Sunday, May 22, 2011

Response to Objections to Repatriation

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The Old Castle Fort, Tripoli, Libya.

Photo courtsey of Jack Templeton, an US military officer stationed at Wheelus AFB in the 1960s. This photo was taken circa 1966.


So far I have only heard a few objections to the repatriation of the remains of Lt. Richard Somers and the men of the Intrepid from Tripoli.

“Who would object to this,” asked Pat Looney, regarding the House Resolution 1497 calling for the return of the remains, and more important, why would they object?

Looney is a US Army Reserves officer at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst who is responsible for conducting the military honors of veterans when they are buried. He provided the five grave flags that US Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz placed at the graves of the Intrepid men buried at the Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli last Memorial Day, and the flag flown at the US Embassy there that is now in the hands of Somers Point, NJ Mayor Jack Glasser.

Mayor Glasser has been contacting other municipal leaders and requesting they support the Congressional resolution and help convince congressmen to co-sponsor the bill, but so far Norfolk, Virginia mayor has responded negatively, saying that since the Navy is against the repatriation, then so is he.

If the repatriation effort is to be successful, all of the objections must be heard, answered and overcome, and it appears that most of them stem from a lack of information and a few crucial facts that when known, alter the equation and either convinces the objector to change their opinion or relegates it as simply wrong.

The first objection I heard was an email letter I received from someone who wanted to know who would pay for it.

Well, the answer to that one is the Department of Defense and the United States Navy, since these men had enlisted in the Navy and were killed in combat while fighting pirates on behalf of the United States.

The second objection came from a Navy historian in Annapolis who was quoted in the local newspaper as saying that they didn’t follow the policy of not leaving anyone behind in that era, but instead buried them at sea.

But Somers and the men of the Intrepid weren’t buried at sea, but washed ashore, their bodies mauled by dogs before they were recovered, identified and buried in two mass graves by prisoners from the captured frigate USS Philadelphia, who Somers and his men were trying to free.

Nor did they receive an honorable burial, as the US Navy gave Osama bin Laden a more honorable burial than Somers and his men received.

The third objection stems from the misperception that the graves of these men in Tripoli are similar to the US military cemeteries at Flanders, Normandy or nearby Tunisia, where thousands of Americans are buried under rows of white crosses and flags. These cemeteries are actually owned by the United States government and maintained by the American Battlefield Monument Commission (ABMC), which is adamant about not being officially authorized to care for the overseas graves of any Americans killed before the Spanish American War. And they have refused the US Navy’s request that they assume responsibility for the maintenance of the graves of five of the men of the Intrepid that are buried at Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli.

This issue is addressed by the resolution recently passed by the American Legion that calls on the government to apply the policy of not leaving any one behind to those who fought and died in any war, and not just the most recent ones. []

It also should be pointed out that the families of those men killed during World War II were given the choice of having their remains returned home or to have them buried with their comrades, and the Somers family has always requested that the remains of Somers be returned.

The major and most serious objection to repatriation of the remains comes from the Navy itself, and is best expressed in a letter from the Chief of Naval Operations, who has visited the cemetery in Tripoli and made the official determination that it should be the final and permanent resting place for the remains of those men. []

“In honor of Commander Richard Somers, and his crew who volunteered to accompany him on the fatal mission of the INTREPID, officials of the United States Navy, State Department, and Libyan government held formal memorial ceremonies on April 2, 1949 at Tripoli’s Protestant Cemetery. Since these remains are associated with the loss of the INTREPID, Tripoli’s Protestant Cemetery has been officially recognized by the Department of the Navy as the final resting place for her crew. My staff is working with the Department of State and the American Embassy in Libya to ascertain the condition of the graves and what actions can be taken towards their long term care.

But that determination is based on a number of studies and reports that only concern the five graves at the cemetery site, and does not apply to the original grave site where eight of the men remain buried, including Somers and two other officers.

Although all thirteen men were buried together a few hundred yards east of the old castle fort, an Italian Army work crew uncovered the remains of five of the men while building a road during the Italian occupation in the 1930s. These five were reburied nearby at the Old Protestant Cemetery, a small, cement walled compound that also includes the remains of about a hundred other, mainly European Christians, families of diplomats from the early 19th century. The five Americans from the Intrepid are in clearly marked crypts. These five are the graves that the US Navy has determined should remain where they are, as they are apparently safe and secure.

While there is much disagreement among those who are seeking the repatriation of the remains of Somers and the Intrepid men, there are good arguments for leaving them there. Although not expressed by the Chief in his letter, one reason the military wants to leave them there is because with them there it is sacred ground, a place where visiting dignitaries are taken when they visit Tripoli, and the maintenance of the cemetery is an issue that the US Embassy has used as a non-threatening excuse to talk to the Libyans and allows them to discuss other issues.

But the American Battlefield Monument Commission has refused to assume responsibility for the cemetery and has left it for the Embassy and the Navy to secure and maintain the site.

Another problem is the identities of the men at the cemetery site. We do know the names of the ten seamen who died in the explosion of the Intrepid, and can obtain DNA samples from the families of each of the three officers, so its possible to determine if any of the officers are among the five interred at the cemetery.

Since they were buried in two separate graves – one for the three officers and the other for the ten seamen, it is most likely that the cemetery contains the remains of five of the ordinary seamen, and none of the officers.

Instead of attempting to over-ride the Navy's determination that the Cemetery site be the final resting place for those five men, they should be left there, although DNA samples should be taken from them to determine that they are not Somers or the officers whose families have requested the remains of their kin.

It is the family of Master Commandant Richard Somers who have always expected his remains to be returned someday, and Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser contacted the Mayor of Norfolk because some of the Intrepid seamen enlisted in the Navy at Norfolk, and he thought their families might be interested in assisting in the effort to reclaim their remains.

The Navy’s determination that they should remain where they are in Tripoli only applies to the five men buried in marked graves at the secure cemetery site, and does not include the three officers and five men who are buried at the original unmarked grave site outside the walls of the old castle fort. Although not even mentioned in the official Congressional and military studies and reports of the cemetery site, the original graves are not even recognized by the military, even though their location is not a secret.

These men were buried “one cable’s length” or about two hundred yards east of the old castle fort, in a park area that was known as Martyr’s Square and renamed Green Square by Gaddafi. It is where Mussolini addressed the crowds and where Gaddafi reviewed the parades during the 40th anniversary of his 1969 coup d’etat in 2009.

As the Arab revolutions spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, the large public squares in each city have been a gathering point for the masses of people who have joined in the demonstrations and protests. When Libyans arrived at Green Square however, they were met by snipers and machine guns and the original peaceful protests quickly escalated into all out war, and Green Square became a rally point safe only for pro-Gaddafi demonstrations.

Although they don’t even know it, the pro-Gaddafi demonstrators have been dancing on the graves of American heroes.

Once Gaddafi is gone, however and whenever that happens, Green Square will be renamed Martyr’s Square, in honor of all those who died during the revolution.

But the only real martyrs buried there, are the American naval heroes, left behind enemy lines in an unmarked grave and in the hands and under the feet of the pirates.

Those who object to recovering their remains and repatriating them home just don’t know these facts.

William Kelly

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