Sunday, December 18, 2011

20 Efforts to Remember & Repatriate Tripoli Naval Heroes

Chronicles of 20 efforts to ensure the remembrance and repatriate the remains of Richard Somers and the men of the Intrepid – 1804 – 2012 By William Kelly

“Somers, Wadsworth, Israel & Decatur...whose names ought to live in the recollection and affection of a grateful country, and whose conduct ought to be regarded as an example to future generations.” – Congressional Resolution 1805

From the time they were buried at Tripoli Harbor on September 5, 1804, efforts were made to ensure the men of the USS Intrepid were not forgotten and to repatriate their remains home. I have documented nearly twenty such efforts.

1) At Burial. The detail of American prisoners who buried them, led by Dr. Jonathan Cowdery, clearly marked their graves, so they could later be located, placing rocks at the four corners and a cross, which were removed by the Arabs.

According to one account, “...All of the thirteen bodies were recovered,....Dr. Cowdery (U.S surgeon of the captured USS Philadelphia) distinctly states in his journal that he...was able to pick out three of them as officers, although of course it was not known in Tripoli how many officers were in the party, or how many in all. His opinion was based on the softness of their hands and a few fragments of clothing...The bodies were buried south of the town, the three supposed officers by themselves.”

Another report states, “(Captain) Bainbridge and his men buried them on the beach and erected…a fieldstone above protect against the ravages of wild dogs that took the place of scavengers and street cleaners in Tripoli. The little wooden crosses they set up were knocked down by the populace as abhorment to their faith.”

2) James F. Cooper wrote a history of the early Navy and a profile of Richard Somers in which he reported that after they died, “...The ten seamen were buried on the beach outside the town near the walls; while the three officers were interred in the same grave, on the plain beyond, or cable’s length [720 feet] to the southward and eastward of the earth. Small stones were placed at the four corners of the last grave, to mark its site; but they were shortly after removed by the Turks, who refused to let what they conceived to be a Christian monument, disfigure their land.”

3) In the course of attempting to get the Tripoli Repatriation Amendment passed, the Senate Armed Services Committee staff suggested that a “Sense of Congress” resolution be substituted. But that was rejected because it lacked backbone, and besides in 1805 Congress had already passed a resolution honoring the men, specifically mentioning the officers:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the thanks of Congress be, and the same are hereby presented to Commodore Edward Preble, and through him to the officers, petty officers, seamen and marines attached to the squadron under his command, for their gallantry and good conduct, displayed in the several attacks on the town, batteries and naval force of Tripoli, in the year one thousand eight hundred and four.

Resolved, That the President of the United States be requested to cause a gold medal to be struck, emblematical of the attacks on the town, batteries and naval force of Tripoli, by the squadron under Commodore Preble's command, and to present it to Commodore Preble, in such manner as in his opinion will be most honourable to him. And that the President be further requested to cause a sword to be presented to each of the commissioned officers and midshipmen who have distinguished themselves in the several attacks.

Resolved, That one month's pay be allowed exclusively of the common allowance to all the petty officers, seamen and marines of the squadron, who so gloriously supported the honour of the American flag, under the orders of their gallant commander in the several attacks.

Resolved, That the President of the United States be also requested to communicate to the parents or other near relatives of Captain Richard Somers, lieutenants Henry Wadsworth, James Decatur, James R. Caldwell, Joseph Israel, and midshipman John Sword Dorsey, the deep regret which Congress feel for the loss of those gallant men, whose names ought to live in the recollection and affection of a grateful country, and whose conduct ought to be regarded as an example to future generations. APPROVED, March 3, 1805.

4) Tripoli Monument - One of the prisoners being held for ransom in the dungeons of the old castle fort was Lt. David Porter, first officer of the captured frigate Philadelphia. Once he was freed Porter took up a collection from his fellow officers who fought in the Barbary wars and erected a monument, America’s first war monument to the officers who gave their lives at Tripoli. One indication of their intention to repatriate and rebury the remains is the Latin inscription carved on the side of the Tripoli monument that reads: "Hic decorae functorum in bello virorum cineres," or "Here are the noble remains of men who did their duty in war," clearly indicating that they intended the monument to be a grave stone for the officers, once their remains were repatriated home.

