Saturday, December 31, 2011

Precedents for Repatriation

Precedents for Exhumation and Repatriation – By William Kelly (

“Conference Report on the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 598. 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. (a) Evaluation required – Not later than 270 days after the date of the enactment of this act, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy shall conduct an evaluation of the following issues with respect to the disposition of the remains of American sailors killed...: i. The feasibility of recovery of remains based on historical information, factual consideration, costs, and precedential effect....”

The precedential effect -

The "precedential" effects they are talking about are the numbers of similar cases that the Navy will have to deal with if the precedent is set by this repatriation, and the answer is, according to Chris Dickon, author of The Foreign Burial of American War Dead (MacFarland, 2011), very few.
(See Note from Chris below). There are only a handful of similar cases, and they are not identified remains, so their families, unlike the Somers and Wadsworth families, are not seeking their return. So it is an unfounded assumption by the military that if this goes through they will be swamped with similar requests.

On the other hand, there are plenty of historical precedents to support the repatriation.

Shortly after the Libyan revolution reached Tripoli, and Green Square became Martyrs Square, not far away a convoy of armed militiamen pulled up to the front door of a local mosque where, with picks and shovels, they dug up the 100 year old remains of a revered Sufi saint and made off with it.

The same act was repeated many times throughout Libya as orthodox Islamic extremists try to impose their will on the Sufis and other moderate Islamists who revere their saints. While the Tripoli Military Council claims no laws have been broken, they defer to the religious council to see if it is a sin to bury saints in mosques, as the extremists claim.

In Sirte, at the same time, the graves of Mommar Gadhafi’s mother and family are desecrated, as the lack of legal or civil authority has allowed for violent crimes to be committed with no retribution.

The grave of Gadhafi's mother was vandalized and desecrated.

To attack and vandalize graves is apparently a natural and legal act in Libya, which places the graves of the Americans naval heroes at Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli in a precarious jeopardy even though the Navy had officially declared that is to be their final resting place.

The cemetery itself, although walled, is not far from the threatening tide waters of Tripoli harbor, and is also surrounded by a major highway and encroaching development that has claimed much of the area. According to a Libyan study of the cemetery, more than half of those who have been buried there over the past hundred years have been removed and reburied at more secure locations.

Nevertheless, the Navy has declared the cemetery as the “final resting place” for the American naval heroes, although a new evaluation has been ordered by Congress to determine the feasibility of their repatriation. As part of that order historical precedents of similar repatriations has been requested, so I’ve compiled some of them here.

The first major precedent is that of John Paul Jones, the hero of the American revolution who was on a special mission when he died in Paris. He was unceremoniously buried, without any American participation, in a lost crypt that was only located because of an inquisitive diplomat.

July 1905 - the body of John Paul Jones is Repatriated from Paris

President Theodore Roosevelt ordered an American warship to retrieve his remains and John Paul Jones was reburied, with much fanfare, at the chapel of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. Roosevelt and others used the occasion to give speeches and promote the mission of the US Navy.

In 1930, during the Italian occupation of Libya, the Italian army uncovered the remains of five of the Intrepid sailors while building a road and the plaza that is now Martyrs Square, and reburied them in crypts at the Old Protestant Cemetery. In 1938, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, they were discovered there by Tripoli harbor masters Mustapha Burchis, and based on Burchis’ research, the US Navy held a ceremony at the cemetery in 1949, and placed markers on their graves.

After World War I and World War II the families of those who died in combat abroad were given the choice of leaving them where they were buried on the battlefield, having them reburied nearby at an American military cemetery maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) or repatriated home to be reburied at a veterans cemetery. The ABMC maintains a large cemetery in Tunisia, 200 miles from Tripoli, where many World War II veterans are buried, but the ABMC refuses to assume responsibility for the maintenance of the graves of the Intrepid sailors in Tripoli.

The exhumation and movement of historic remains that have been laid to rest is not uncommon, as President Kennedy’s grave at Arlington was moved in a secret night time military operation in 1967, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers was opened so the remains could be DNA tested at the request of a family. When the missing soldier was positively identified, his remains were removed and reburied in a marked grave, just as those in Tripoli should be tested and moved.

Stephen Decatur, one of the heroes of Tripoli, had commanded the Intrepid on the mission that scuttled the frigate USS Philadelphia. Decatur was popular at home and had considered running for President before he was killed in a duel of honor and buried in Philadelphia. His widow however, continued living at their home in Washington near the White House that is now a National Historic Landmark. When she died Mrs. Decatur was buried in a small grave near her home that later became an impediment to the expansion of a major university, so her remains were exhumed and reburied next to her husband in Philadelphia.

