go and left their respective ships Nautilus and Constitution with a joke on their lips.
"Mind boys," one said according to the diary of a shipmate, "give a good account of us when you get home!"
All was now in readiness. A light breeze came up on the evening of September 4 and Somers and Preble decided that now was the time to go. At 2000 the Intrepid weighed anchor and got underway. Two of the fastest rowing boats in the squadron accompanied her to take the crew after they had guided the ship into the harbor and had lighted the combustibles.
The ketch was convoyed to the harbor entrance by the brig U.S.S. Argus, U.S.S. Vixen and the Nautilus. These vessels then turned back but remained near at hand to watch the result and to pick up the rowing boats upon their return.
Everything seemed favorable for the success of the mission except that three Tripolitan gunboats were seen hovering about the harbor entrance. But the enemy ships disappeared, and the Intrepid approached in the manner of a friendly merchantman bound for an anchorage in the harbor.
It was a dark night, according to the eyewitnesses, and the Intrepid was soon lost to sight to most of those who stood watching on the decks of the American ships outside the harbor. The fireship entered the harbor and drifted slowly toward the anchored ships war of the Bashaw's fleet. Several minutes elapsed with no more noise than the lap of the waves.
Suddenly, the sound of guns firing could be heard by the men watching from the ships outside. Almost instantly a jarring explosion reverberated through the harbor and the town and a great blaze of light outlined the Intrepid and the other ships in the harbor.
Lieutenant Charles C. Ridgely was intently watching the spectacle with night glasses from his vantage point on the deck of the Nautilus. Here is his description of the explosion:
"For a moment, the flash illuminated the whole heavens around, while the terrific concussion shook everything far and near. Then all was hushed again and every object ...veiled in a darkness of double gloom. On board the Nautilus, the silence of death seemed to pervade the whole crew; but, quickly the din of kettle drums, beating to...., with the noise of confusion and alarm....heard from the inhabitants on shore. To ...the escape of the boats, an order was.....to show a light, upon the appearance of which, hundreds of shot, from an...number of guns, of heavy calibre, from the batteries near, came rattling over and around us. But we heeded them not; one thought and one feeling alone had possession of our souls - the preservation of Somers and his crew.
"As moment after moment passed by without bringing with it the preconcerted signal from the boat, the anxiety on board became intense; and the men with lighted lanterns hang themselves over the sides of the vessel until their heads almost touched the water - a position in which an object on the surface of the water can be seen furthers on a dark night - with the hope of discovering something which could give us an assurance of its (the boat's) safety. Still no boat came, and no signal was given; and the unwelcome conclusion was at last forced upon us....We lingered on the spot until broad daylight - thought we lingered in vain - in the hope that someone at least of the number might yet be rescued by us from a floating plank or spar to tell the tale of his companions' fate."
That the explosion of the Intrepid, described in this vivid passage from Lieutenant Ridgely's notebook, was premature is certain. There was no blaze of combustibles preceding the explosion. It was also evident to those waiting outside the harbor that there had not been enough time to have allowed the ketch to have reached her target and exploded on schedule.
The exact manner of the explosion, however, remains a mystery and will probably never be ascertained for certain. The sound of the firing is said to have come from the enemy shore guns. The most widely accepted theory is that one of these shots from the shore batteries passed through the magazine of the fireship, igniting the concentration of powder and shells and detonating them. Another opinion holds that the Tripolitans sighted the American ship, boarded her, and that Somers and his crew set fire to the train and blew their ship up rather than let it fall into the hands of the enemy.
Bainbridge records that all thirteen of the bodies were recovered following the explosion, but he gives an account which varies somewhat from the bodies that were recently found. Bainbridge, incidently, had appealed to the Bashaw to allow him to view the bodies as soon as he realized that the explosion he heard had been that of the Intrepid. The Bashaw reluctantly granted permission for Bainbridge and two of his lieutenants to see the bodies after they had been washed up on shore.
Bainbridge states in his diary that two of teh bodies were found in the bottom of the ketch itself, which grounded on the rocks at the north side of the western entrance to the harbor. Another body was found in one of the two boats that had accompanied the Intrepid and had later drifted ashore to the westward entrance to the harbor. Another body was found in one of the two boats that accompanied the Intrepid and had later drifted ashore to the westward.
Four others were recovered floating near the harbor and the six remaining bodies were found on the beach to the southeast of the town. This would place the later group near the site of the present high-walled cemetery where they were found.
