Friday, January 13, 2012

The Unfinished Mission - 200 Years on Station

The Unfinished Mission - 200 Years on Station in Tripoli
By William Kelly

Pirates were marauding American merchant ships off Africa, holding the passengers and crews for ransom and demanding millions of dollars in tribute.

Sound familiar? Well that was the situation two centuries ago when some reluctant Congressman suggested the ransom and tribute be paid and others said that a navy should be formed to fight the pirates. As the American public took up the cry “Millions for defense but not a cent for tribute,” Congress approved the funds for a new Navy.

Richard Somers, Henry Wadsworth, Joseph Israel and other young men enlisted in the Navy to defend the honor of the new nation and fight the pirates. On a secret, special nighttime mission that could have altered the course of the war, the three young offices and ten men of the Intrepid died in an explosion in Tripoli Harbor on September 4, 1804. Their suicide mission failed and their bodies were recovered and buried in two mass graves “on the shores of Tripoli.”

Now, after two centuries of trying, the families of the Intrepid’s commander and first officer believe the recent revolution in Libya presents an opportunity to repatriate their remains home, but there’s fierce opposition from the U.S. Navy.

Deployed behind the lines, boots on the ground in Tripoli, the men of the USS Intrepid are near the epicenter of the Libyan revolution, and even though they’ve been dead for over two hundred years the Navy maintains they are still fulfilling a vital service.

The Navy says these men are still needed, that they are in a strategic position, and their mere presence gives the Untied States a foothold in the new Libya, a beach head that provides insight into the new Libya and a humanitarian, non-threatening excuse to deal with the new government.

It also gives us an opportunity to reflect on what’s occurred in the history of United States and Libyan relations over the course of the past two centuries and how we can forge a new path of peace and prosperity together.

When the rebel forces liberated Tripoli they gathered at what Gadhafi called Green Square which they renamed Martyrs Square in honor of those who died in the fighting, not just against Gadhafi but against the Italian occupation and other wars. Some see irony in that the only real martyrs buried near Martyrs Square are American naval heroes who have been there for over two centuries.

The POW/MP office responsible for the return of American military casualties from abroad say it is the oldest case on record, but since they aren’t actually missing, as their location is known, they’re not MIA - Missing in Action, and a Navy responsibility.

Larry Greer, a public relations officer with the POW/MP office in Washington DC said: “In regards to Lt. Somers and the burial of his remains and others in Libya...the issue of whether or not Lt. Somers’ remains will be moved, now or in the future, is a Navy issue and the Navy has told us they are not in any way interested in moving his remains.”

Richard Somers’ extended family, originally from Somers Point, New Jersey, have always requested and expected his remains to eventually be brought home, and they haven’t forgotten about him, although they sometimes think that US government and the Navy have. The early efforts of the family have been enjoined over the years by citizens and officials from Somers Point, the town’s historical society and veterans groups, as well as the extended family of Somers’ first officer Henry Wadsworth, the uncle of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The New Jersey legislature and the United States House of Representatives have officially called for the repatriation of the remains of these men, and the US Senate considered the matter as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act, but instead elected to have another study and report done on the feasibility of repatriation.

The only opposition to repatriation comes from the Navy’s top brass, the commanders who say that the mission of the men of the Intrepid is not yet over, and based on their studies and reports, they made the official determination that the final resting place for those men is right where they are.

In March, 2010, Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, wrote, “Since these remains are associated with the loss of the INTREPID, Tripoli’s Protestant Cemetery has been officially recognized by the Department of the Navy as the final resting place for her crew. My staff is working with the Department of State and the American Embassy in Libya to ascertain the condition of the graves and what actions can be taken towards their long term care.” His replacement, Admiral Greenert has adopted that policy.

Old Protestant Cemetery before restoration

Old Protestant Cemetery was officially created in 1830 around some already existing graves, some believe to be those of American sailors. It also includes the graves of about a hundred others, mainly European diplomats and their families, many of whom have been repatriated to their home countries or elsewhere as the cemetery did not seem to be a secure place. Reports indicate that around 1930, during the Italian occupation of Libya, a road work crew uncovered the remains of five men of the Intrepid and reburied them at the cemetery.