The remains of the three officers and ten men of the Intrepid in Tripoli can be positively identified, as modern technology has made that possible. When the wreck of the Henley, a Civil War era submarine was discovered and recovered, it was found to contain the remains of a number of sailors who were positively identified and reburied with full military honors over a hundred years after they died.

More recently, the old Italian Cemetery in Tripoli was renovated after many of the graves were desecrated, and thousands of remains were exhumed and reburied or repatriated to Italy and other countries. Among them were 72 Americans who had died in Tripoli, relations of US servicemen assigned to Wheelus Air Force Base. At that time – in the fifties and sixties, the US government and US military did not pay for the return of remains of the relations of servicemen who died while stationed abroad. But the US government in 2007, shortly after the resumption of diplomatic relations with Libya, did it all at once, repatriating 72 in one day.

The POWMP/Accounting Command is responsible for accounting for the remains of all of those US military personnel who are lost in combat, and that includes the men of the USS Intrepid. They search for, locate and repatriate the remains of hundreds of American combat heroes every year, often without any publicity or public notice, and they are very good at what they do.

Now the Senate/House Armed Services Committee Conference has ordered an evaluation and report on the feasibility of repatriating the remains of American naval heroes in Tripoli, a study that many believe is designed to stall the repatriation effort, whitewash the truth and leave them where they lie, in a broken down cemetery and in unmarked graves under a parking lot at Martrys Square.

But any study of the history and the precedents for such action clearly indicate that repatriation of the remains of these men from Tripoli can be done, must be done, and is a mission that the US military, however reluctant, can and should do.

Note - Chris Dickon writes: “Now that The Foreign Burial of American War Dead (McFarland, 2011) is published, we can get a better view of the context that surrounds the effort to seek the repatriation of the remains of Richard Somers, if not some or all of the other crewmembers of the USS Intrepid.”

“Because the burials in Tripoli took place long before it became official policy that all Americans killed abroad had the right of return, there might be some concern that your efforts, if successful, would open the floodgates of requests for returns and set a difficult precedent. But when we look at what we know, that doesn’t seem like a probable scenario.”

“If the Navy’s concern is opening up a Pandora’s box of reclamation requests, there are no other known navy folks before the world wars who cold be reclaimed except 2 in Nicaragua, 30 in Menorca, Spain, from the Mid 1800s with no discernible living relatives, and the 1812 sailors in England and Canada are only bones mixed with other bones.”

“After Somers et al., the next group of Americans to be buried permanently abroad were killed in the War of 1812. Though every one of them that we know about can be named (along with other information) none of them could be exhumed and returned.”

“Commander William Allen and Midshipman Richard Delphy of the USS Argus were buried with great ceremony in Plymouth, England and no doubt remain there still, but the location of their graves was lost long ago. Not far from Plymouth, 271 named Americans rest in a common grave at Dartmoor Prison and it would not be possible to find the remains of a single one of them. The same holds for a common grave in Halifax, Nova Scotia with approx. 185 named Americans.”

“I think it’s important to note that in all three cases these burials have modern day advocates and ceremonies for those interred. In Plymouth, the tombstones of Allen and Delphy are cemented into the doorway of the historic Prysten House, and memorialized each year by citizens of the UK and US. The cemetery at Dartmoor is attended to by British citizens, the American Daughters of 1812, and occasional visits by US military members. The Halifax cemetery includes a memorial provided by the US Veterans Administration and is attended to by American and Canadian interests.”

“We also know of approximately 32 non-combat burials of American seamen in Spain and Nicaragua. Though each can be named, there is no suggestion that any of them have contemporary family. In some cases, I tried to find such with no success. There are believed to be more such burials around the world, but none have been found as of now. And there are three casualties of the US Civil War buried somewhere unknown in Cherbourg, France.”

“As to precedent: The recovery of John Paul Jones in 1906 is a wonderful story with a distinctly political undertone, a marketing ploy by Teddy Roosevelt as he sought public support for an improved navy and not incidentally an occasion for the US and France to celebrate their friendship. We know that Franklin Roosevelt had a similar impulse re. Somers in 1938, but it was lost to the coming war.”

“And there is a second precedent. In 1987, American bone sets from the War of 1812 were found buried at Fort Erie, Ontario and repatriated amid great ceremony between the two nations to the national cemetery at Bath, NY.”

“Somers et al. have not had the benefit or honor of these kinds of attention and practices. I think that a decided attempt at their repatriation might serve to open up a positive understanding of the long history between the US and Libya, and might have a Teddy Roosevelt kind of effect, but I doubt that it would set a precedent that anyone could take advantage of.”

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