Guest Post by William Wadsworth and Dean Somers
Mr. Wadsworth is a state representative in Connecticut and a relation of Henry Wadsworth who was killed on board the USS Intrepid in 1804. Mr. Somers is a resident of Somers Point, New Jersey and a relation of Richard Somers, also killed on the Intrepid.
This week, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives is discussing an amendment that requires the Department of Defense to repatriate the remains of 13 sailors of the USS Intrepid buried in Libyan mass graves. When passed, the U.S. Navy’s first heroes would be brought home.
One of those heroes is Master Commander Richard Somers, who hailed from the humble seaside city of Somers Point, New Jersey. Another is Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth of early Massachusetts, uncle to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Both are celebrated forbears of our families, and we have worked to bring our ancestors home for 207 years.
For two centuries the Navy has opposed repatriating its earliest heroes. Today, it has been quietly lobbying Congress to stop our contemporary effort. Its arguments against repatriation are incorrect and no excuse for leaving these heroes interred unceremoniously on the shore of Tripoli.
The Pentagon insists the Navy did not follow the “no man left behind” policy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Instead, casualties were buried at sea. In fact, Somers and his men were not buried at sea. Their bodies washed ashore after their ketch exploded in Tripoli harbor on 4 September 1804. They were then dragged through the streets, fed to a pack of wild dogs and then recovered, identified, and buried. American prisoners of war they were fighting to free had been forced at gunpoint to dig two mass graves.
Clearly, our ancestors did not receive an honorable burial.
The Navy also claims the graves of these heroes in Tripoli are similar to American military cemeteries at Flanders, Normandy, or Tunisia, where thousands of Americans are buried under rows of white crosses and flags. These pristine cemeteries are owned by the United States government and maintained by the American Battlefield Monument Commission, which does not maintain the graves of the men of the Intrepid now buried at the Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli.
In fact, all evidence backs up historical indications that the remains of most of these great American heroes now lie together in that Tripolitan cemetery, where they are regarded as “American Invaders.” The cemetery is owned by Libya and was left squalid, untended, and in disrepair for over a century. Even though the collapsing walls of the place were recently shored up, we worry what will happen to their unkempt graves in the years ahead – and so should the Navy.
The families of servicemen killed during World War II were given a choice: their remains could be returned home or buried with their comrades. The Somers and Wadsworth families have continuously asked for the return of the remains of Richard, Henry, and their men. We found support among a large and growing bipartisan group of congressmen and senators not satisfied with the Navy’s position. The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars also back our effort full-force.
Today, the families of the Intrepid heroes find hope in the House-Senate conference on the National Defense Authorization Act. We were thrilled in May when the House unanimously passed a bipartisan amendment to bring our family members home. Unfortunately, the Navy stepped up its lobbying efforts in the Senate to stop it dead.
In 2007, the U.S. Air Force quietly exhumed the bodies of 72 Americans from Tripoli’s Hammangi Cemetery and returned them to the United States. All but two were infants; all were unknown civilian relatives of American military stationed there in peacetime from 1958 to 1969. No family sought their repatriation. Still, they are home. Yet our brave sailors lie in anvil chorus.
The Navy’s case against repatriating our fallen heroes rings hollow, informed by outdated and incorrect research. We speak for the families of these sailors and plead for Admiral Greenert to reconsider the position he inherited. Instead of blocking our families’ request of two centuries, we ask the service to help honor the valorous service of the 13 heroes of the USS Intrepid and bring our boys home, at long last, for the respectful and dignified burial they earned on the shore of Tripoli.
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