Thursday, September 8, 2011

History: The Legacy of Intrepid

On Sunday Triple P remembered the anniversary of the explosion of bomb ketch USS Intrepid in Tripoli harbor 207 years ago. Intrepid, a former Tripolitan warship known as Mastico, was captured and libeled in December of 1803. Because she had not been through a refit, she was used in Stephen Decatur’s daring raid on USS Philadelphia, taken as prize by Tripoli earlier that year. This action, which Admiral Horatio Nelson called the “… most bold and daring act of the age,” secured fame not only for Decatur but for Intrepid as well.

A scant seven months after her triumph against Barbary corsairs, Intrepid was returned to Tripoli harbor and fitted out as a fireship. She was crammed with black powder and set to float silently toward a fleet of the local ruler’s pirate ships anchored just below the fortified walls of Tripoli. Her crew was recruited from the American sailors present in Commodore Edward Preble’s squadron and all were volunteers. Ten men and three officers would be aboard, including Master Commandant Richard Somers and Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth (uncle of the famous poet Longfellow).

The mission began well, with Intrepid masquerading as a merchant just as she had in Decatur’s action. What happened before she reached her goal and also before her crew had time to abandon ship is still open to speculation but her cargo was ignited and she was blown to pieces. Commodore Preble would later tell his superiors that he was certain Intrepid had been boarded by the enemy and that valiant Somers had given the order to detonate his ship rather than give up her all too precious cargo.

The bodies of all thirteen American sailors were washed up on the sandy shore of Tripoli. Feeling quite literally attacked from all sides by the youthful United States, the Pasha of Tripoli unleashed his rage on Intrepid’s fallen crew. He had the bodies rounded up and publicly exposed to a pack of feral dogs that ate some of the waterlogged corpses. As dogs are considered in Islam to be some of the filthiest of animals, this was a particularly nasty desecration. The men’s bodies were subsequently disposed of in a mass grave without ceremony.

While at some point some of the men’s remains were moved to a Protestant cemetery nearby, the rest are still in their pit which is now below Green Square, a favorite site for pro-Gaddafi rallies. For the families of these men, and particularly for the descendants of Somers and Wadsworth, this unacceptable situation has become an ongoing fight. They want their ancestors’ remains returned to the U.S. and buried with honor on their native soil. With the recent turn of events in Libya, their hopes are up for perhaps the first time in a very long while.

In May, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (which provides funding to the Pentagon) requiring that the Pentagon exhume and return all thirteen American sailors’ bodies to the U.S. The amendment includes a provision for appropriate military funerals upon their return. The bill was sponsored by Representative Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and is also endorsed by the American Legion. The bill has not yet been addressed at the next level, and family members remain concerned that future voting will be influenced by opinions from the Pentagon.

To my mind, this is the most ridiculous thing about this story. Evidently the Pentagon has repeatedly rebuffed and apposed the families’ requests for the repatriation of their relatives’ remains. The logic being that the keys to the cemetery in Libya, where some of the men rest, now reside with the U.S. consulate there. I would argue that comparing being exposed to wild animals and then dumped in a pit to a military funeral and a plot on U.S. soil – whether it be in Normandy or New Jersey – smacks of politics rather than the “never leave a man behind” ethos that Representative Rogers has quoted. It falls curiously short as well, since those fabled keys are now missing following the uprisings in Libya.

Of course, the U.S. has a lot on its plate right now what with a stagnant economy, unimaginable debt, nonexistent job markets and a combined group of leaders that seem unable to find their asses with both hands. But sometimes the little things mean just as much as the big ones and honoring those who gave their lives for our freedoms hardly seems a little thing. As a descendant of sailors myself, I fondly hope that what is right, not what is easy, is done in this case.

If you’d like more information about this issue, click over to The Intrepid Project and explore the site at your leisure. More on this story as it develops (if indeed it does).

Header: Bombardment of Tripoli by Michael Felice Corne


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Great Post! I could not agree with you more on all points.

Pauline said...

Thankee, Timmy!

Charles L. Wallace said...

Unbelievable that anyone (ESPECIALLY in the Pentagon) would fail to uphold no man left behind.... Sad. I pray the bodies will be soon returned with pomp and ceremony.

Pauline said...

I do as well. Now seems like the opportune time.