By Herb Jackson, The Record (Hackensack N.J.)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy crew perished more than 207 years ago, but an effort to repatriate their remains is getting new attention in Washington.
In the wake of the liberation of Libya, members of Congress are pressuring a reluctant Defense Department to bring home the bodies of Capt. Richard Somers of New Jersey and his 12 shipmates. But the Navy has resisted, saying that a graveyard in Tripoli is their final resting place.
Somers’ mission during the First Barbary War was to sail the explosive-filled ketch Intrepid into Tripoli harbor on Sept. 4, 1804, and blow it up amid the fleet of pirate corsairs.
But the ship exploded in the harbor before reaching its targets, either because the crew members came under enemy fire or blew themselves up to prevent their load of powder from being captured. All on board were killed.
“When these bodies washed ashore, some pretty horrible stuff happened. They were drug through the streets, fed to dogs, and worse than that, and then thrown into a mass grave,” said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J. “There’s been an ongoing effort, by a dedicated and now-expanded group, to try to get them back on U.S. soil.”
Somers was a native of Somers Point, an Atlantic County town named for his great-grandfather, a major Colonial-era landowner. Supporters say, at least as far back as 1840, Somers’ sister asked for her brother’s body to be brought home, and efforts in Congress to order repatriation go back decades.
A December 1980 story in The New York Times, for example, noted that then-Rep. Harold C. Hollenbeck, R-N.J., was hoping incoming President Ronald Reagan would be more receptive to his effort to require repatriation than outgoing President Jimmy Carter had been.
The Navy has resisted the efforts, citing a tradition of honoring the final resting place of those lost on ships and downed aircraft.
“Right now, the Navy’s position has not changed,” said Lt. Lauryn Dempsey, a Navy spokeswoman. “The chief of naval operations considers the Tripoli Protestant Cemetery to be the final resting place.”
The remains had been moved to the cemetery in 1930 after being discovered by road builders. After World War II, the Navy held a formal memorial ceremony at the cemetery in 1949.
The recent uprising in Libya provided a new opening for Congress to press the issue this year, and a bill now on President Barack Obama’s desk orders the Navy and the Department of Defense to study the feasibility of recovering the remains and report a recommendation back to Congress within nine months.
LoBiondo and others preferred an outright mandate, and included one in the bill that originally passed the House.
But LoBiondo said the top-ranking Republican and Democratic chairman on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Carl Levin of Michigan, agreed with the Navy and stripped references to the Intrepid’s crew from the bill. LoBiondo was able to get the compromise language added back as a member of the House-Senate conference committee.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the cemetery in Tripoli while in Libya on Dec. 17, but he did not mention the call for repatriation. Instead, he talked about working with Libyan officials “to ensure that this very special place remains an honored and protected landmark for both of our nations.”
Advocates for returning the sailors’ remains are happy Congress has taken some action, but they’re far from confident it will produce results.
“We’re hopeful they come back and say, ‘OK, we can do this,’” said Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser. “But our fears are that they come back and say it costs too much money for whatever reasons. Or that someday they’ll have another regime change over there and they’ll desecrate these remains and they’ll be lost forever.”
LoBiondo said he has “a lot of respect for Mr. Panetta” and wasn’t pessimistic yet.
“I wonder if maybe he didn’t have the whole story about the desecration of bodies. He’s a very thoughtful, patriotic individual. When the whole story unfolds, hopefully, he’ll be in agreement,” LoBiondo said.