Next week, the U.S. Senate will take up the issue of whether the remains of 13 American naval heroes – tossed into a mass grave more than 200 years ago – should be returned to their native land for proper burial with military honors.
On Sept. 4, 1804, Master Commandant Richard Somers and his crew were killed in action during the Barbary Wars when their ship, the USS Intrepid, exploded in Tripoli Harbor off the coast of Libya. Their bodies washed ashore and were eventually buried by fellow sailors taken prisoner by the enemy.
The issue of whether to remove the Intrepid crew from Libya is a contentious one. Descendants of Somers and his second-in-command, Henry Wadsworth, have been pressing Congress to do whatever is necessary to bring some of America's earliest war heroes back home. Last spring, The American Legion passed a resolution in support of the move, and the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed an amendment calling upon the secretary of Defense to take action.
The U.S. Navy opposes the repatriation of the Intrepid crew's remains, citing an official April 1949 ceremony at a Protestant cemetery where several – not all – of the sailors were buried. In a March 2010 document, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead 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."
According to Michael Caputo, coordinator of the grassroots group Intrepid Project, the entire Intrepid crew may not be interred at the Protestant cemetery. "Some of the enlisted crewmembers may still be buried adjacent to what is now called Martyr's Square," he said. "As for the cemetery itself, it is essentially in a shambles, with shattered markers and grounds that are not being maintained."
Last week, current Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert confirmed the Navy's stand on the issue in a Nov. 16 memo that said the admiral "has reviewed and concurs with the previous Navy position of not supporting the proposed legislation." The memo went on to point out that repatriating the Intrepid crew's remains would cost between $85,000 and $100,000. "This does not include costs associated with DNA testing and analysis .... Nor does it include the cost for the Navy to contract out genealogical research...."
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., introduced a bill on Nov. 8 to bring Somers and his crew back home from Tripoli. The legislation would require DoD to exhume the remains, identify them and return them to the United States "for military burial."
Fang A. Wong, national commander of The American Legion, sent Heller a letter of support that said, "It is incumbent upon Congress to direct recovery of those remains of Americans within Tripoli. Given the turmoil in Libya, America must take the opportunity to repatriate these remains now."
Heller said that America, "has a duty to ensure that any fallen member of the armed forces is treated with utmost respect. The American Legion has always been a faithful advocate for their brothers and sisters in arms, and on this issue, it is no different. I appreciate their support as we work together to retrieve our heroes from foreign shores."
Last week, descendants of Somers and Wadsworth, and other advocates, visited several senators in Washington to drum up support for Heller's legislation. Accompanying them was Dean Stoline, deputy director of the Legion's Legislative Division.
Stoline said the group, "lobbied the Senate for two hard days to support their request to bring home the remains of their loved ones and other crew members of the USS Intrepid. I think their request was well received and several senators – such as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. – have now signed on to help push the legislation introduced by Sen. Heller."
Next week, the Senate will debate the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). An amendment supporting the return of the Intrepid crew may or may not be part of the final package. The American Legion will keep working with the Senate, urging it to act on the Intrepid crew issue.
"Our strategy is simple," said Tim Tetz, director of the Legion's Legislative Division. "We must impress upon the Senate the importance of passing an amendment to NDAA that grants the wish of the Somers and Wadsworth families – return their relatives. The House unanimously agreed to this. Now the Senate must do so."