By Marty Callaghan
Remains of 13 U.S. servicemembers killed in Tripoli harbor still haven’t come home.
They died together in a massive explosion that tore their ship to pieces. The blast must have killed the entire crew in an instant. They died only yards away from a foreign, hostile shore of during an extremely dangerous mission.
When their bodies washed ashore the next day, the enemy gawked at the disfigured remains for three days, and let stray dogs chew on the corpses. Then they were finally buried.
Master Commandant Richard Somers and his crew of 12 died as heroes on Sept. 4, 1804, when their explosives-packed ship, the Intrepid, blew up prematurely off Tripoli, Libya. The crew, all volunteers, were on a mission to destroy enemy ships in the harbor. But something went terribly wrong in the final moments of that commando raid. Somers and his men died in battle, but they were never brought home for proper burial.
Somers and his 12 shipmates were honored Sept. 17 during a ceremony in Somers Point, N.J. “Richard Somers Day” is held there annually to remember the sacrifice of these heroes, and to send a message to the federal government: It is time to bring the Intrepid crew back home.
“With recent changes in the Libyan government, the chances of repatriation approval for the remains of Richard Somers and his crew appear to be to our benefit,” said Sally Hastings, president of the Somers Point Historical Society. “Libya’s new leaders may be willing to repay us for the help they received during their revolution. The graves of Americans who fought against their country long ago are probably not significant to them. I think we are in a better position than ever before.”
Jack Glasser, the city’s mayor, also thinks the winds of political change in Libya will benefit efforts to retrieve the Navy heroes from Tripoli. “Now that the leadership has changed in Libya, our government must support the effort to bring the crew home,” he said. “Now is the time to do it, because we may never again have an opportunity like this.”
Richard Somers Day ceremonies included remarks by Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey. He spoke to the crowd of the need for Congress to pass H.R. 1497 – an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal 2012 – that directs the Secretary of Defense to take necessary actions to bring Somers and his crew back home for burial. LoBiondo introduced the bill, co-authored by Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan, last April, and it was passed by the House of Representatives on May 26 in its version of the NDAA.
Hastings said this past Richard Somers Day included representatives from Somers, N.Y., named for the naval hero in 1808. Hastings presented them with a key to the city of Somers Point.
“We continue to honor our local hero for being one of the first officers in the U.S. Navy, and the dedication he had in serving our country – even forfeiting his life while attempting to free his comrades,” Hastings said. “Richard Somers, more than 200 years later, has not been forgotten.”
Glasser hopes that both houses of Congress will get behind the effort to bring Somers and his men home. “That would mean a great deal to the families, our city and to veterans everywhere,” Glasser said.
At its spring meetings last May, The American Legion passed a resolution urging the president and Congress “to support legislation and policies that will use all reasonable resources to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all missing American service members, regardless of location or era of loss.”
Tim Tetz, the Legion’s Legislative director, wrote a May 24 letter to House Speaker John Boehner, asking for his support of H.R. 1497, authored by Reps. Mike Rogers of Michigan and LoBiondo.
“There, within a forgotten cemetery, lie the remains of an American naval hero, Master Commandant Richard Somers, whose legacy inspires those still serving in the Navy,” Tetz wrote. “There lie remains that family members have pled to have returned to the United States. It is therefore the opportunity and – more importantly – duty of Congress to direct that we recover the remains of those Americans within Tripoli…. The time has come to bring our heroes home.”