Thursday, May 5, 2011

First US Navy Specail Op - Tripoli 1804

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The USS Intrepid, under command of Lt. Stephen Decatur, escapes Tripoli harbor after setting the captured frigate USS Philadelphia on fire.

The Tripoli Origins of Navy SEALS and Special Operations - By William Kelly

The use of US Navy SEALS to shoot pirates from the deck of the USS Bainbridge and in taking out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has called attention to the increasing use of such special operation units and their history.

One news report notes that the Navy SEALS trace their origin back to World War and the OSS, but those who know the history refer to the first use of such tactics by Lt. Stephen Decatur and his crew of volunteers who sailed the captured pirate ship rechristened USS Intrepid into Tripoli harbor on February 16, 1804 and sank the captured frigate USS Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia, under command of Captain William Bainbridge, was the largest ship in the area at the time. It ran aground while chasing a pirate ship into Tripoli harbor and its 300 man crew were taken prisoner and held in the dungeons of the old castle fort by Yousef Karamanli, the Basha of Tripoli.

While Karmanli demanded millions of dollars in tribute and ransom for the prisoners, the American people had promised, “millions for defense but not one sent for tribute,” and were committed to fight rather than pay.

But the Philadelphia, in enemy hands, was a formidable battleship that one of the captured American sailors said he could train the pirates to sail and use against the Americans.

Lt. Stephen Decatur, of the schooner Enterprise, had also captured a pirate ship, the Intrepid, which he volunteered to sail into Tripoli harbor in the dead of night, recapture the Philadelphia and sink it right there in the harbor.

With a fifty man crew, and skippered by a Sicilian who spoke Arabic, the men sailed into Tripoli harbor and hailed the guards on deck of the Philadelphia, who agreed to let the Intrepid tie up alongside under the ruse that it had lost its anchor. As they approached however, when the pirates saw the Intrepid had an anchor, the alarm was sounded, but not before the Americans swarmed aboard, killed the pirate guards and went about their pre-planned operation to place explosives throughout the ship and sink it. The Philadelphia was aflame when Decatur and his men sailed away in the Intrepid.

It has been reported: “Intrepd and Syren set sail 2 February and arrived off Tripoli 5 days later. However, bad weather delayed the operation until 16 February. That evening Syren took station outside the harbor and launched her boats to stand by for rescue work. At 7 o'clock Intrepid entered the harbor and 2 1/2 hours later was alongside Philadelphia. When hailed, they claimed to be traders who had lost their anchor in the late gale, and begged permission to make fast to the frigate till morning. Guards suddenly noticed the ketch still had her anchors and gave the alarm.[1] Leaving a small force commanded by Surgeon Lewis Heermann on board Intrepid, Decatur led 60 of his men to the deck of the frigate. A brief struggle, conducted without firing a gun, gave the Americans control of the vessel enabling them to set her ablaze. Decatur, the last man to leave the burning frigate, remained on board Philadelphia until flames blazed from the hatchways and ports of her spar deck. When he finally left the ship, her rigging and tops were afire. Shore batteries opened up on Intrepid as she escaped only to be answered from abandoned Philadelphia when her guns discharged by the heat of the conflagration.”

By the time the shore batteries at the old castle fort realized what was going on, they finally got off a few shots at the fleeing Intrepid, with one cannon ball tearing a hole in the mainsail, but otherwise, it was a successful mission accomplished with no casualties.

British Admiral Lord Nelson is quoted as saying that the mission was one of "the most bold and daring act of the age."”

Throughout the summer of 1804, the American fleet blockaded the harbor and attacked the pirate fleet on occasion, twice with Lt. Stephen Decatur and Lt. Richard Somers leading task forces against the enemy fleet.

Then another special covert operation was planned for the Intrepid, this time led by Lt. Somers and a smaller crew of one other officer and ten men, volunteers all. Their mission was to load the Intrepid full of explosives and combustibles, set her to sail into the anchored pirate fleet, light a fuse and escape in two row boats. Lt. Henry Wadsworth was second officer, and a third officer, Lt. Israel came aboard to deliver a final message from the Captain Preble, and stayed aboard, the unlucky thirteenth man.

In the dark of the night of September 4, 1804, the Intrepid sailed once again into Tripoli harbor as the men on the ships of the American fleet waited quietly offshore. After some time, a huge explosion was seen and heard, but when the men failed to return, it was determined that the Intrepid had exploded prematurely and did no damage to the enemy fleet.

Some suspected that Somers did what he had promised to do, and if discovered by the enemy before their mission could be completed, blow it up so the ammo, explosives and combustibles would not fall into enemy hands. It was an American suicide bomber mission, and all thirteen men perished.

The next day their bodies washed ashore and Capt. Bainbridge got permission from the Bashaw Karamanli to allow his men to bury them, which they did, “one cable’s length” (200 yards) east of the old castle fort.

The US Navy SEALS who took out Osama bin Laden in Pakistan trace their special ops history back to the Intrepid missions led by Decatur and Somers, and if any of them had been killed in action, you can be certain that their bodies would not have been left behind.

Now when the revolt in Libya is over and the political situation there settles down, it will be time to repatriate the remains of Richard Somers and the men of the Intrepid.

William Kelly

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