Saturday, April 16, 2011

Press of Atlantic City Article on Repatriation

Standing in front of a portrait of Richard Somers hanging in Somers Point City Hall, Greg Sykora, member of the Return Richard Somers Committee, Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser, and Walter Gregory, chairman of the the Return Richard Somers Committee, talk about the the effort to bring Richard Somers remains back from Libya. Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser and members of the Return Richard Somers Committee, talking in front of pictures of Richard Somers for a story about the efforts of the city to honor the man it was named after. Wednesday, April, 6, 2011 ( Press of Atlantic City / Danny Drake)

Press of Atlantic City Article on Repatriation

Friday, April 15, 2011, p. A.


Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2011 10:18 pm | Updated: 8:09 am, Fri Apr 15, 2011.
By ROB SPAHR Staff Writer

SOMERS POINT - Libya's turmoil may have the world's attention, but Somers Point residents are following the unrest there for a unique reason - the opportunity to bring their namesake home.

In 1804, Navy Master Commandant Richard Somers - who was born in 1778 in the area of what is now Somers Point - was ordered to load the ketch USS Intrepid with explosives, sail it into Tripoli Harbor and explode it among the ships of the Libyan fleet.

Most historians say that if the mission had succeeded, it would have wiped out all of the remaining enemy ships and brought a quicker conclusion to the First Barbary War. But it failed when the ship exploded prematurely - possibly on purpose to prevent the ammunition from getting into the hands of the enemy pirates - and the bodies of Somers and his 12 crewmembers have been buried on "enemy soil" ever since, despite efforts spanning more than a century to bring them home.

But the current military strife in Libya has residents and officials optimistic that Somers could return to native soil soon.

"I think we're further along than we've ever been," said Walter Gregory, chairman of the city's Committee to Return Richard Somers. "We're being helped by all of the national attention that is on that region and because there is now a window that could be created, between the old Libyan government going out and a new one that could come in, for someone to get in there and recover the body."

A bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday calling on the Secretary of Defense to "take whatever steps may be necessary" to bring Somers and his 12 comrades home. City officials also are scheduled to meet with federal legislators today in Washington in support of that same cause.

"Right now we're trying to generate as much support as possible," Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser said. "Richard Somers died fighting for this country, and in a very heroic way. To have him still over in Libya, which has always been considered hostile soil, is unacceptable. It's time to bring him home."

‘To the shores of Tripoli'

Two days after the Intrepid exploded, the bodies of Somers and his men were recovered on the beach of Tripoli Harbor. U.S. military officers, who were taken prisoner in Tripoli after the battleship Philadelphia ran aground earlier in the battle, helped identify the bodies - the officers by their uniforms, Somers by his hair.

The bodies were buried in separate locations until the late 19th century, when Italian workers building a coastal road exhumed the bodies and relocated them to their current location in a Protestant cemetery.

"We really don't know what condition the graves are in. But from people who have been over there and photos we've seen, they are unguarded and are not being cared for," Gregory said. "And we're also concerned because the fighting that is going on now is happening right there in Green Square ... and we don't know what this whole thing will do to how the U.S. is perceived by the Libyan people. There is a fear that if the populous comes out of this hating us, that those graves will be vandalized."

Efforts to relieve those kinds of concerns date to the 1840s, when the Somers family campaigned to have the bodies of the Intrepid crew returned to the United States.

Significant movements to repatriate the bodies also took place during the Libyan-centered hostilities of the 1980s and prior to the 200th anniversary of the Intrepid's explosion. The state Assembly passed legislation in 2004 calling for Somers' return.

"We've tried to make this happen so many different ways. We've tried the political approach, we've tried the military angle through the Department of Defense, we've had private citizens get involved and we've even directly contacted (Moammar) Gadhafi's son,' Gregory said. "But for one reason or another, it never happened."

Gregory said most of the opposition has come not from Libya but the federal agencies normally charged with recovering missing service members. He said past conversations with the Gadhafi Family Foundation were encouraging but that U.S.-based agencies, such as the State Department and the Navy, have either consistently "found reasons" not to get involved or promised help that never materialized.

"We've had our ups and our downs," Glasser said. "But this is something that I think the residents of Somers Point will continue to fight for, even after those of us who are here now are long gone."

Among the most prominent supporters of the cause is U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, who has given a voice in Washington to the Somers Point residents' efforts and has helped navigate them through the federal bureaucracy.

"Richard Somers is not just a local hero, he is a national hero," LoBiondo said. "But it's been a real challenge to recover his body because the country where he is buried is not readily accessible."

A lot has changed in the past 200 years, but LoBiondo said there is an irony to how much has not. Somers Point residents agree.

"It's amazing the similarities between what was happening then and what is going on now," said Greg Sykora, a member of the Committee to Return Richard Somers. "Libya is going through another civil war, we're on the brink of war with them again, we're still fighting pirates and Richard Somers is still over there. The similarities are really too numerous to mention."

Hoping for a homecoming

The bravery of Richard Somers and his men - knowing the mission could likely result in their death, but volunteering anyway - earned them national recognition.

Somers has had six U.S. Navy ships named after him. Somers Point in Atlantic County is named after his family. And the Tripoli Monument, the nation’s oldest military statue, stands in Annapolis, Md., in honor of the men who died in that battle.

But Somers Point officials are scheduled to meet today with LoBiondo and U.S. Rep. Mike Rodgers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in an attempt to provide them with a more grandiose and lasting tribute, by bringing them home. Rodgers sponsored the bill that was introduced Tuesday to repatriate the crew, and LoBiondo co-sponsored it.
Glasser said there are plots reserved for the men at Arlington National Cemetery.

"But our wish is to bring him back to Somers Point," Glasser said. "We want him to come home."

The federal government would cover the costs of bringing the bodies back. The city has considered two potential locations where Somers could be buried and a monument erected in his honor.

"One of the sites is by the Somers Mansion and the Atlantic County Heritage Society. The other is next to the library where the old veterans park was located," said Gregory, adding the idea is in the design phase. "We're looking to raise a monument and have a flag flying there 24/7. We're in the process of raising the money for that now."

Even though the momentum behind the cause has picked up, yet again, the Somers Point residents behind it are staying grounded.

"We've always been optimistic that this will happen," Sykora said. "It could happen overnight or it could take years. But we're going to keep trying."

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