The remains of 13 American sailors buried in the Libyan capital of Tripoli for more than 200 years may be there for a little bit longer.
The sailors were the casualties of a mission to destroy a once-thriving pirate fleet, and their descendants have sought for years to repatriate the remains. Their efforts have been alternately blocked by the Gaddafi government and resisted by defense officials.
This week, three months after the ouster of the Gaddafi government, the Senate was on the brink of passing legislation that would have required the Pentagon to seek the return of the remains. But the provision now appears to be on hold.
As a result, the repatriation of the officers and crew of the USS Intrepid might not happen any time soon.
The story of the USS Intrepid is part of the history of what’s known as the First Barbary War. In 1804, the 13 sailors aboard the USS Intrepid were dispatched with explosives to blow up the Tripoli harbor. The city’s ruler had been using it as a base for pirate ships that were pillaging American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean, and the covert mission was a last-ditch effort to put an end to the practice.
The Americans’ vessel, however, exploded prematurely — it’s unclear exactly why — killing all on board.
The Navy has respectfully declined to retrieve the remains, saying it believes Libya is the “final resting place” of the sailors and noting that it is custom to honor the burial grounds of those lost on ships and downed aircraft. There was a formal memorial ceremony held in honor of the sailors and crew in Tripoli in 1949, and the Navy says that U.S. Embassy personnel conducted regular services there for decades afterward.
The cemetery that is believed to be the site of most of the remains is U.S. diplomatic property.
“Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert considers the Tripoli Protestant cemetery to be the final resting place of the Intrepid sailors who sacrificed their lives for our nation,” Lt. Cmdr. Alana Garas, a Navy spokesman, said in a statement this week, echoing the stance of Greenert’s predecessor, Adm. Gary Roughhead.
Those behind the grassroots effort at repatriation, however, say the Tripoli cemetery is hardly Normandy.
The sailors “are not honored there,” Michael Caputo, the coordinator for the Intrepid Project, the group that has pressed to have the remains brought back. “They’re stashed there.”
The Navy has previously raised doubts about whether the remains could be found and identified after 207 years. Caputo said his group has provided the Navy with historical records that should allay those concerns.
Veterans’ organizations have backed the effort, as have key lawmakers on the Hill.
“At the end of the day the families are not satisfied with the fact that [the military] marched around the place and blew the Bosun’s whistle,” Caputo said. “The Navy should be concerned about the status of some of their earliest heroes, too.”
In the spring, the House passed legislation that would compel the Pentagon to act. And it seemed likely that the Senate would support a similar provision in the Defense Authorization bill — until, according to backers of the measure, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) blocked it.
A spokesman for McCain, a former Navy pilot and the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the senator “is still reviewing the issue, and has asked the Navy, the Defense POW/MIA Office and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command for their views on it.”
Supporters of repatriation say they’re stunned.
Among those killed aboard the USS Intrepid were Capt. Richard Somers, the commander of the ship, and his second in command, Lt. Henry Wadsworth.
A descendant of the lieutenant, William A. Wadsworth, a Republican representative in Connecticut’s General Assembly, has been among those to recently rally to the cause for repatriation of the remains.
He noted that several of his relatives served in the military and died in the line of duty. And while he has visited their graves, he can’t easily do the same with the burial ground of Lt. Henry Wadsworth.
Unlike the others, he said, the lieutenant’s grave has not been treated with the same degree of honor.
“I think they owe us this much as a family,” he said of the military, noting that the family has given rise to senators, soldiers and statesmen, not to mention the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the nephew of the lieutenant.
“There’s an opportunity to get [Lt. Wadsworth] back now to the United States,” said William A. Wadsworth. “I think we should take advantage.”
[This post was updated Dec. 2.]