What has become of the sixth body or whether Bainbrige actually saw six and not five bodies lying on the beach is hard to say. The account he gives is sketchy and he mentions the number but once.
He notes down that all the bodies were so mutilated that it was impossible to identify them. He adds that the six were taken to the top of the bluff overlooking the beach where they were found and were provided with graves that "they were laid to rest with all small honors that could be given them," including a funeral service which Bainbridge himself read over their graves.
These facts, except for the exact number of the bodies, which were set down by Bainbridge nearly a century and a half ago, have been borne out as a result of the exhaustive investigation initiated by the Arab harbor master of Tripoli, Mustafa Burchis, and the American counsul in that city, Mr. Orray Taft, Jr.
The investigation actually got its start in 1938 when, in response to an inquiry from the American embassy in Rome concerning the fate of the men of the Intrepid, Mr. burchis undertook a meticulious examination of old Jewish records, private Arab collections of letters, papers, and diaries, and interviewed innumerable descendants of residents of Tripoli at the time of the disaster.
The harbormaster set down in detail the results of his investigation and ....complete report on the matter which ...then transmitted to the American....in Rome. Unfortunately, however...report was among American state papers which were burned by embassy officials in 1941 upon the outbreak of the war. The investigation was revived last year when Mr. Burchis retraced his findings from his original notes. Together with Mr. Taft, he was able once more to piece together the story of the five graves.
"The Intrepid had exploded in a place located about half way down the length of the present north breakwater and all of the pertinent stories he [Mr. Burchis] has hadto day that fivge bodies had drifted up on the beach in front of a cliff," Counsel Taft re......in a report to the State Department concerning his research. "From this beach they were unceremoniously dragged to the cliff and were interred in a rough pattern. I questioned Mr. Burchis at length as to his belief in the reliability of his information and could find no flaw in his pattern of investigation," Mr. Taft adds.
Mr. Taft and Mr. Burchis, together with the American vice counsel, went to the cemetery, named the old Protestant Cemetery, on the outskirts of the town and directly above the cliff where Mr. Burchis said the bodies had been dragged. Mr. Burchis then without hesitation picked out five graves located in the northeast corner.
Subsequent to the burial of the bodies in 1804, Mr. Burchis explained, it became necesssary to establish the old Protestant Cemetery for the burial of foreigners. Since five Americans were already known to be interred there, a wall was erected around the plot and the whole cemetery was dedicated in the ceremony which was attended by the then present diplomatic and consular officials, including those of the United States.
Upon this identification of the five bodies as being those of five men from the Intrepid, Mr. Taft sent a telegram to Vice Admircal Forrest P. Sherman, USN, commanding the U.S. Mediteranean Fleet, stating that he had substantial evidence that the graves of five American sailors lost on the Intrepid in 1804 had been discovered. Admiral Sherman immediately arranged for a visit to Tripoli of Rear Admiral R. H. Cruzen, Commander, Cruiser Division Two, and the Spokane.
The five unknown sailors who had died so valiantly fighting for their country were given final honors in a colorful ceremony attended by many high diplomatic, military, and government officials. A band of Scottish Camerons played martial music as the detachment from the Spokane as well as a unit of the British Army stationed at Tripoli marched the half a mile from the town to the grave site.
In short addresses, Rear Admiral Cruzen spoke on the early history of the Navy and of its exploits during the Barbary Wars. Captain W. J. Marshall, USN, commanding officer of the Spokane, narrated the Intrepid mission, and Consul Taft told of the research done to identify the graves and unveiled the memorial plaque to the five heroes. Lieutenant E. J. Sheridan, USN, chaplin of the Spokane, read a short prayer, and an honor guard of Marines fired several volleys over the new graves and played taps.
Interestingly enough, Joseph Karamanli, the present mayor of Tripoli and a direct descendant of the Joseph Karamanli who was Bashaw of Tripoli at the time of the Barbary Wars, attended the ceremony with approximately 50 other guests.
The plaque honoring the five men was placed in the cemetery on the cliff by the officers and men of the Spokane. The money for the markers was collected through voluntary contributions. Individual plaques, which will be replaced at a later date by permanent markers, were placed near each grave.
On each of these individual plaques is written: "Here Lies An Unknown American Sailor Lost From USS Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor 1804." - a worthy tribute to the courageous sailors of the Navy of yesterday from the sailors of the Navy of today.