Monday, October 3, 2011

Lost But Not Forgotten - Americans Sailors

"Take any reasonable means available to locate and identify the graves of the Intrepid's crew." - President Franklin D. Roosevelt - 1938


"In March 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested the Navy to take 'any reasonable means available' to locate and identify the graves of the Intrepid’s crew.

[Many thanks to Chris Dickon, author of Foreign Burial of American War Dead (MacFarland, 2011) for sharing this important article with us.]

Burchis, Mustapha, and Johnson, Arthur M., Resting Place of Heroes of the Barbary Wars (Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Sept. 1956, 969-973).
Translation of Mr. Burchis’ narrative from the Arabic by SHAFIC IBRAHIM

The presence of American naval power in the Mediterranean today is a constant reminder to would-be aggressors of the importance of that vital area to the United States. Our Navy protected American interests there in the early years of our country’s independence, and it is prepared to do so again should the need arise. A mute but impressive testimonial to this enduring determination to keep the sea lanes of the Mediterranean open is a peaceful cemetery on the outskirts of Tripoli.

In 1949 it was officially recognized as the resting place of five of the American sailors lost in the explosion of the U.S. Ketch Intrepid in 1804.

The background of that incident of the Barbary Wars is a fascinating one in itself. Discovery of the graves, located after nearly a century and a half of neglect, is another intriguing tale, for it was the result of unrelenting detective work by an Arab who was determined to solve the mystery, whatever the cost to himself. In the following pages an attempt has been made to present both aspects of the Intrepid’s story as an integrated account.

The Intrepid, originally a French gunboat, had an interesting history. Seized by Barbary pirates and renamed the Mastico, she fell into American hands when she was captured by the Enterprise in December, 1803.

The preceding October the ketch, under Tripolitan colors, had taken part in the attack on the frigate Philadelphia, which was driven ashore and then salvaged by the pirates.

The Philadelphia Aground

Because of her Mediterranean rig, the Intrepid was, by a twist of fate, selected to carry out the mission of destroying the Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli. Under Stephen Decatur, this assignment was successfully executed on the night of February 16, 1804. No member of the Intrepid’s crew was killed, and only one was even slightly injured.

Burning of the frigate USS Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor

When an occasion for a similar expedition arose the following September, the Intrepid again seemed the most suitable vessel for it. This time, however, the carefully laid plans went awry.

Commodore Edward Preble had proposed sending a fire-ship into the harbor, where it was to explode amidst the enemy vessels. To this end the Intrepid was loaded with 15,000 pounds of powder in bulk, and above it was massed as much shot and shell as there was room for. A train was laid from the powder compartment aft to a space filled with combustibles. Having reached a favorable position in the harbor, the crew was to set fire to the combustibles and escape in two boats carried for the purpose.

Lieutenant Richard Somers of the Nautilus volunteered to lead the raid. He was joined by Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth, uncle of the poet, and by Midshipman Joseph Israel, familiarly known as “Pickle,” who reportedly stowed away in one of the Intrepid’s boats in order to share in the adventure that was to cost him his life. Ten seamen from the Nautilus and the Constitution formed the remainder of the crew.

Somers was fully aware of the dangers confronting his little band. Before departing, he broke his ring in three pieces, giving one piece to Lieutenant Charles Stewart, another to Decatur, and keeping the third himself. He also gave Decatur his will.

About 9 P.M., September 4, 1804, the Intrepid set sail for her rendezvous with destiny. She was convoyed as far as the rocks at the harbor entrance by the Vixen, Nautilus, and Argus, which stood by to pick up the Intrepid’s boats upon the completion of her mission. As the ketch stood in toward the mole, she was lost in view from the convoying vessels but provoked the fire of Tripolitan shore batteries. Suddenly, Lieutenant Stewart of the Brig Siren believed that he saw a light moving on the deck of the Intrepid. When it disappeared, there was a tremendous explosion, a sheet of flame, and then all was quiet.

Recalling the event many years later, Stewart was sure that what he had seen was a torch being applied to the Intrepid’s deadly cargo in an effort to prevent the vessel’s capture by the Tripolitans. No one knows with certainty, however, exactly what caused the premature explosion which ended the Intrepid’s career and snuffed out the lives of her gallant crew.

