Sunday, September 18, 2011
Bring US Naval Hero Home America
Old Protestant Cemetery Site where five of the men of the Intrepid are buried.
Celebrations at Martyr's Square, where eight of the officers and men of the Intrepid are buried.
“Somers became the first named American military commander killed abroad in war and left behind….”
Chris Dickon – Author of “Foreign Burial of American War Dead” (McFarland 2011)
© September 18, 2011
By Chris Dickon
As the people of Libya cheer their liberation on Tripoli's Martyrs' Square, they are likely dancing on the graves of one of America's first naval heroes and his comrades.
Today's celebrants would not be expected to know that since 1804, Master Commandant Richard Somers has probably been buried somewhere beneath what used to be Green Square. And therein lies a tale that is two centuries old, accompanied by a modern dilemma for a small town in New Jersey and an open question for the U.S. Navy.
Our Navy was born as a response to the threats of the Barbary Coast pirates against American trading ships in the Mediterranean. In 1794, the U.S. determined to fight back with the creation of a naval fleet designed for the task. It was the work of the Navy's founding fathers - Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge and Edward Preble among them.
Richard Somers took command on Sept. 4, 1804, of the USS Intrepid as a fireship to be blown up in the midst of Tripolitan warships. But it exploded prematurely. The next day the mangled bodies of the ship's 13 crew were gathered from the beaches of Tripoli and buried in various places. Somers became the first named American military commander killed abroad in war and left behind.
Somers was born about 1778 in what is now Somers Point, N.J. In 1980, the people of Somers Point began a campaign to return him to a final burial place that awaits him on the grounds of his grandfather's mansion, where Richard Somers Day is celebrated each Sept. 15.
In 1804, there was barely a thought in the U.S. military that those killed abroad should be found and returned home, though by that time it was certain that the remains of perhaps thousands of anonymous American prisoners of the Revolutionary War still lay in the marshes of the military ports of England.
By the War of 1812, however, recordkeeping had improved so that we can now name 273 known Americans still buried in Devon County, England and 195 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By 1860, the Navy had also left behind 22 named sailors in Spain and Nicaragua. There are probably more to be found.
The right of return for American war dead wasn't fully implemented until after the Civil War, and it excluded those who had died in earlier years. Until that time, there had been just two apparent official attempts to bring home military members buried abroad.
America's first certified naval hero, John Paul Jones, had died as a man without a country in Paris in 1792, his remains lost in an obscure cemetery. In 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt, a good marketer, sought to gain public support for strengthening the U.S. Navy. "Find me the body of John Paul Jones!" he exclaimed (or words to that effect). A body believed to be that of Jones was found beneath the slums of Paris after several years' effort and interred at Annapolis amid great celebration. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt, for reasons that were less transparent, made the same declaration about Richard Somers. But by the time his presumed burial place in Tripoli was found, the rest of the world had moved on to World War II.
Since 1980, the people of Somers Point have felt that just because Somers was killed at a time when he couldn't be brought home doesn't mean that he shouldn't be brought home. If John Paul Jones could be returned in 1906, why can't Somers make his own return in 2011? That outcome is state policy in New Jersey. Repatriation of all the Intrepid sailors is sought on a current rider to the Defense Authorization Act of 2012.
Events in Libya have made the question more provocative. Some who advocate for Somers believe that, like the two Roosevelts before him, Barack Obama might find a political reason to reflect on Somers and the long, complicated history between the U.S. and Libya. Indeed, in the days before the revolution, even the Libyans seemed favorable to the idea of his return.
But the U.S. Navy is not. In a March 11, 2010, letter to Bill Kelly, one of the leaders in the Somers Point effort, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said that though it was certain that the Intrepid crew was buried in Tripoli, five of them unnamed in a Protestant cemetery, the actual grave of Somers could not be found and verified by Navy standards.
"My staff," said Roughead, "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."
That was before the liberation, or hopeful steps in that direction, of the Libyans themselves. It can be predicted that the liberation of Richard Somers and his comrades will be a continuing goal.
The technology exists to help the task, and times are different.
Chris Dickon is author of "The Foreign Burial of American War Dead." He lives in Portsmouth.