More than two centuries after they died off the coast of present-day Libya, the remains of the first 13 Navy commandos in U.S. history - in the words of one supporter, the “earliest Navy SEALs” - are one step closer to coming home.
The U.S. House of Representatives, brushing off prior opposition from Defense Department officials, voted last week to insist the Pentagon get them back.
House lawmakers attached the directive to the annual defense-policy bill that cleared the chamber on Thursday, with backers saying it was time to honor the daring men as fallen heroes.
“The United States has an obligation to leave no member of our military behind, regardless of how long ago they were killed,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, who visited the grave sites in Libya in 2004 and co-sponsored the legislation with Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, New Jersey Republican. “Bringing the remains of those brave members of our military home and giving them a proper military funeral will finally end a tragic story that has lasted far too long.”
The commandos were part of President Thomas Jefferson’s war against the Barbary pirates, who terrorized shipping off the coast of North Africa in the early 1800s. The commandos died while on a stealth mission to infiltrate Tripoli’s harbor and sail a flaming ship into the enemy fleet that lay anchored there, trying to destroy it and force the release of U.S. sailors the pirates imprisoned on land.
Their ship, the USS Intrepid, caught fire prematurely either by accident or because it was hit by a shot from the enemy, and all 13 men perished.
The commandos’ bodies were recovered by the residents of Tripoli.
According to accounts, the remains were fed to dogs, then the U.S. prisoners of war were forced to bury what was left. At some point, five of the sailors’ remains ended up at a separate location known as the Old Protestant Cemetery.
Now, finally, the effort to bring the commandos’ remains back home is gaining traction, with last week’s House vote.
“Suddenly the earth is moving, for the first time in 207 years,” said Michael Caputo, spokesman for the Intrepid Project, which has been working for years to try to secure the remains’ repatriation. “If you’re a Catholic, these gentlemen have been in purgatory for 207 years. [Now], these gentlemen are closer to home than they’ve been in 207 years.”
Of course, all of this might have been a lot easier except for the fact that the bodies seem to be a low priority for the military and because Libya is involved.
Mr. Caputo said after efforts to get the U.S. government involved went nowhere, the descendants of the 13 commandos began to engage Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s family directly in 2004.
Early on, that bore fruit: U.S. relations with Libya were thawing at the time, and while that meant the State Department was focused elsewhere, the family-to-family talks were paying off.
But then, after Israel attacked Lebanon in 2007, the project got tougher.
The United States was seen as Israel’s protector, which made any gestures toward America a tough sell, Mr. Caputo said.
Still, during the good years, the two unmarked grave sites had been identified, and archaeologists even did a preliminary dig that found buttons likely to have come from U.S. Navy coats at the time.
“They know where it is, we know where it is, but it remains unmarked. It’s still a place where people walk and stand. In fact, it’s where Gadhafi has his anti-American rallies,” Mr. Caputo said.
The cause has been championed by descendants of the men and by the town of Somers Point, N.J., named after the family of Lt. Richard Somers, who led the band of commandos on their fated mission.
Every couple of decades or so, relatives have restarted the campaign to repatriate the remains. And in an 1842 profile of Somers for Graham’s Magazine, no less a supporter than novelist James Fenimore Cooper said that “it might be well to instruct the commander of some national cruiser to search for their bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land.”
The legislation that passed the House says that any remains that can be identified will be taken to a veterans cemetery near the closest living descendent. Remains that cannot be identified would be buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
The amendment was agreed to by voice vote as part of a broad package of changes to the defense bill, which ultimately passed 322-96.
The legislation delays the order until the end of the current ongoing NATO operations to protect rebels fighting Col. Gadhafi’s forces.
The Senate still must take up the legislation, though, and repatriation backers fear that the Pentagon could try to stoke opposition in the upper chamber. Trying to head off those efforts, repatriation backers are rallying military veterans groups to press their senators to support reburial.
The Pentagon referred questions directly to the Navy on Friday, which didn’t provide comment in time for this article. But in 2008, Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, wrote Mr. Rogers opposing efforts to repatriate the remains.
”Navy custom and tradition has been to honor the final resting place of those lost in downed ships and aircraft,” the admiral wrote. “The Navy considers the Tripoli cemetery to be the final resting place of these sailors who sacrificed their lives for our nation.”
Adm. Roughead said the Navy in 1949 held a formal memorial ceremony for the sailors at the grave site, and said he did agree the site needs better care.
There are historical precedents, however, for repatriation, including naval hero John Paul Jones, whose remains President Theodore Roosevelt ordered be brought back from Paris and reburied at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
And those pushing for repatriation said the grave site on the beach is in danger of being washed out to sea.
“The way that they were treated after dying in service to their country is inexcusable,” Mr. LoBiondo said. “They deserve to be buried with dignity by their families on their own home soil, especially after sacrificing so much for their country.”
Mr. Caputo, who likened the sailors to the “earliest Navy SEALs,” said the recent Navy SEAL operation to kill Osama bin Laden brings the issue of fallen troops to a head.
“What would have happened if they’d failed, they were dragged through the street, fed to a pack of wild dogs. What would have happened? Would we have left them there?” he said.
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