Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Foreign Burial of American War Dead

The Foreign Burial of American War Dead – A History by Chris Dickon (McFarland, 2011) [http://theforeignburialofamericanwardead.com/]

As Chris Dickon so vividly demonstrates in his new book The Foreign Burial of American War Dead – A History, it wasn’t always the policy of the US government and military to not leave anyone behind, to account for all combat casualties and provide an honorable burial for those who have given their lives for their country

Rather it is a tradition that was only slowly and painfully realized and a policy that must be continually explained to each new generation so those who sacrificed their lives for the benefit of the living are not forgotten

This long neglected subject caught the interest of Chris Dickon and he has done a masterful job of researching the facts and presenting them in an interesting and readable way. Well documented with extensive footnotes, a reliable index, appendix and many photos, Dickon’s book will certainly be the primary reference work on this subject for many years to come.

While this book chronicles the changes in attitudes about the care for the graves of those killed in combat, it is also timely and pertinent in regards to the graves of the first known combat casualties abroad – the remains of the 13 officers and men of the USS Intrepid who were buried in Tripoli in 1804 and remain there today.

As Dickon explains in his recent OpEd article Bring U.S. naval hero home to America [http://hamptonroads.com/2011/09/bring-us-naval-hero-home-america], “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.”

That would be John Paul Jones, who Teddy Roosevelt had repatriated from his grave in Paris and reburied at Annapolis, and Richard Somers and the men of the Intrepid, who still remain buried in Tripoli today, five in marked graves at a walled cemetery and eight buried under a Martyr’s Square outside the walls of the old castle fort.

From the Shores of Tripoli to the Halls of Montezuma, Flanders Field and Normandy, Dickon’s book chronicles the fascinating story of the burial of American war dead, and describes how the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) owns and oversees the maintenance of the foreign cemeteries, though not the graves in Tripoli.

As Dickon returns to the status of the situation in Tripoli at various times in the chronology, it is a recurring theme that brings the history into the realm of current events that are still happening in revolutionary Libya.

As explained in the first of a number of fact-filled Appendix on various sites around the world, he notes the names of the three officers buried in Tripoli – Richard Somers, Henry Wadsworth [Longfellow’s uncle] and Joseph Israel, and names the ten seamen and their ships. He explains: “It is believed that ten seamen were buried on the beach, and three officers buried together on land above the beach. Known and possible reburials since 1804 have resulted in five unnamed Intrepid crew being [re]buried in a Protestant cemetery near the beach and the belief that five crewmen are buried at one location under Green Park [now Martyr’s Square]. Richard Somers and two other officers are believed to be buried in another location beneath [the Square], approximately 500 feet from the west gate of the Old Castle Fort.”

While Dickon’s subject is brought up on Veteran’s and Memorial Day every year, when flags are placed on the graves and those veterans who have died are remembered, their sacrifices are also recalled whenever our traditions and values are threatened, or when taken for granted.

As expressed in Archibald MacLeish’s poem “The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak,” – “They have a silence that speaks for them at night,...They say: We were young. We have died. Remember us…We have done what we could, but until it is finished it is not done…Our deaths are not ours, they are yours, they will mean what you make of them…Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say, it is you who must say this. We leave you our deaths. Give them some meaning. We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.”

It is up to us to speak, and as Dickon concludes, this fascinating story must be taken to the children, so the living remembers the dead and what they died for.

[William Kelly is the author of “300 Years at the Point – A History of Somers Point, NJ” and “Birth of the Birdie,” a history of golf. He writes: http://billsbooksblog.blogspot.com/ and can be reached at billkelly3@gmail.com]

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