Even as the United States and its Western allies participate in a modern war in Libya, a small city in New Jersey and a congressmen are battling to bring home the remains of 13 American sailors who died there in another war more than 200 years ago.
The remains couldn’t be brought home until the current war ends. Eight of them lie in an unmarked mass grave under Tripoli’s Green Square, where supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi frequently hold anti-American protests.
But even when hostilities cease, the movement to bring the sailors home faces stiff opposition at home.
It’s not a political issue; members in the House from both parties voted in late May for legislation that would repatriate, identify and honor the sailors with a military funeral, if there is a government in Tripoli that might cooperate. Rather, Navy officials cite military policy as a justification for leaving the sailors’ remains thousands of miles away from their country.
Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, explained the Navy’s position in a 2008 letter to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), author of the legislation to bring back the remains:
“Navy custom and tradition has been to honor the final resting place of those lost in downed ships and aircraft. The Navy considers the Tripoli cemetery to be the final resting place of these Sailors who sacrificed their lives for our Nation.”
Roughead’s statement is consistent with the Navy’s current position on the issue, according to a Navy spokeswoman.
Rogers is not swayed. “They argue we own the keys” to the cemetery, said Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee. “That’s hardly the same as the soil in Normandy, which belongs to the United States of America. That’s so very different than being thrown in a hole in a mass grave in Tripoli.”
The Navy’s stance doesn’t sit well with the citizens of Somers Point, N.J., whose “favorite son,” Capt. Richard Somers, led a U.S. expedition to Tripoli during the First Barbary War in September 1804.
President Thomas Jefferson sent the newly formed U.S. Navy to fight Barbary pirates and put an end to the long-standing tributes the U.S. had paid to Tripoli for the rights to trade in the Mediterranean Sea.
After pirates captured the U.S. warship Philadelphia and 300 crew members, Somers and his men developed an idea to break through Tripoli’s naval blockade by setting off an explosion and fire on the fire ship Intrepid to create a diversion and allow other U.S. ships to enter the harbor and engage in battle.
The Intrepid blew up prematurely, however, and the sailors’ bodies were dragged through the streets of Tripoli and fed to a pack of dogs as U.S. prisoners of war watched. The prisoners begged the pirates to stop and were allowed to bury the sailors.
“As a veteran, I’m appalled that we’ve left them there,” said Jack Glasser, mayor of Somers Point who served four years in the Air Force and 20 years in the New Jersey Air National Guard. “For the many years I was in the military, I was always told not to leave anybody behind.”
Thanks to the work of people like Glasser, the effort to return the sailors home has gained traction in recent years. The first step was locating their remains.
After corresponding and negotiating with the Kadafi family in 2005, Somers Point city and family leaders contacted archaeologists in Tripoli, who performed an excavation that turned up bones and naval buttons.
Despite the successful excavation, the Navy still considers repatriation a non-starter. Michael Caputo, a volunteer coordinator for the Intrepid Project to bring the sailors home, acknowledged the Navy’s logic. With tens of thousands of lost service members in the world, it may seem unfair to put 13 men “at the head of the line.” However, he added that it seems flawed considering the fact that the sailors’ remains are in a known location.
“Our point: They’re not lost men,” Caputo said. “So get ‘em and bring ‘em back.”
Since at least 1840, family and civic leaders have been advocating for Somers’ return, said Sally Hastings, president of the Somers Point Historical Society. But it wasn’t until 2004 that the effort gained the political momentum needed to get the project off the ground.
“For 207 years, a one-inch move was an accomplishment,” Caputo said. “Suddenly, we moved six miles in three days.”
In 2004, while on a trip to Tripoli to check on Libya’s nuclear weapons programs, Rogers was pulled aside by an aide who wanted to show Rogers the grave sites. A second mass grave, with five bodies, lies in the Protestant Cemetery — close to Green Square. The walls surrounding that second site were eroding, Rogers recalled Thursday.
Thereafter, Rogers, an Army veteran, “felt morally obligated to do something about it.”
He pressed the Pentagon to take action, but Roughead’s rebuff — and a similar one from the Navy this year — steered Rogers to a legislative route. A Navy spokeswoman said she could not comment on pending legislation. Rogers’ bill now sits before the Senate, and he is optimistic that it will pass.
If that happens, the Pentagon will be directed to retrieve the sailors’ remains, pending a regime change and an end to hostilities in Libya.
That could bring closure to a 200-year fight for the descendents of Richard Somers, including 66-year-old Dean Somers.
“I just feel like, before I die, I’d like to see that body come back,” he said.
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