Two centuries later, group seeks to bring home sailors killed off the shores of Tripoli

Gadhafi's ouster sparks hope for the return of fallen Marylanders

  • Graves of some of the sailors killed on the Intrepid, at the Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli, Libya.
Graves of some of the sailors killed on the Intrepid, at the Protestant… (U.S. State Department )
November 01, 2011|By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

For the American sailors off Tripoli — five of them from Maryland — it was a suicide mission: Sail the small ship heavy with explosives in among the enemy fleet, set the blast to go off in 15 minutes, jump into lifeboats and get as far away as possible.

The crew of the Intrepid would never make it. The fireship ignited early, killing all 13 men aboard.

The bodies washed ashore, to be fed on by dogs and dragged through the streets of Tripoli. They eventually would be buried in a pair of sites.

More than two centuries later, an ad hoc group that includes history buffs, military veterans and descendants of the sailors is working to repatriate those remains for burial with honors on U.S. soil.

After the success of another military engagement with Tripoli — the NATO-assisted ouster of Moammar Gadhafi — the group now sees the best opportunity yet to bring the Intrepid 13 back home.

"We are very, very encouraged right now, obviously, with the leadership change in Libya," said Jack Glasser, the mayor of Somers Point, N.J., the hometown of Richard Somers, who led the Intrepid on its fatal mission in 1804.

"We're hoping that leadership there will be more open than Gadhafi was."

The effort has brought together an Arnold historian, a former campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan and Boris N. Yeltsin, and the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.The loose group has legislation pending in Congress and a Libyan lobbying the new leadership in Tripoli.

But the Libyan government hasn't been their only obstacle. The disinterment and return of the remains also has been opposed by the U.S. Navy.

The service says the sailors were honored properly with a graveside ceremony in Tripoli in 1947 that was attended by representatives of the State and Defense departments.

"Navy custom and tradition has been to honor the final resting place of those lost in downed ships and aircraft," Adm. Gary Roughead wrote in 2008, when he was chief of naval operations. "The Navy considers the Tripoli cemetery to be the final resting place of these Sailors who sacrificed their lives for our Nation."

A spokesman for the Navy could not say Tuesday whether the policy has changed. The group working to bring the Intrepid crew home says the service is wary of setting a precedent.

"Their concern is that there are other sailors other places that people are going to want to go after," said Rep. Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House intelligence committee. "We keep rattling their cage, hoping that they'll shake themselves out of it."

Rogers was shown the dilapidated cemetery that holds five of the sailors while visiting Tripoli in 2004. The other eight are believed to have been buried in a mass grave near Green Square, where Gadhafi loyalists held anti-Western rallies earlier this year.

Rogers says the Intrepid is a special case.

"These are folks that died in combat, were not given proper burials," he said. "I've been there, I've seen the graves, I've seen the kinds of conditions. 'Buried' is too strong a word."

Legislation introduced by Rogers to direct the secretary of defense to "take whatever steps may be necessary to exhume and transfer the remains of certain deceased members of the Armed Forces buried in Tripoli" was approved by the House earlier this year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

Backers, including the major veterans' groups, now are pushing the Senate for support.

"We've got this bill languishing in Congress to bring American heroes home," said Tim Tetz, legislative director for the American Legion. "Why aren't we engaging on that and getting this done? There's no underlying budget principle or deficit reduction issue. It's just the right, patriotic thing to do."

Immortalized in the first line of the Marines' Hymn — "From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli" — the campaign against the Barbary pirates was the first U.S. war overseas. Maryland, a center of naval activity in the young nation, would play a central role.

Privateers from the North African ports of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli had preyed on Western shipping in the Mediterranean for decades. When President Thomas Jefferson dispatched the Navy in 1801, the United States became the latest in a succession of nations to take them on.

With money approved by Congress, Somers purchased a schooner that had been built on the Eastern Shore, sailed it to the navy yard in Baltimore to be strengthened for combat and on to the then-sleepy fishing port of Annapolis for rigging.

He recruited sailors and watermen along the way. According to Arnold historian Chipp Reid, these included Joseph Israel, born in or near Annapolis; William Keith and James Simms, who most likely enlisted in Annapolis; and James Harris and Thomas Tompline, who enlisted in Annapolis or Norfolk, Va.

Somers and his recruits joined a U.S. squadron off Tripoli.

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