Friday, December 23, 2011
McCain Blocks Return of Somers
Sen. John McCain blocks return of the body of Richard Somers, namesake of Somers Point.
Former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, McCain did the biding of the US Navy brass when he squashed a Senate amendment to the 2012 National Defense Act to repatriate the remains of Navy heroes who were trying to free the American prisoners of war held in the dungeons of the old castle fort in Tripoli. The prisoners buried the remains of Richard Somers and the other officers and men of the Intrepid on the beach near the harbor.
Posted: Friday, December 23, 2011 6:28 pm | Updated: 7:53 pm, Fri Dec 23, 2011.
By ROB SPAHR Staff Writer |
SOMERS POINT — Master Commandant Richard Somers will have to wait a little longer to come home, if it happens at all.
Efforts to repatriate the remains of the city’s namesake and U.S. Naval hero — killed with his crew aboard the USS Intrepid in 1804 in Tripoli Harbor during the First Barbary War — date to the 1840s.
Spurred by this year's political upheaval in Libya, the movement seemed to finally have the congressional backing it needed to order the Department of Defense to take action regarding the return of the bodies of Somers and his men to the U.S.
However, the language in an amendment to the 2012 Defense Authorization bill that ordered the return of the bodies was changed at the last minute in favor of a diluted order for the issue to be further evaluated.
And this was done, supporters of the measure say, at the request of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy prisoner of war.
Michael Caputo of the IntrepidProject.org
Caputo said McCain explained that he was “doing this on behalf of the Navy.”
“But our Constitution is set up for Congress to be independent of the executive branch, so he took it upon himself to make this decision,” Caputo said.
The abrupt turnaround was a blow for Somers Point officials, who thought they would soon be celebrating the return of the man the city honors with a Richard Somers Day celebration every year.
“I was in favor of McCain when he ran for president, so I can’t believe he has taken this position,” said Greg Sykora, a member of the city’s Committee to Return Richard Somers. “You would think that of all the people supporting this, he’d be the one waving the flag.”
Greg Sykora (left) and Mayor Jack Glasser (right) with portrait of Richard Somers at Somers Point NJ City Hall Council Chambers.
“Sen. McCain is a Navy guy through and through, so I am not surprised by him sticking by the Navy,” Mayor Jack Glasser said. “But I am hurt and saddened that we were not able to get this done, and do right by those heroes, when it seemed like we were so close to it.”
The Press of Atlantic City contacted McCain’s office in Washington, D.C., for an explanation of his position on the repatriation of the Intrepid crew.
“Sen. McCain continues to evaluate the issue, and looks forward to gaining the input and recommendations of the Secretary of Defense and the Navy,” Brian Rogers, McCain’s communications director, wrote in an email.
Rogers also noted that “the Navy and other key stakeholders have raised significant concerns regarding this issue.” He referred to a 2010 letter from former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, in which Roughead said the Department of the Navy officially recognizes the Tripoli Protestant Cemetery — where most of the 13 men aboard the Intrepid, including Somers, are believed to be buried in four or five mass graves — as “the final resting place for her crew.”
However, groups such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the American Battle Monuments Commission — which manages America’s overseas cemeteries and memorials, including the American cemetery in Normandy, France — have expressed support for the cause.
Under the new language of the bill, the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Navy have 270 days after the bill is enacted to conduct an evaluation into the feasibility of recovering the remains.
But Caputo said he does not expect the study to have a positive outcome.
“The Department of Defense agencies specifically ordered to conduct this report were the ones that have been an impediment to repatriation for decades,” said Caputo, who said the Libyan government — particularly the Gadhafi family — was willing to assist in the effort. “All of the information they say they are looking for has already been researched for decades. We’ve already given it to them, and Libya offered it to them, but they refused it. A book was even written in Libya on the history of the people buried in that cemetery, but they refused it. So we don’t believe they intend to be honest and forthright in this report.”
Caputo said apparent proof of the “whitewash” was evident when the cemetery was allegedly given a quick makeover prior to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s Dec. 17 visit to Libya.
Defense Secretary Pinetta places Challenge Coin on an Intrepid grave at the Tripoli cemetery.
“We have heard reports out of Libya that there were Americans in that cemetery repairing it and clearing it just prior to his visit. And the cemetery had been renovated so recently that, even as he stood in it, the cement on the walls was still not dry,” Caputo said. “For 207 years, these men have been abandoned and left in squalor, and now they are trying to literally paint the picture that this is an appropriate resting place. It’s not. It’s a Potemkin village, it’s a Hollywood set, made to look like an appropriate resting place.”
“It’s a joke,” said Sykora, referring to other recent pictures that were sent to city officials that showed the cemetery in disrepair. “But the reality is we’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue to work every angle.”
One of the angles Caputo said his organization plans to pursue is contacting Arizona voters.
“We will be communicating with voters there in the next several months to inform them of the conduct of their senator,” Caputo said. “We will communicate with them on how disingenuous he was and how he was the lone opponent to the repatriation of the Navy’s first combat heroes.”
But Caputo admits that time is running short.
“We believe that the window is open for the U.S. government now in Libya that most likely will not be open for long,” he said. “This is not where we want to be right now. But we consider this a punt, and we’re really good at punt returns.”
Contact Rob Spahr: 609-272-7147
Old Protestant Cemetery before the facelift. The remains of more than half of those buried in the cemetery have been relocated to more secure and permanent locations.