Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Unfinished Mission

At the end of Tripoli Road is Martyr's Square, the ancient, red castle fort and the graves of Master Commandant Richard Somers and the men of the USS Intrepid.


Master Commandant Richard Somers and the 12 officers and men of the USS Intrepid lie “boots underground,” buried in an unmarked grave just outside the walls of the ancient red castle fort in what they call Green Square, that will be renamed Martyr’s Square after the current revolution is over.

They were all volunteers, having joined the Navy to fight pirates, and they’ve been there since the explosion of the Intrepid in Tripoli harbor on September 4, 1804, over two centuries ago.

Richard Somers’ family, originally from Somers Point, New Jersey, have always requested and expected his remains to be brought home, and they haven’t forgotten about him, although they sometimes think that US government and the Navy may have.

The early efforts of the family have been enjoined by citizens and officials from Somers Point, the town’s historical society and veterans. The New Jersey legislature and the United States House of Representatives have officially called for the repatriation of the remains of these men, and the US Senate is now considering the matter as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act.

The only opposition comes from the top commanders of the Navy, who say that the mission of the men of the Intrepid is not yet over, and that based on the studies and reports, made the official determination that they should stay where they are.

In March, 2010, Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, wrote,“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.”

In 1930, during the Italian occupation of Libya, an Italian army road work crew uncovered the remains of five of the twelve men, and reburied them at a nearby walled cemetery, Old Protestant Cemetery, that also includes the graves of about a hundred other, mainly European diplomats and their families. These graves are clearly marked, and the cemetery is secured, but the Admiral’s determination only refers to the cemetery graves and does not make a determination on the original grave site at Green Square.

Green Square, soon to be renamed Marty’s Square, is where people gather to celebrate or protest, and is from the ramparts of the old red castle fort where great battles were fought, and where Benito Mussolini and Mummar Gadaffi gave speeches.

It is also where Master Commandant Richard Somers and seven of his men are buried in unmarked graves, including the other officers – Lt. Henry Wadsworth (Uncle of Longfellow) and Lt. Joseph Israel and five other seamen.

Their original mission was to sail the Intrepid, a captured pirate ship, into Tripoli harbor laden with explosives, set her to sail into the anchored enemy fleet, light a fuse and escape in two row boats. But the Intrepid exploded prematurely, killing all hands. Their bodies washed ashore and the next day they were buried by captured American sailors who were kept prisoners in the dungeons of the castle fort.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote a profile of Richard Somers in which he authoritatively reported, “…The ten seamen were buried on the beach outside the town near the walls; while the three officers were interred in the same grave, on the plain beyond, or cable’s length [200 yards] to the southward and eastward of the earth. Small stones were placed at the four corners of the last grave, to mark its site; but they were shortly after removed by the Turks, who refused to let what they conceived to be a Christian monument, disfigure their land.”

“Here, then, lie the remains of Somers, and his two gallant friends; and it might be well to instruct the commander of some national cruiser to search for their bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land. Their identity would at once be established by the number of the skeletons, and the friends of the deceased might find a melancholy consolation in being permitted to drop a tear over the spot in which they would be finally entombed.”

But there they remained, in the shadow of the walls of the old castle fort, until the Italian work crew uncovered five of them and reburied them at the Old Protestant Cemetery, about a mile east along the old coast road.

Since they were buried in two distinct graves, one for the ten seamen and the other for the three officers, the five remains uncovered by the Italians must have been from the lot of 10 seamen, leaving five seamen and the three officers still buried at the original grave by the fort.

There have been many efforts to repatriate the remains of these men over the years, all unsuccessful because of some political reason or other, but today, the opposition comes only from the US Navy, who say these men are strategically located and can still be of use to their service.

Although it isn’t explained in the CNO’s official determination regarding the cemetery graves, the cooperative upkeep of the cemetery site provides for close cooperation between the Libyans, the US embassy personnel and the Navy, giving them a non-threatening issue to discuss, and the beginnings of a cooperation that could lead to other joint projects.

While this worked to some extent with the Gadhafi government, it will become paramount to encourage the early and close cooperation between the US officials and the new government of Libya, whoever they are and whenever they take over.

That is a sensitive and important mission for the men of the Intrepid, but it doesn’t apply to those still buried at the original grave site at Green Square. When the revolution gets there, and it is renamed Marty’s Square, remember the men of the Intrepid who are buried there.

Once the situation in Tripoli is stabilized, their mission will then be over, and the first issue that the United States should bring up in their negotiations with the new Libyan government should be the repatriation of the remains of the men of the Intrepid.

William Kelly

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