Reportedly the Bashaw offered a dollar for each body recovered, and, according to some accounts, thirteen of them were brought in. Of these, two badly mangled corpses were found in the wreckage of the Intrepid, one was in the boat that was to have carried them to safety, four were floating in the harbor, and six drifted ashore on the beach to the southeast of the town.

An American witness declared that he himself had seen fourteen bodies and heard of six more. If this report is true, the theory that Tripolitan gunboats attempted to board the ketch may have some validity, especially as Commodore Preble declared that the largest of the Tripolitan gunboat was missing and three others, badly damaged, were seen beached the day following the abortive raid. The credibility of the witness who declared that there were fourteen bodies is further enhanced by the fact that he identified three of them as officers by the softness of their hands and the remnants of their clothing.

According to one report, the bodies of the three officers were buried in the same grave “about a cable’s length to the southward and eastward of the Castle.” The ten seamen were said to have been laid to rest “on the beach,” but the beach and the location of the graves were soon lost to memory. The question of their whereabouts did not arise as a subject for on-the-spot investigation until 1938.

In March of that year President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested the Navy Department to take “any reasonable means available” to locate (and) identify the graves of the Intrepid’s crew.

In March of 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested the Navy to take
"any reasonable means available" to locate (and) identify the graves of the Intrepid's crew.

The assistance of the State Department was requested in this matter, and the Embassy in Rome in August, 1938, provided the Department with two reports on it. However, no further action seems to have been taken by the American government at that time.

How the graves were discovered by a Tripolitan drawn into this search by accident, and how they finally came to be officially recognized by the United States Government, is the subject of the following narrative. Because of its simple eloquence, it is presented substantially as the author, Mustapha Burcis, wrote it.


I first heard in May, 1938, of the five graves of the American sailors who died in the explosion of the Intrepid. At the time, Italy ruled my country and I was a “marshal” working with the Tripoli Port Authorities. The rank of “marshal” was equivalent to Sergeant Major and it was the highest rank a Libyan could get in the Italian Armed Forces. As head of all Libyans employed at the Port, I had a great deal of influence and the Italians often used my services in collecting and finding information.

One day Colonel Pumo, Port Commander, called me into his office. Port Captain Mario Battaglieri was also there. The Colonel showed me a message from the American Embassy in Rome, requesting any available information that might lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of the graves of the American sailors killed in the explosion of the Intrepid in 1804. Even if no information were available, the Embassy agreed to pay for any search made.

That day I went home with big dreams and great ideas. I thought of myself as the discoverer of a hidden secret, a secret of heroic death. I dreamed that the American Government would take me to America, and I would be a great man. America was a dream to me, a dream of wealth and freedom, and now I had my big chance of having it come true.

I discussed the problem with my family, relatives, and friends. They all thought that I was crazy and asked the same question, “How can you find the graves of people who died and were buried in 1805” (sic).

“Yes, how?” I asked myself, and I had no answer. However, against everyone’s advice I decided to take a chance and try. In this decision my wife stood by me and gave me all encouragement and help. For me this was a chance to make a dream come true.

* * *

Besides the fact that those sailors were killed in 1804, I knew nothing on the subject. Thus my first logical step was to read about its history in order that my steps might be guided in finding the secret that had been hidden for almost one hundred and fifty years.

The Italian authorities in Tripoli had many libraries which I visited day after day, after my work, to read the history of the Barbary Pirates. Having saturated myself with the history, I turned my attention to the problem of getting information about the dead sailors. This took me to the following possible sources. The first was Suleiman Bey Karamanli, who gave me permission to use his private collection of books, publications and manuscripts. This collection yielded no information to me because a large number of the publications were in Turkish, which language I do not know. I was forced to get translators who could help me.

The Castle Library was of great interest but yielded no new information. However, my constant trips to the Castle aroused the interest of an old guard who in his quiet manner daily inquired about my health and my studies; and in a longer conversation he accidentally mentioned municipality records and the Moslem Property Department records, saying that if I wanted any information of my missing relatives I could find something in those places, but not here.

Following the old man’s wisdom, I carried my search to those two places. At the municipality I met another Karamanli who was head and mayor of the Moslem community in Libya. He gave me all the assistance I needed, but there were no records that went as far back as 1804. At the offices of the Moslem Property Department I met the Director, Ilmail Kamal, a Libyan historian well informed of Libyan history and events, but he knew nothing of the fate of the American sailors.