These graves are clearly marked, and the cemetery is now secure, but the Admiral’s determination that it is the final resting place for these men only refers to the cemetery graves and does not include the original grave site outside the castle walls at Martyrs Square, where some historians believe the remains of other members of the Intrepid crew are still buried in an unmarked mass grave.

Marty’s Square is the Times Square of Libya, where people gather to celebrate and protest, and is from the ramparts of the old castle fort where great battles were fought, and from where Benito Mussolini and Mummar Gadaffi gave speeches.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote “...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 [200 yards] 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.”

And there they remained, in the shadow of the walls of the old castle fort, until the Italian work crew uncovered five of them and reburied them at the Old Protestant Cemetery. Since they were buried in two distinct graves, one for the three officers and the other for the ten seamen, the five remains uncovered by the Italians must have been from the lot of 10 seamen, leaving five seamen in their original grave, and the three officers still buried in their original grave.

There have been many efforts to repatriate the remains of these men over the years, all unsuccessful because of some political reason or other, but today, the opposition comes only from the US Navy.

The Navy’s reasons not to repatriate these men are many, and include cost – estimated to be $100,000, a drop in the bucket of the $600 billion National Defense Act. They are also afraid that this repatriation will set a precedent for many other similar requests, but Chris Dickon, author of the book Foreign Burial of American War Dead (MacFarland, 2011) says there are only a few other cases and none of the families are requesting repatriation, as the Somers and Wadsworth families are.

Although it isn’t explained in the CNO’s official determination regarding the cemetery graves, the upkeep of the cemetery site provides for close cooperation between the Libyans and the US embassy personnel and the Navy, giving them a non-threatening issue to discuss and begin a cooperation that could lead to other joint projects.

While this worked with the Gadhafi government as well, it will become paramount to encourage the early and close cooperation between the US officials and the new government of Libya.

Joan Polaschik, an assistant to Mr. Gene Cretz, the American Ambassador to Libya, wrote, “regarding the Libyan government’s ongoing efforts to renovate and restore this historic property, the Libyan government undertook this effort as part of an overall plan to redevelop the seaside area immediately surrounding the cemetery. At our request, the Libyan government limited its work to the cemetery’s exterior walls, and commissioned a detailed study of the interior. Based on this study, the Libyan government has developed plans to restore the grave markers.”

Old Protestant Cemetery after restoration.

“Based on our review of the plans and discussion with the Libyan Department of Archeology and Antiquities,” Polaschik explained, “we are confident that the Libyan government will undertake this restoration in way that is historically and culturally appropriate, and in accordance with the respect due to U.S. service members. Any interior elements of the graves will not be touched. It appears that the Libyan government is prepared to pay for all of the restoration work. However, it’s unclear to what extent the Libyan government plans to pay for future maintenance, or whether it would be willing to create and/or pay for any signage or plaques explaining the significance of the site. We hope to meet with Libyan officials to clarify these issues.”

But the Tripoli cemetery, unlike the American military cemeteries at Flanders and Normandy, is not under the care of the American Battle Monuments Commission or the United States government.

As Polaschik noted, “It’s also unclear to what extent the U.S. government will be able to pay for or support any future maintenance. After the embassy confirmed that cemetery is indeed U.S. diplomatic property, we launched an intensive effort to find a U.S. government agency that will be responsible for the cemetery’s continued care. Unfortunately, no one has stepped up to the plate yet, and the embassy has been instructed to do the best it can. We plan to nominate the cemetery for inclusion in the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Properties, and hopefully could provide a source of funding and oversight for this very special site....”

This new cooperation between the United State and Libya has been exhibited in the renovation of the cemetery by the Libyans and the recent visit to Tripoli by the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who stopped by the cemetery to pay his respects at the graves of the men of the Intrepid.

Eventually however, the relationship between the United States and the new government of Libya will be sealed, and the mission of the men of the Intrepid will be over. While the historic markers at the cemetery can serve as a tourist attraction, and a place for future Memorial Day ceremonies, the wishes of the families should be honored and the remains of the men of the Intrepid should eventually be returned home.

As James F. Cooper wrote over a century ago, “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.”

Just as John Paul Jones was repatriated home from his Paris grave and the convicted Lockerbe bomber received a hero’s homecoming in Tripoli, the men of the Intrepid should eventually be repatriated to their native land, welcomed home by their families and friends and given a proper burial with full military honors.

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