TRIPOLI – In an unmarked grave in a corner of Tripoli’s Green Square, where supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi stage daily rallies to denounce NATO and the West, lie the remains of eight American sailors who died here more than 200 years ago.
Five others in their crew are buried under an olive tree in a small, white-walled Protestant cemetery overlooking the harbor about a mile away. The men were killed in what’s known as the First Barbary War, a war that effectively led to the creation of the U.S. Navy.
Dispatched to the region by Thomas Jefferson to end piracy against American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean, the sailors set out to destroy Tripoli’s naval fleet in a daring covert mission. The mission failed, but some say it qualified them as the earliest precursors of today’s Navy Seals.
For generations, the sailors’ families have been fighting to have their remains repatriated. And now, as the U.S. and its allies pummel Gaddafi’s compound, their efforts are gaining force. On Thursday in Washington, the House approved a defense bill that would require the Pentagon to return them to the United States and give them a military funeral.
“There is a military ethos that we never leave anyone behind,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “Irrespective of whether it was one day, 10 years or 100 years ago, we should bring our sailors home.”
Two centuries ago, Tripoli’s ruler, Pasha Yusuf Karamanli, made his living by piracy, exacting tributes from countries like Britain and France in return for not attacking their ships. The United States toyed with appeasement and diplomacy at first, but then Karamanli’s demands grew too great for a new nation desperately short of cash and war broke out.
A half-hearted and largely ineffective naval blockade of Tripoli followed, before naval commanders tried to turn up the heat. In September 1804, 13 sailors from the USS Intrepid set out on a ketch packed with explosives. Their mission: sail up to Tripoli’s harbor fortress and blow it up.
But their boat was spotted before it reached its destination. It was attacked from the shore and exploded and the sailors, led by Capt. Richard Somers, all perished. Their bodies were washed up on the shore and fed by Tripoli’s ruler to a pack of wild dogs, before being dumped unceremoniously in mass graves.
The war was immortalized in the Marines’ Hymn, which promises to fight the nation’s battles “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” And, for decades, Somers' descendants and others have been pushing to have the remains of the 13 sailors returned to the United States. The family of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has also joined the cause. Longfellow’s uncle, Lt. Henry Wadsworth, after whom he was named, also fell in the battle.
Rogers chanced on the story on a visit to Tripoli in 2004 and has championed their cause, demanding their remains be reburied in the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
With Libya’s permission and the help of the U.S. Embassy, the run-down cemetery where five of the men lie was restored in recent years. The grave in Green Square was also located, and buttons thought to be from Somers' officer’s coat were found.
Ironically, the only key to the cemetery is believed to have been kept at the embassy, which was evacuated in February, and then burned and ransacked by a pro-Gaddafi mob.
In a twist with eerie parallels to today, the First Barbary War finally began to swing the United States’ way after Gen. William Eaton sponsored rebels who invaded from the east and overran the city of Derna.
But Jefferson had dispatched the naval force without a clear mandate to defeat Karamanli and, just as victory seemed possible, his commanders chose to negotiate with the pirate master instead. A peace deal was signed and the U.S. secretly paid the pasha $60,000 as ransom for the release of more than 300 U.S. sailors who had been captured earlier.
Tripoli’s ruler emerged stronger than ever, while the people of Derna who had supported the rebellion were abandoned.
Piracy committed by the Barbary States of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers continued to flourish for another decade, until the Second Barbary War, when the United States — and then Britain and the Netherlands — returned to finish the job more decisively and end Mediterranean piracy for good.
The sailors’ families will next press their case in the Senate. Dean Somers — a descendent of Richard Somers and a resident of Somers Point, N.J., named for the Intrepid’s commander — said in a statement that he’s encouraged. “We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’re more and more hopeful every day.”