Next, I visited the “Judge of Judges,” President of the Moslem Courts, Mohammed Burkhis, an old, learned man and one who gave the impression of never having lost his touch with the old customs and habits of the Bedouins. The stories he knew and had heard about the naval battles between Americans and Tripoli Pirates were numerous, and he told me of many ships that sank in Tripoli harbor and the many dead that were always found on the eastern shore of the city. The story about the eastern shore later turned out to be a fact, but at that point it had no significance to me. The Judge, however, indicated in his conversation that the Christian churches in Tripoli might know something of the fate of the Christian sailors.

Seeing the wisdom of his suggestion, I got in touch with Monsignore Facchinetti, who gave me permission to look at their registers of the dead. Two Catholic brothers helped me during my short search of the Cathedral’s archives. During this time the brothers told me about Christianity and its greatness and way of life, trying to convert me to their religion. It was the first time I had heard about the infidel’s religion. I admired it and saw how near it is to ours because we also believed in One God and a moral life. The differences, I thought, were not important, and I remained a god Moslem.

My work had so far taken me about three months. It got me no nearer to my goal, but I benefited from the study. I also became so interested that I resolved never to give up. The more I pursued the subject, the greater my interest became.

I resorted next to the Arabic and Italian newspapers. Sheik Mohammed Al-Misurati was editor of the Arabic paper and also a teacher of the Koran. The Sheik was a well-traveled man and well-read. He told me of a story he had read while in Egypt in one of the Egyptian publications (whose name he did not remember) – a story of the 1804 Naval Battle in Tripoli. The story mentioned that “many” American sailors were killed during the Karamanli Wars and that those sailors were buried on the eastern shore of Tripoli. The Sheik then added this logical conclusion, “and maybe that is why the English cemetery started there.”

Unable to obtain further information at the British Consulate, I went home as usual and felt like giving up all hope. By now all my friends and relatives thought I was foolish and unstable. My wife, as ever, was by my side, and I talked to her at great length of my work so far. I had not and was not expecting my wife to be helpful because women, to us, are busy at home and not interested in men’s problems. Suddenly she suggested that I go to Benghazi. “Maybe some one of them would know,” she said.

Why I accepted the suggestion, I don’t know. Maybe [it was] because I was tired and wanted to go away. I cheered up and made ready to leave, taking time off from my work. Then came the problem of finance. My wife even sold her jewels to help pay expenses. My stay in the East proved only one point, that any information leading to definite facts had to be taken from old related stories.

Back in Tripoli I got an afternoon off and [visited] Signor Andrea Farrugia at the Maritime Agent’s Office. Signor Andrea told me of the many stories he had heard told by the elders among the Jewish Community still living in the Old City. These stories told of the bodies that were buried on the east shore of the harbor.

These constant references to the eastern shore convinced me that I should follow this line of research. Life in the old city and the ancient traditions made approach to the people difficult. A direct approach would get me nowhere, so I started getting friendly with people, spending afternoons sipping tea and smoking and exchanging stories. One of these old men was Hawoto Hatuma, almost one hundred years old at the time. He remembered his father telling him of great explosions in Tripoli Harbor in the year 1804, and great fires that kept the city excited for days. Those were of ships that burned in the harbor and resulted in many, many Americans sailors being killed. Those sailors were buried where they were found on the eastern shore of Tripoli. Hatuma then took me to the house of the aged. Here [sic] Shaloum Akub, who took me around and saw to it that I became a friend of the elder Jewish Community.

The stated purpose of the visits was to have my fortune told. Over cups of tea and smokes my fortune was told time and time again. A great friendship developed between us, and stories were exchanged till the Intrepid story came up, and here my interest was at its greatest. Most of the people had heard stories from their fathers and grandfathers of the bodies of the American sailors that were buried on the eastern shores of the harbor exactly where the English cemetery is located.

A Maltese seaman of about eighty-five remembered his father and cousin telling the same stories, and said that there were five bodies buried where the Protestant cemetery is now. This was further confirmed by “akka,” which means in literal translation, “bedbug.” Bakka was an astrologer and fortune teller. He was fairly sure that the British or Protestant cemetery was started because of the five unknown graves.

