Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kelly's Kiwanis Talk at ACCC 7/28/11

Bill Kelly’s talk to Kiwanis – Atlantic City Country Club – July 28, 2011

Richard Somers was born at his father’s home and tavern on the corner of Bethel and Shore Roads during the Revolutionary War when his father was a Colonel in the local militia and a certified privateer. Somers learned to swim and sail in Great Egg Bay and this was his backyard when he was a young boy.

Sent to Philadelphia to school Somers was close friends and schoolmates with Stephen Decatur, whose father was also a Revolutionary War sea captain. They studied at the Philadelphia Free Academy and were known to engage in fisticuffs in the cemetery behind Independence Hall where John Barry is now buried. Barry, the Irish born “Father of the U.S. Navy” was named the first flag officer of the US Navy and instructed by President Washington to educate the first class of officers. Barry selected Somers and Decatur as two of his first midshipmen to serve on the frigate USS United States, which was built at the South Philly navy yard.

After serving under Barry, Somers and Decatur were promoted to Lieutenants and given command of their own ships, Somers the schooner Nautilus and Decatur the schooner Enterprise, which were ordered to the Mediterranean to fight the Barbary Pirates.

Both Somers and Decatur captured pirate ships as prizes, including one ketch they rechristened the USS Intrepid, which Decatur used to sneak into Tripoli harbor disguised as a pirate ship to scuttle the captured American frigate USS Philadelphia. The Philadelphia ran aground while chasing a pirate corsair into Tripoli harbor and the pirate prince Yousef Karamanli wanted a million dollars in ransom for the 300 captured officers and men.

The Americans were determined to free them by defeating the pirates in battle, and they did mount a series of successful attacks against the pirate fleet at Tripoli, each time Somers and Decatur leading flotillas of ships that engaged the pirates.

Then a plan was devised where Somers and a small crew of volunteers would take the Intrepid back into Tripoli harbor outfitted as a fire ship filled to the brim with explosives. They were to light a fuse, escape in rowboats and allow the Intrepid to explode in the midst of the anchored pirate fleet. With Lt. Henry Wadsworth (Uncle of Longfellow) as his second officer, and Lt. Israel and ten seamen, they have been compared to modern day SEALS, though while today’s SEALS are much better trained and equipped, it was the type of mission that today would be given to SEALS to execute.

Unfortunately, the Intrepid exploded prematurely for reasons unknown, and all 13 men were killed and their bodies washed ashore. The chief surgeon from the Philadelphia was permitted to take a party of American prisoners to bury them and they were laid in two distinct graves, one for the three officers and the other for the ten seamen, “one cable’s length” from the walls of the old castle fort, which still stands today.

And there they lay buried until 1930 when an Italian Army road crew uncovered the remains of five of the men and reburied them in marked graves at the old Protestant Cemetery, a short distance away. When the US Navy would held a ceremony in their honor in 1949 it included the Mayor of Tripoli, Yousef Karmanli, a namesake and direct descendant of the tyrant who led the pirates in 1803.

When the US Air Force utilized nearby Wheelus Air Force Base, the officer’s wives club took responsibility for the upkeep of the cemetery graves and held Memorial Day services there, but once Gadhafi took over in a coup in 1969, the Americans were forced to leave and the cemetery graves were left unkept.

In the early 1970s two American tourists from North Jersey stumbled upon the cemetery graves overgrown with weeds and wrote an article that was published in the national American Legion magazine. That article sparked the first modern day attempt to repatriate their remains, but at the time, we at war with Gadhafi because of his support for terrorism.

When the political situation permitted, the Somers family and Somers Point municipal leaders engaged in direct talks with the Gadhafi family through their Gadhafi Charities Foundation, which was also used to pay the families of the victims of the Lockerbie terrorists attack for which Libya had taken responsibility. The Gadhafis had no qualms about returning the remains from both sites, and actually had an archaeological dig uncover buttons and bones at the original grave site at what is now Green Square, the epicenter of the Libyan Revolution.

The opposition to the repatriation of the remains of these men stems primarily from the US Navy and the Department of Defense, whose studies concluded that the cemetery site should be the permanent resting place for these men. They fail to even recognize the existence of the original grave site outside the walls of the old castle fort, the exact location of which they say is “lost to history,” although its location has been known for two centuries.

When the current troubles began in mid-February, a number of those who have been involved in previous efforts to repatriate the remains of Somers got together and saw an opportunity to call attention to this issue, bring it to the forefront, and make it a national issue rather than just one of concern to people from Somers Point.

Congressman Frank LoBiondo has always been cooperative, but unsure as to what he could do so he mentioned this situation to Rep. Mike Rogers (R. Mich.), the powerful chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Rogers is an army veteran who had actually visited the cemetery in Tripoli while on a fact finding tour to Libya. He introduced a bill in Congress that requires the Secretary of Defense to do what is necessary to repatriate the remains of US servicemen from Libya, and attached the bill to the Defense Authorization Act that passed the House and is now being considered by the Senate. It should be acted on by the Senate early in September.

In the meantime, through the Intrepid Project, we have been trying to expand the base of support for repatriation from just the Somers family and citizens of Somers Point and make it a national issue. We have since obtained the strong support of the American Legion and other veterans groups, the citizens of Somers, New York, which is named after Richard Somers, and the Wadsworth family of Maine.

Sally Hastings, the President of the Somers Point Historical Society, participated in the trips to both Washington DC to meet with Rogers and to Somers, NY, where she invited the mayor and local historical society leaders to visit Somers Point in September. She has put together a slide show of graphics and a new booklet with the basic facts of the case and the current situation.

In answer to questions:

Q: Other than the five graves at the cemetery, what became of the others?

The eight others, including the three officers, are still buried at the original grave site outside the walls of the old castle fort which is now called Green Square, the epicenter of the revolution that will be renamed Martyr’s Square after Gadhafi leaves power. The only martyrs actually buried there are our Navy heroes.

Q: Is this the battle mentioned in the Marine Corp hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli?”

Yes. Some however, say the song really refers to the Battle of Derna, in which William Eaton, Sgt. Presley O’Bannon and eight marines, along with a ragtag army marched across the desert and captured the eastern port city of Derna. While that battle helped accelerate the acceptance of a peace treaty, there were a number of naval battles at Tripoli which led to the deaths of officers that are listed on the Tripoli Monument at Annapolis.

In addition, the American Battle Monuments Commission owns and maintains the graves of American military casualties at Flanders from WWI, Normandy from WWII and in Mexico from the “Halls of Montezuma” fame, but will not assume responsibility for the Tripoli graves.

Q: How much will it cost and who will pay for it?

The recovery of one US serviceman from South America recently cost $30,000, and the cost of the recovery of these men from Tripoli will be paid for by the DOD POW/MP office and the Navy, since these men were enlisted in the Navy when they were killed. It is the policy of the US government not to leave anyone behind, and we just want this policy to include everyone, and not just those who die today, but anyone who has died in service of their country. These men died fighting for the same ideals and principles we fight for today.

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