5) Somers Monument. In Somers Point, N.J., home of Intrepid commander Richard Somers, his sister Sarah Somers Kean had a monument erected, which also serves as a gravestone, so he wouldn’t be forgotten and that people would remember that he was buried in Tripoli. Sarah’s other brother Constant died in a maritime accident in Russia and was buried at sea, and they didn’t expect his remains to be returned, but they knew of the circumstances of Richard’s death and the location of his grave and always considered the possibility that his remains would someday be repatriated. In the old family burial ground near Somers Point, enclosed by a brick wall, is a cenotaph, whereon is chiseled;


He perished in the 25th year of his age, in the ketch Intrepid,
In the memorable attempt to destroy the Turkish flotilla, in the
Harbor of Tripoli, on the night of 4th of September, 1804.


“Pro Partia non timidus mori.”
"unafraid to die for his country"

6) Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In New England the death of the Intrepid’s first officer Lt. Henry Wadsworth greatly affected their old and prosperous family and in 1807, Wadsworth’s sister named her first born son Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who would go on to become a renown historical poet and author of such classics as “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

7) USS Somers - Ships. The Navy also remembered Somers and wanted to share his legacy by naming six ships after him, the first a schooner, and the second a training vessel for new midshipmen. This second USS Somers became famous as the only ship in the US naval history on which a mutiny is alleged to have occurred when three young midshipmen were hung from the yardarm after being found with notes bearing secret writing and rumors of an alleged mutiny. The story would inspire Henry Mellville (“Moby Dick”) to write “Billy Budd” and the Navy to begin the Naval Academy.

8) The US Navy Academy. One of the midshipmen hung for mutiny on the USS Somers was the son of the Secretary of War, and the resulting scandal ended the training of midshipmen at sea and the establishment of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. The Tripoli Monument, which had been scorched by the British when they burned Washington in 1812, had been moved from the Washington Naval Yard to the front lawn of Congress, and was then moved again to Annapolis, where it stands today.

9) Somers, New York. Somers, as well as other officers from the Barbary Wars, were well known naval heroes whose legacy grew with time, and besides ships, city streets and entire towns were named after them – including Somers, New York, where a bust of Richard Somers graces the local veteran’s cemetery.

10) That the mass graves in Triopli were not sufficient places for them to rest forever was eloquently expressed in 1850 by James Finemore Cooper, who would write such literary classics as “Last of the Mohicans” and “The Deerslayer,” as well as a history of the US Navy, wrote extensively about Somers. Like Somers, Cooper was a fellow resident of West Jersey, and suggested Somers’ remains be repatriated when he wrote, “Here, then, lie the remains of Somers, and his two gallant friends; and it might be well to instruct the commander of some national cruiser to search for their bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land. Their identity would at once be established by the number of the skeletons, and the friends of the deceased might find a melancholy consolation in being permitted to drop a tear over the spot in which they would be finally entombed.” But it would be many years before anyone would act on the suggestion.

11) The new Senate-House Armed Services Committee conference report requests precedent be cited, and John Paul Jones is one big precedent. Teddy Roosevelt, the hero of San Juan Hill, learned that the remains of John Paul Jones were buried in a discarded crypt in Paris, so in 1905 he had Jones repatriated from his Parisian crypt to the chapel at the Navy academy, and did so with much fanfare. Roosevelt used the occasion for political grandstanding and garnered the support of the American people for the maintenance of a strong navy.

11) Previous reburial. In Tripoli the graves of the Americans lay undisturbed until 1930 when the Italians occupied Libya and the remains of five of the thirteen men were uncovered by an Italian army road crew and reburied at the Old Protestant Cemetery nearby. A Libyan study of the cemetery has shown that more than half of those buried there have been removed and reburied in more fitting locations.

12) What Teddy did with John Paul Jones may have been on the mind of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 when he ordered the American Embassy in Rome to try to locate the graves of the men of the Intrepid. Tripoli Harbor Master Mustafa Burchis took up the quest and after thorough investigation, discovered the Old Protestant Cemetery was built in 1830 around the graves of some already existing graves. Burchis identified five crypts at the cemetery as the remains of the men of the Intrepid, and wrote a detailed report that was among the papers destroyed at the American embassy in Rome during World War II.

