Thursday, May 24, 2012

When Circumstances Allow


With the current DOD evaluation of the feasibility of repatriation of the remains of the Intrepid crew from Libya Chris Dickon gives a summary of the history of American war dead buried abroad, and notes that when circumstances allowed, what the military has done. 

The current military study should include an inspection of the Intrepid graves at Old Protestant Cemetery and DNA testing to see if any of the remains can be positively identified. 

The circumstances now permit such an inspection and testing and they should be conducted, as the window of opportunity might not last.


From Chris Dickon, author of “Foreign Burial of American War Dead” (MacFadden, 20111)

Consideration of what to do about the graves of Richard Somers et al in Tripoli at a time when there may be a window of opportunity to return the remains to the United States can’t easily be put into a historical context.

Though official policy of the right of return for the bodies of war dead didn’t reach full force until World War I, all known burials abroad prior to that time have ultimately received more attention and resolution than have Somers and his crew. The shortcoming has been a matter of circumstance rather than policy, and it may be that circumstance for the Tripoli dead has changed for the time being.

The crew of the Intrepid were the first named burials abroad of American war dead in the country’s history. Though the remains of perhaps thousands of Americans killed in the Revolutionary War were left in the marshes of the port cities and other locations in England, none could be identified and found today. After the Barbary Wars, in which the Intrepid crew was buried in Libya, it was the War of 1812 that left American dead buried abroad. It can be said that, unlike Somers et al, by the end of the 20th century all of them have been accounted for and memorialized to the fullest extent possible. Joining the list of America’s most honored naval heroes was William Allen, commander of the USS Argus, killed by the British in 1813, but buried by the British, along with his midshipman Richard Delphy, with great honors in a Plymouth churchyard. The location of the graves in Plymouth was lost sometime in the mid 19th century, but their headstones have been preserved in the outer wall of an historic Plymouth building. They have been honored in ceremonies held in common by American and British interests since the time of their deaths, and a bicentennial celebration will take place at St. Andrews Church in Plymouth on June 5, 2013 with the attendance of officials, historians and military of both nations.

In that same time frame, 275 American prisoners of the War of 1812 will be honored at the site of their common grave at Dartmoor Prison near Plymouth. That event will also be just one in the continuing attention paid to the Dartmoor men by interests on both sides of the Atlantic since the last half of the 20th century. In addition, 185 American dead of the War of 1812 buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia will be honored as they have since the rediscovery of their common burial ground late in the 20th century. They have been celebrated with the support of the city of Halifax, American, Canadian and British military interests and a memorial including the names of each placed by the US Veteran’s Administration. Among those initially buried in Halifax during the War of 1812 was another historic figure in American naval history, James Lawrence. Precedent was set when, unlike that of Richard Somers, his body (and that of his Lieutenant A.C. Ludlow) was exhumed in Halifax when circumstances allowed and returned to the US where it now rests in Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan. Another precedent of the movement of a mass burial of War of 1812 dead from a foreign land took place in 1988 when 28 American dead found at Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada were ceremoniously moved to a National Cemetery in upstate New York.

Other known and named naval burials abroad before the official policy of return was implemented are those of approximately 25 crew of various naval ships in a cemetery at Port Mahon, Spain (effectively abandoned by the US Navy and now under the care of American interest groups and the Spanish Army). Two named crew-members of the USS Sabine are still buried in Nicaragua. All of these were non-combat deaths, and there are no known families who might want to reclaim these bodies in the present day.  

It can probably be said that, with the exception of the 27 non-combat dead immediately above, everything that could be done to honor, return, memorialize and take care of the graves of known war dead buried abroad has been done, and will continue to be done in the future. But the full potential of what can be done in relation to America’s first naval heroes buried abroad, Richard Somers et al, may not yet have been reached.

Circumstance may have been a key factor in that deficit, but in the case of the others when circumstances have allowed an optimization of their return to American memory or soil the advantage has been taken and well-used. 

Another important precedent related to Richard Somers is that of the retrieval from Paris of the body of John Paul Jones by president Teddy Roosevelt in 1906. It took several years to accomplish, but the event served to enhance the argument for a US Navy, and to celebrate the relationship between the United States and France at important junctures in each of their histories.

Chris Dickon

No comments: