By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun
7:30 PM EDT, November 1, 2011
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.
Reid, who has written a book on the Intrepid to be published next year, describes the ill-starred mission.
In Tripoli, the American squadron captured a ketch that had been built by Napoleon for the invasion of Egypt.
It was this boat, common along the North African coast, that would be turned into an "infernal" — weighed down with black powder, shells and flammable materials to power a fiery explosion among the wooden pirate fleet anchored in Tripoli Harbor.
Somers, one of a cadre of young officers that also included Charles Stewart, Isaac Hull and Stephen Decatur, volunteered to lead the dangerous mission.
Among the sailors who stepped forward, Somers chose Henry Wadsworth, uncle of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as his lieutenant, and a crew of 10. Israel, a midshipman sent by the commander of the U.S. squadron to wish the crew success, begged Somers for a berth — completing the Intrepid 13.
The ketch set off at 8 p.m. on Sept. 4, 1804. Commanders believed it would take three hours for the Intrepid to reach the enemy fleet. At 9:47 p.m., the boat exploded — short of its goal.
The pirates were unharmed, but the North African states eventually would sign a peace treaty with the United States. Somers joined Stewart, Hull and Decatur in the pantheon of American naval heroes.
"They were household names," Reid said. "In the 19th century, boys didn't play army, they played navy. For 100 years, every kid in America grew up hearing about the friendship between Stephen Decatur and Richard Somers."
The Somers and Wadsworth families entreated the government to bring their remains home — James Fenimore Cooper wrote about the effort in 1844 — but no action was taken, and the cause faded.
Communications consultant Michael Caputo knew nothing of the Intrepid when he was hired in 2005 to help swing public opinion in Somers Point in favor of a redevelopment plan.
The seaside town near Ocean City, N.J., is home to an active historical society and celebrates Richard Somers Day each Sept. 4. When Caputo asked local leaders what might capture the voters' attention, they told him about Somers, the Intrepid, and the hope of bringing him back home.
Caputo, who had met Gadhafi's son Saif while working in Moscow for Yeltsin, helped to initiate discussions with the Gadhafi Family Foundation.
Washington and Tripoli were in the process of restoring diplomatic relations, and the Libyans initially were receptive. Archaeologists excavating the Green Square grave found uniform buttons and bones. The Libyan government allowed the U.S. Embassy to restore and maintain the cemetery that holds the other remains.
Then war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Gadhafi shut the Intrepid talks down, Caputo says.
The Libyan uprising this year revived hopes for the repatriation of the remains. NATO-backed rebels overran Tripoli in August, and Gadhafi was killed Oct. 20.
Caputo talks of a "window of opportunity."
"We believe that [the Libyans] are looking at a positive relationship with the United States," he said. "Our contacts with the transitional government show that to be absolutely true. They're eager to do something to show partnership with the United States."
The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Dean Somers learned that he was related to Richard Somers about a dozen years ago, when his brother spotted their grandfather in a list of the officer's descendants. The New Jersey man went to Washington this year to lobby Congress to bring the crew home.
"It's long past due," Somers said. Richard Somers "should be buried in America with honors. I mean, he's a hero. All the men were on the Intrepid."