Thursday, January 19, 2012

The INTREPID Graves at Old Protestant Cemetery, Tripoli Libya

1949 Ceremony honoring the men of the INTREPID buried at Old Protestant Cemetery, Tripoli

The INTREPID Graves at Tripoli’s Old Protestant Cemetery

By William E. Kelly, Jr. (

How did the Navy discover the INTREPID graves? – A 100 year old Jewish fortune teller told them.

“...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…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,...Americans sailors being killed. Those sailors were buried where they were found on the eastern shore of Tripoli...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.”
– Mustapha Burchis

One reason the Navy does not want to repatriate the remains of the INTREPID sailors from Tripoli is because they’re not sure the graves at the Old Protestant Cemetery are actually those of the men of the INTREPID, and they don’t really want to know the truth.

When it comes to repatriation of these men from Tripoli, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Renee Richardson of the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office said, “The remains uncovered during construction by the Italian road crew in the 1930’s were not readily or properly identified as being Americans or from INTREPID. There is no evidence (except the political expediency of post WWII Relations) to suggest that the remains were not merely those of other unfortunate wretches who died in Tripoli.” [1]

“The only anecdotally evidence we have,” Richardson wrote, “is from 1949, when it was in the best interest of the government of Tripoli to cement relations with the U.S., and suddenly those five unmarked graves are alleged to contain the remains of American sailors from INTREPID.” [2]

Although the definitive evidence could be easily ascertained by opening the crypts, identifying their contents, and repatriate them if they are determined to be the men of the INTREPID, Richardson espouses the military’s position that it is best not to know, just pretend they are, and leave them where they lie.

Instead of just opening the crypts and seeing what’s in them, which we will eventually get around doing, let’s look at the historical records and extant “anecdotal evidence,” that makes it appear that the marked graves at the Old Protestant Cemetery are those of the men of the INTREPID.

The idea that these five marked graves are those of men of the INTREPID stems from the research of a Libyan, Mustafa Burchis, a Tripoli Harbor master who took up the 1938 request of President Franklyn D. Roosevelt to see if the graves of the men of the INTREPID could be located. [3]

In the April 1950 edition of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Lieutenant (J.G.) Arthur P. Miller, Jr. USNR wrote an article “TRIPOLI GRAVES DISCOVERED,” and again in September, 1956 the same journal published a second article “Lost But Not Forgotten - Resting Place of Heroes of the Barbary Wars,” by Arthur M. Johnson and Mustapha Burchis.

Johnson, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, edited the translated account of Mustapha Burchis, who is described as coming “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 Derna 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 Triopli and was eventually promoted to the post of harbor master and ‘marshal’ or head of all the Libyans employed by the Tripoli Port Authorities of the Italian Armed Forces.”

In the first article Lt. Miller got some of his facts wrong (ie. referring to “William” rather than Richard Somers), so in the second article Johnson relied primarily on the first hand account of Burchis himself, as translated by Shafic Ibrahim, a Lebanese teacher of English. First the Miller account.

In his USNI Proceedings article [4] Miller had relates that:

“The investigation actually got its start in 1938 when, in response to an inquiry from the American embassy in Rome concerning the fate of the men of the Intrepid. Mr. Burchis undertook a meticulous examination of old Jewish records, private Arab collections of letters, papers, and diaries, and interviewed innumerable descendants of residents of Tripoli at the time of the disaster.”

“The harbor master set down in detail the results of his investigations and wrote a complete report of the matter which was then transmitted to the American embassy in Rome. Unfortunately, however, this report was among American state papers which were burned by embassy officials in 1941 upon the outbreak of war. The investigation was revived last year when Mr. Burchis retraced his findings from his original notes. Together with Mr. Taft, he was able once more to piece together the story of the five graves.”

“The Intrepid had exploded in a pass located about half way down the length of the present north breakwater and all the pertinent stories he [Mr. Burchis] has heard say that five bodies had drifted up on the beach in front of a cliff,” Consul Taft relates in a report to the State Department concerning his research. ‘From this beach they were unceremoniously dragged to the cliff and interred in rough pattern. I questioned Mr. Burchis at length as to his belief in the reliability of his information and could find no flaw in his pattern of investigation,’ Mr. Taft adds.”

“Mr. Taft and Mr. Burchis, together with the American vice consul, went to the cemetery, named the old Protestant Cemetery, on the outskirts of the town an directly above the cliff where Mr. Burchis said the bodies had been dragged. Mr. Burchis then without hesitation picked out five graves located in the northeast corner.”