The next day after work, I decided to make another visit to the British Consulate. During the morning Mohammed Zenturi, Port Pilot, was asking me whether I had learned anything in my quest, and we talked about the Intrepid. During the conversation I learned that currents in the port area are directed often to the eastern shore. Since the present seawalls did not exist at the time of the Barbary Wars, that could explain exactly how the bodies of the sailors could be washed to that location. In my mind, I became positive that the five unknown graves in the now Protestant cemetery were the graves I was looking for.

Thus I returned to the British Consulate. My first question was when and how did the British cemetery start. It turned out that, in 1830, the wife of the British Consul in Tripoli, Mrs. Warington, died and that spot was chosen for burial. Why was that particular place chosen? After all, at the time it was a deserted, lonely place. The answer was, because there were already five graves there believed to be of Christians buried in the beginning of the century.

I was extremely excited by then and said to the British Consul, “These five graves are the ones I am looking for. They are the five American sailors killed in the Intrepid explosion.”

The Old British Cemetery (1830) Now known as Old Protestant Cemetery at Tripoli Harbor

I then inspected the cemetery and the graves, and some additional questioning confirmed to me the facts. I wrote my report in Italian. That was in 1939, a year after I first started my work.

Inside the Old Protestant Cemetery.

The war had already begun. My hopes fell soon after my report had been sent. Italy was an enemy of the United States in the war. What happened to my work, I don’t know. Almost ten years of war passed, and I forgot that work. However, my friends and relatives were convinced of the fact that, after all, Mustapha Burchis was not a fool, and he did discover the secret and had reached his goal.

It was after the war on the sixth day of June, 1948. I was having a drink with some friends and reading the local Arabic paper, Tarablus Al-Gharb, when I came across notice saying that the American Government was going to open a Consulate in Tripoli. This notice revived a dead hope, and I thought, “Here is a chance again. This time I will deal directly with the representative of the United States Government.”

The American Consulate opened on the 19th of October, 1948. On December 20, I sent my first letter to Consul Orray Taft, Jr, reviewing my story and ending the letter thus: “I am at the disposal of the United States Government in order to let you know the fate of these heroic sailors.” ON the 26th of January, 1949, Mr. Taft sent me a message informing me that my letter had been forwarded to Rome. On March 2nd came a letter from Mr. Taft, saying, “….this office would appreciate information on the location of the graves….”

It was a memorable day for me when, on Monday, 21st of March, 1949, I went to the United States Consulate and gave them more information. Two days later, I was requested to meet Mr. Taft. I was informed that my information had been accepted as correct and that the U.S. Navy had decided on a ceremony on the 2nd of April to commemorate the death and burial of those brave sailors.

Thus it took place that through hard and continuous work I discovered the graves of the five unknown United States sailors who bravely came to their death in the explosion of the Intrepid and whose graves are now a symbol of a period of history when the United States was at war with Tripoli. These graves are known now to all Americans who visit these shores, and a memorial ceremony is held every year.

U.S. Ambassador to Libya Mr. Gene Cretz places American flags on the graves of the US sailors from the Intrepid at Old Protestant Cemetery in 2010.

* * *

Mr. Taft confirmed the accuracy of the above narrative in a conversation with the co-author of this article in October, 1955. The Navy sent the Cruiser Spokane to take part in the services dedicating the ceremony. On that occasion Tripoli for the first time witnessed a parade by American naval personnel accompanied by an American Consul. Significantly, they came as friends honoring the memory of gallant predecessors whose graves had been located through the devoted efforts of a Tripolitan.


MUSTAPHA BURCHIS comes from an old Moslem family which fought Italian colonization in Libya and kept on fighting. At the age of 12, he was taken prisoner during one of the many battles with the Italians, and was sent from Derma to Tripoli and put to work. He grew up amongst sailors of all nationalities – without any formal education, although he learned to read and write Italian and Arabic. Since 1914 he has worked at the port of Tripoli and was eventually promoted to the post of harbormaster and “marshal” or head of all the Libyans employed by the Tripoli Port Authorities of the Italian Armed Forces.

ARTHUR M. JOHNSON, assistant professor in the Department of English, History and Government at the U.S. Naval Academy, did the editing and rewriting of Burchis’ manuscript, adding pertinent historical material while striving to keep something of the flavor of the author’s original style.

SHAFIC IBRAHIM is a Lebanese teacher of English employed by the U. S. administration in Libya.

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