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Thirteen American lives were lost in a naval operation in Libya. A daring assault, led by New Jersey
native Master Commandant Richard Somers, resulted in the destruction of the USS Intrepid and those aboard her. The remains of those servicemen were interred in Libyan soil.
This, however, was 215 years ago on September 4, 1804, during the United States’ first overseas conflict: the Barbary Coast Wars. At that time, potentates ruling the North African coast had plagued the Mediterranean and Atlantic for centuries, extorting nations, capturing ships, and enslaving Africans and Europeans alike. As the United States was maturing as a fledgling member of the community of nations, the Barbary privateers set their sights on the stars and stripes as well. President Thomas Jefferson refused to give in to demands from the Barbary States for tribute, lest American merchant shipping be attacked on the seas, and sought to flex the muscles of the infant nation rather than submit.
Compared to the European military powers of Great Britain, France, and other victims of the Barbary States, the enterprise would have seemed absurd. In the years following the American Revolution and before the War of 1812, there was virtually no standing military to speak of, defense budgets being minimal. But Jefferson was resolved. With only a tiny navy and marines at hand, Jefferson dispatched the first American expeditionary mission across the seas and put a decisive end to the threat to American flagged vessels. Immortalized in the Marine Corps Hymn, which recalls “the shores of Tripoli”, it was in this case that Somers and his fellow officers and crew lost their lives in a daring attack aboard the USS Intrepid. Buried just outside the city of Tripoli, the remains have yet to be repatriated to the United States, despite past efforts.
According to the Somers Point Historical Society, “[Somers’s] body and those of the other 12 men who lost their lives with him are buried in the Old Protestant Cemetery in Tripoli, Libya. It is believed that there are five graves, one for each of the officers, and two mass graves for the ten crewmen. An explosion took place, so identification of the crew was difficult.
“The bodies of the crewmen were originally buried along the shore. When the Libyan Coastal Highway was built in the 1930’s under the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, the remains were found, moved up on the hill and buried beside the officers.
“Efforts are ongoing by the Somers Point Historical Society to have all remains exhumed and returned to the United States for burial. Ancestors of Somers and Wadsworth are also involved in this effort.”
Falling the fall of Libyan dictator Colonel Qaddafi, political instability and violence ravaged the country. An on-going civil war continues to embroil the north African country, headed by a provisional government under Prime Minister Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj which exerts limited control over the country.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-2) told Insider that “Somers was a great hero and truly a great American. I will follow the lead of the municipal leaders of Somers Point and the Historical Society of Somers Point.” Van Drew said he would “be glad to work with them in order to retrieve his remains” and that he was “prepared to pick up the effort with them. Past disappointments don’t indicate that they should give up. I am prepared to help.”
Past New Jersey Congressman Frank LoBiondo and past Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers had called for the return of the servicemen’s remains, inserting an amendment to the House version of the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, which was re-written and ultimately dismantled in the Senate. And so, the bones of the New Jersey naval hero for whom Somers Point is named, along with the twelve other officers and sailors who died in action with him, remain in the foreign soil of a tempestuous nation.