Sunday, September 11, 2011

Official Days to Recognize Forgotten Heroes

Forgotten Heroes – Richard Somers, John Barry and America’s POW/MPs

Official Days To Honor American Heroes Go By Unnoticed.

The New Jersey State legislature officially designated September 4th as Richard Somers Day in the State of New Jersey. The New Jersey and Pennsylvania state legislatures and the Congress of the United States have officially designated September 13th as John Barry Day, and the President of the United States has proclaimed September 16th as National POW/MP Day. Prisoner of War – Missing Persons Day is meant to honor all of those American service personnel who went missing or died overseas and are buried in unknown graves abroad.

Richard Somers day isn’t celebrated on September 4 - the day he died in Tripoli while fighting Barbary pirates, because it generally falls over the Labor Day holiday weekend, so Somers Point holds a Richard Somers Day ceremony a week or two later. This year Richard Somers will be honored at the Somers Point City Hall on Saturday, September 17, when Somers Point will host officials and historians from Somers, New York, a town named after Richard Somers.

Somers, the grandson of the Quaker founder of Somers Point, attended the Philadelphia Free Academy with Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart, and all would become protégés of Captain John Barry. Barry is recognized as the “Father of the U.S. Navy,” not because of his Revolutionary War exploits, or the fact he was the first flag officer of the new reconstituted Navy, but because President Washington ordered Barry to raise a class of midshipmen to become the first young officer corps of the new Navy.

Before assuming command of the frigate USS United States, Barry was responsible for the boat’s construction at what is now the South Philadelphia Navy Yard, and young students - Somers, Decatur and Stewart helped build it. Because he was oldest, Stewart became Barry’s first officer and Somers and Decatur the first two Midshipman, who would go on to command their own schooners – Somers the Nautilus and Decatur the Enterprise.

Both Somers and Decatur would capture pirate ship prizes, with the Enterprise taking a corsair ketch they rechristened the Intrepid.

After the frigate Philadelphia was captured by the pirates after running around at Tripoli harbor, Decatur used the Intrepid on a covert mission into Tripoli harbor to recapture and sink the Philadelphia.

When Somers then took the Intrepid, converted into a fireship outfitted with combustibles, back into Tripoli harbor in the dark of the night on September 4th 1804, it suddenly exploded before it should have, and all thirteen hands perished. The next day their bodies were collected on the shores and American prisoners from the Philadelphia buried them just outside the walls of the old castle fort in what is now Martyr’s Square.

In his new book The Foreign Burial of American War Dead (McFarland Publishing, 2011), Chris Dickon notes that Somers and his men were the first identified and recognized American combat casualties who were buried overseas (other than Revolutionary war soldiers in England), and apparently they will be the last to be repatriated home.

Charles Stewart and Stephen Decatur would continue the fight and Decatur would return to lead the US forces in winning the Second War against the Barbary pirates, which was required because of the repeated violations of the treaty that ended the first war.

All of these men – John Barry, Charles Stewart, Stephen Decatur and Richard Somers, and the ships they sailed – Nautilus, Enterprise and Intrepid - have been recognized and honored by having warships named after them. The USS John Barry is deployed off Africa today, is actively engaged in fighting pirates and fired Tomahawk missiles into Tripoli during the recent conflict.

While John Barry Day, Richard Somers Day and National POW/MP Day usually pass unrecognized, this year they all fall within a week of each other, so maybe they will be remembered.

In a presidential proclamation, President Barack Obama said, "'Until every story ends' is a solemn promise to those who wear the uniform of the United States that they will never be left behind or forgotten. On National POW/MIA Recognition Day, we pay tribute to the American men and women who never returned home from combat, to those who faced unthinkable suffering as prisoners of war in distant lands, and to all servicemembers who have defended American lives and liberties with unwavering devotion. As a grateful Nation, we can never repay the profound debt to our heroes, and we will not rest until we have accounted for the missing members of our Armed Forces."

"We demonstrate our deep gratitude and admiration for our brave patriots not in words alone, but in our actions to bring them home. Each year, specialists in our Department of Defense scour foreign battlefields and burial sites, interview witnesses, and search national and international archives for information about those missing from the Vietnam War, Korean War, Cold War, World War II, and other conflicts. Their work will not be complete, nor our commitment fulfilled, until the families of those taken or missing in action can rest knowing the fate of their loved ones."

It is a week that begins on Sunday with the anniversary of September 11. John Barry Day is Tuesday September 13th, National POW/MP Day is Friday, September 16 and Richard Somers Day is being celebrated on Saturday, September 17.

As these days transpire and these heroes are remembered and honored, let us also remember that Richard Somers and the remains of the officers and men of the Intrepid lay in an unmarked and desecrated gave under a parking lot at Martyr’s Square in Tripoli.

It should also be known that the US Senate is considering the Defense Authorization Act of 2012, passed by the House with the Rogers/Lobiondo amendment that calls for the repatriation of the remains of the men of the Intrepid.

If the Rogers/LoBondo amendment is included in the Defense Authorization Act when it is passed by the Senate, the repatriation of these American heroes from Tripoli will be accelerated, and they can be given the homecoming and proper burial they deserve.

William Kelly

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