“Subsequent to the burial of the bodies in 1804, Mr. Burchis explained, it became necessary to establish the old Protestant Cemetery for the burial of foreigners. Since five Americans were already known to be interred there, a wall was erected around the plot and the whole cemetery was dedicated in a ceremony which was attended by the then present diplomatic and consular officials, including those of the United States.”

“Upon this identification of the five bodies as being those of five men from the Intrepid, Mr. Taft sent a telegram to Vice Admiral Forest P. Sherman, USN, commanding the U.S. Mediterranean Fleet, stating that he had substantial evidence that the graves of five American sailors lost on the Intrepid in 1804 had been discovered, Admiral Sherman immediately arranged for a visit to Tripoli of Rear Admiral R. H. Cruzen, Commander, Cruiser Division Two, and the Spokane.”

“The five unknown sailors who had died so valiantly fighting for their country were given final honors in a colorful ceremony attended by many high diplomats, military, and government officials. A band of Scottish Camerons played martial music as the detachment from the Spokane as well as a unit of the British Army stationed at Tripoli marched the half a mile from the town to the grave site.”

“In short addresses, Rear Admiral Cruzen spoke on the early history of the Navy and of ts exploits during the Barbary Wars, Captain W. J. Marshall, USN, commanding officer of the Spokane, narrated the Intrepid mission, and Consul Taft told of the research done to identify the graves and unveiled the memorial plaque to the five heroes. Lieutenant E. J. Sheridan, USN, chaplain of the Spokane, read a short prayer, and an honor guard of Marines fired several volleys over the new graves and played taps.”

“Interestingly enough, Joseph Karamanli, the present mayor of Tripoli and direct descendant of the Joseph Karamanli, who was Bashaw of Tripoli at the time of the Barbary Wars, attended the ceremony with approximately 50 other guests.”

A few years after Miller’s article the USNI Proceedings published the more detailed account by Arthur M. Johnson that includes the first hand report by Mustapha Burchis.

In that article Johnson wrote: “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 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,” Johnson wrote, “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.”

The account of MUSTAPHA BURCHIS [5]:

“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 Majro 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 Carlo Pumo, Port Commander, called me to his office. Port Captain Mario Battaglieri was also there. The Colonel showed me the 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.”

“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 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 the head and mayor of the Moslem community in Libya. He gave me all the assistance I needed, but there were no records that went back as far 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 of about the naval battles between Americans and Tripoli Pirates were numerous, and he told me of the many ships that sank in Tripoli harbor and the many dead that were always found on the eastern shores 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.”

After failing to obtain any useful information from Monsignore Facchinetti, or the British Consulate, Burchis talked to the editor of the Arabic newspaper Sheik Mohammed Al-Misurati – who had read in an Egyptian publication that the American sailors killed during the Karamanli Wars “were buried on the eastern shore of Tripoli,” and noted that, “the Sheik then added this logical conclusion, ‘and maybe that is why the English cemetery started there.’”

The “English cemetery” is what became known as the “Old Protestant Cemetery,” where the INTREPID graves are located.


“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…. Shaloum Akub,,…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. Warrington, 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.’” [5]

Burchis then wrote a report that was forwarded to the American Embassy in Rome and lost in the turmoil of World War II. After the war Burchis approached the new American consul to Libya, Mr. Taft, who agreed with Burchis’ analysis and proclaimed the five graves at the Old Protestant Cemetery as being those of the men of the INTREPID.

Still not explained by Burchis and Taft, or Miller and Johnson, is how the men of the INTREPID, originally buried in the ground in two mass graves, one for the officers and one for the enlisted men, graves “one cable’s length” (200 yards) from the castle walls, ended up in five above ground crypts within the grounds of a walled cemetery over a mile away?

Although Burchis worked for the Italians, he fails to mention the fact that less than a decade before he began his quest, in 1930, an Italian army road work crew reportedly unearth the remains of five men who were identified as being Americans from the INTREPID and they were reburied in the cemetery.

We know this from three sources, including American historian Franklin Kemp, author of the book” Nest of Rebel Pirates,” who reportedly corresponded with an Italian army sergeant who told him of the excavation and relocation of these remains. [6]

That report coincides with the reference in Admiral Roughead’s determination that, “We do know these remains were buried by crewmember of the USS PHILADELPHIA; and the remains recovered during the 1930 road construction in the vicinity of the original burial were reburied in Tripoli’s Protestant Cemetery in four or five grave sites. No information on the quantity, condition, or identity of the remains was recorded during the reburial of these remains. Headstones erected over the grave sites however contain inscriptions referring to ‘American Sailor Intrepid.’ The fifth headstone was damaged and cannot be made out clearly but is believed to be part of the 1930 remains reburial.” [7.]