After the war Burchis introduced himself to the new American ambassador who, along with the US Navy and local Arab civic leaders, held a ceremony at the cemetery graves in 1949, when they placed markers indicating which graves were the Americans from the Intrepid. In her biography Richard Somers, Glory at Last, Barbara Koedel wrote, “In 1949, as a result of research by Mustafa Burchis, harbor master of Tripoli, and the United States Counsul Orray Taft, Jr., the graves of five men killed from the explosion of the Intrepid on 4 September 1804 were found in the Protestant Cemetery there. On April 2, 1949, the U.S.S. Spokane put in at Tripoli. In a short address, Rear Admiral Cruzen spoke of the exploits in the Barbary War; Captain W. J. Marshall narrated the Intrepid mission; and Consul Taft told of the research to identify the graves and unveiled a plaque: “In honored memory of five unknown American seamen buried here who died in the explosion of the USS Intrepid, Tripoli Harbor, 1804.’ Captain Lt. E. J. Sheridan read a short paper; an honor guard of Marines fired several volleys over the graves and played taps.” A photo of the graves, with U.S. Counsel Orray Taft, Jr., Rear Admiral Richard Cruzen, Capt. W. J. Marshall and Prince Taher Bay Karamanli standing above it is posted on the internet [ ] and available from the Navy Archives.

14) In the 1960s, Air Force Major Jack Templeton visited the graves while stationed at Wheeler Air Force base. He wrote a letter to the New York Times correcting the record in that, “As a USAF pilot stationed in Libya for three years, living in Tripoli, I can attest to a simple grave site in the center of town (100 yards from the shore) with the names of five U.S. Marines who lost their lives there, ‘On the shores of Tripoli.’” Templeton also visited the park near the castle where he recognized the original, unmarked mass graves at what is now Martyrs Square.

15) The graves were then maintained for the next thirty years by the Officer’s Wives Club of nearby Wheelus Air Force base until 1969, when Mummar Gadhafi took over in a coup, kicked out the Americans. Some of those who died at the base, including many children who were buried at a base cemetery were quietly repatriated home with little fanfare or an Act of Congress in 2007.

16) Without any care or maintenance, the Old Protestant Cemetery was in a sad state of affairs in 1977 when two American tourists from North Jersey stumbled upon them, overgrown with weeds – and wrote about it in American Legion Magazine. The commander of the Leona, NJ American Legion who read the report, began a pro-active effort to repatriate the remains from Tripoli, and garnered the support of other veterans and Congressman, who introduced legislation to have them repatriated.

While there was some resistance to the effort, most of it was mainly indifference, at least on the part of Navy academy graduate President Jimmy Carter and New Jersey governor Brendan Byrne. N.J. Sen. Harrison Williams agreed with the cause however, and others tried to get administrative action through the Secretary of the Navy, to no avail.

17) In Somers Point, the Atlantic County Historical Society endorsed the repatriation effort and they convinced their representative Rep. William Hughes (2nd NJ) to sponsor legislation to reserve graves for the men of the Intrepid at Arlington National Cemetery, ensuring that it be known that repatriation of the remains of these men from Tripoli was always the intention of Congress, even when such repatriation was impossible. At the time, US – Libya relations had deteriorated considerably, and President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of Tripoli. The Navy Secretary at the time, John Lehman of Ocean City, was a neighbor to Somers Point and a navy historian who is quite familiar with the story of Somers.

18) In the late 1990s, members of the Somers family and civic leaders from Somers Point asked their representative in Congress Frank LoBiondo (R. 2nd), who had replaced Hughes, to see what he could do, and the State Department explained that without diplomatic relations nothing could be done. Contacting the Gadhafi Charities Foundation, they also enlisted the support of the Gadhafi family and received permission to repatriate the remains, and Libya archeologist discovered a mass graves with bones and buttons. Professor Benjamin Barber, the only American on the board of the Gadhafi Foundation, talked to American Ambassador Gene Cretz, who voiced his support for repatriation, but the only opposition came from the US Navy, and the deterioration of relations prevented further recovery.

19) In 2007, another precedent was set when the remains of 70 children and persons associated with Wheelus Air Force Base were dug up and flown to Dover AFB in Delaware and reburied with little notice. The remains are believed to be family members of airmen once stationed them. Plans to reduce the size of the cemetery prompted the transfer. Air Force officials did not release information on the repatriation due to the State Department's concern over the fragile relationship between the two countries.

20) Shortly after the revolution began in Libya in February 2011, Somers Point civic leaders, members of the Somers family and local historians thought that the changes in Libya might set the stage for the possibility of repatriation. A contingent traveled to Washington DC in June and met with Rep. Frank LoBiondo and Rep. Mike Rogers(D. Mich).