Besides the reports from Kemp and Roughead, we now have the confirmation from the Libyans, as Abdul Hakim Tawil conducted an extensive study of the cemetery graves and determined the cemetery walls were constructed by the British in 1830 around the already existing graves believed to be American sailors from the turn of the previous century. The wife and child of British consul Mr. Hanmer Warrington were the first buried there, and thus it was at first known as the English cemetery. [8]

Tawil’s authorative study “Secrets of the Old Protestant Cemetery” was published in Libya in 2008 and obtained by Chipp Reid, who had the relevant parts translated and reported [in the Final Burial Place of First USS INTREPID Crew – A Source Study,] as saying, “The Old Protestant Cemetery remained a dusty, near-forgotten spot some two miles from the medina or old town of Tripoli until the 1920s when Italian road engineers came across the mass grave of the enlisted men of the Intrepid. According to Italian maps and accounts contained in ‘Secrets,’ the engineers found the bodies close to the water while they worked on constructing a landfill for the future Al-Fatah Highway. With help from the Libyans, who knew the general location of the Intrepid enlisted men's mass grave, the Italians exhumed the remains they found, identified them as American using bits of uniform and buttons, and interred the remains in a pair of empty Cemetery coffins.” [9]

So there are at least two separate grave sites of the men of the USS INTREPID, the original mass graves site south and east of the walls of the old castle fort, now under what is known as Martyrs Square, which the Italian road crew partially excavated, and those five or six crypts in the corner of the Old Protestant Cemetery, about a mile away.

And even though Mustapha Burchis’ local sources were hearsay, and didn’t mention the Italians relocating some of the remains, it appears that he was correct, and that the graves at Old Protestant Cemetery do indeed contain the remains of American sailors, most likely those of the crew of the INTREPID.

The cemetery crypts are clearly marked, and the original grave site should be located, and instead of conducting a nine month long academic study of the situation, the DOD and the Navy should just open the cemetery crypts, determine whether they were placed there in 1804 or 1930, see what’s in them, have a forensic study of the remains, take DNA samples to see if they can be positively identified.

If they are the remains of the American sailors from the INTREPID, as the research indicates and the historical markers claim, then they should be returned home and properly buried with full military honors.

1) Email from Renee Richardson to William E. Kelly, Jr. (September 7, 2008)

2) Email from Renee Richardson to Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser, SPHS President Sally Hastings and Walter Gregory (June 22, 2011)

3) Re: Roosevelt’s request. Chris Dickon, author of Foreign Burial of American War Dead (MacFarland, 2011, p. 135)

4) Miller, Lieutenant (J.G.) Arthur P., Jr., USNR U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, TRIPOLI GRAVES DISCOVERED Proceedings, April, 1950, pp. 373-377.

5) Burchis, Mustapha, and Johnson, Arthur M., Lost But Not Forgotten – Final 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.

6) 2004 Email from Dick Henkels to William E. Kelly, Jr. regarding Frank Kemp and Raymond Steelman. “During my last visit to Somers Point…I met Ray Steelman, who told me…there was a man named Frank Kemp who wrote an unpublished history of Somers Point. He claimed to have a letter from an Italian Sergeant who moved the body of Richard Somers in Libya.…”

7) Letter from Adml. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations to William E. Kelly, Jr. (March 11, 2010) For complete letter see:

8) Re: Abdul Hakim Tawil’s request for information regarding Hanmer Warrington (March 31, 2001)

9), Final Burial Place of First USS Intrepid Crew, A Source Stud, November 28, 2011, citing Abdu Hakim AlY Tawil, Secrets of the Old Protestant Cemetery (Tripoli, Libya: Libyan Center for Historical Studies, 2008), pp. 71-76. (pp. 122-136). (Translation by Prof. Hezi Brosh, United States Naval Academy).


HanseaticHoelun said...

Abdu Hakim Al-Tawil's book (Secrets of the Old Protestant Cemetery, Tripoli, Libya) mentions that the Old Protestant Cemetery was established by the Swedish-Norwegian consul, Adolf Hahr (my Great-great-great grandfather) Has anyone checked with the Government of Sweden, which maintains excellent archives?

Bill Kelly said...

Thank you Hanseatic Hoelun, good question. So many questions that should be answered soon. Can you share more of "Secrets of OPC" with us and write a review for this blog? Thanks, Bill Kelly