LoBiondo had asked the advice of Rogers, the powerful chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and an Army veteran. Rogers then wrote a bill calling for the Secretary of Defense to repatriate the remains of the men of the Intrepid in Tripoli, which he then attached to the 2012 Defense Authorization Act as an amendment. It passed the House with no opposition and quickly picked up bi-partisan support in the Senate, where it was co-sponsored by Senators Dean Heller (R. Nev.), Boozman (R. Ark.), Stowe and Collins of Maine, Kerry & Brown of Massachusetts and both New Jersey Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez.

As the 2012 DAA moved towards a full Senate vote it appeared 90% chance of passage, but the amendment was suddenly removed by Sen. John McClain (R. Az), who did so at the behest of Navy brass, who are against repatriation. When the House and Senate bills were rejoined in Conference, to sort out their differences, ten US Senators signed a letter asking that the Tripoli Repatriation amendment be re-attached to the final bill, but instead the amendment was removed from the table and consideration all together, and without explanation, by Rep. Buck McKeon, another supposed friend of the military and veterans.

Despite the support of the Somers and Wadsworth families, the citizens and civic leaders of Somers Point, millions of veterans affiliated with the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, the New Jersey state legislature, the US House of Representatives and ten U.S. Senators, two men were able to kill the legislation - McCain in the Senate and McKeon in the House.

Pressing the matter in Conference, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, with strong support from Rep. Mike Rogers and Sen. Heller, forced the issue by requiring the military to include an evaluation and report. As soon as the bill is signed in to law, they will begin to study the matter in depth and report back within nine months, or by next September.

The Congressmen may wait until the report is issued or they may consider reintroducing the Tripoli Repatriation as a stand alone resolution and hope to get it out of committee and on to the floor for a vote by early next year, which will take over 200 co-sponsors to ensure its passage. Or they could issue a less powerful “Sense of Congress” resolution that will clearly state the position of Congress on the matter and can be voted on with less red tape, but will not have the backbone of a law.

The bottom line is the remains of Lt. Richard Somers and the crew of the Intrepid should be treated with the same policy, tradition and respect as those who sacrifice their lives today. The U.S. Military shouldn’t have two policies, one for those born before a certain war, and another for those from an earlier time, but treat everyone who fights and dies in the line of duty in the same way.

The POWMP command, responsible for the retrieval of the remains of American military killed in any foreign country, do this routinely and professionally. They are historians, investigators, archeologists and forensic pathologist who can and will properly remove the remains of all the Americans buried there, if given the mission. The graves will be studied, the remains will be evaluated, identified if possible, and returned to the USA via Dover AFB, where all military casualties are processed before being buried with full military honors due them.

The Conference Report on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Section 598, is titled, “Evaluation of Issues Affecting Disposition of remains of American Sailors Killed in the Explosion of the Ketch USS INTREPID in Tripoli Harbor on September 4, 1804.”

This section of the Conference Report on the NDAA requires an evaluation be conducted and completed not later than 270 days – that’s nine months after the date of the enactment of this act, which occurs when the bill is passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President.

At that time the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy shall begin to conduct an evaluation of the following issues with respect to the disposition of the remains of American sailors killed in the explosion of the Ketch USS INTREPID in Tripoli Harbor on September 4, 1804 – “the feasibility of recovery of remains based on historical information, factual consideration, costs, and precedential effect, the ability to make identifications of the remains within a two-year period based on conditions and facts that would have to exist for positive scientific identification of the remains.”

In addition, it must consider “the diplomatic and inter-governmental issues that would have to be addressed in order to provide for exhuming and removing the remains consistent with the sovereignty of the Libyan Government” and include the consultation with the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Navy, the Defense POW/MP office, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Secretary of State.

After completion of the evaluation they are “to make a recommendation regarding the proposal to exhume, identify, and relocate the remains of the American sailors referred to in such subsection and the reasons supporting their recommendation.”


Scott said...

An interesting and confusing history. I understand the Navy's desire to leave remains entombed in sunken ships, but matters ashore are somewhat different. I wonder why there wasn't a push to have the remains moved post-WWII and pre-1969 when we enjoyed relatively good relations with the Libyan government. With Wheelus right there, it's not like the US didn't have the resources.

Bill Kelly said...

Hi Scott, there was always a political reason not to move them, and not a lack of resources. There's also a nearby (200 miles away) American military cemetery in Tunisia run by the American Battle Monuments Commission, who won't maintain the Old Protestant Cemetery. The remains of 70 Americans were exhumed from Wheelus cemetery in 2007. The POWMP Command finds and repatriates remains every week. They just don't want to do it.