The Barbary Wars Continue

By Mike Magner

More than two centuries after he was killed on the Mediterranean Sea fighting the Barbary pirates, U.S. Navy Master Commandant Richard Somers remains a regular topic of conversation in the town named for his family, Somers Point, N.J.

The talk heated up considerably in the past week, after the House passed an amendment calling for the remains of Somers and 12 of his crew members to be returned to the United States from Libya, where they were buried on the coast of Tripoli in 1804.

The measure, which was included in the Defense authorization bill approved 322-96 on Thursday, was sponsored by Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J. But it was really the result of 207 years of effort by the deeply rooted Somers family of New Jersey.

Richard Somers was only the most recent patriotic hero in the family when he died in the line of duty on September 4, 1804. His great-grandfather, John Somers, helped establish Somers Point in the late 1600s, and his father, Col. Richard Somers, was a member of Gen. George Washington's inner circle during the Revolutionary War.

So when President Jefferson declared war on the Barbary States of North Africa rather than pay tribute for protection as the British Navy had done for years, Master Commandant Somers led a small but fast ship, the USS Intrepid, into Tripoli harbor for a series of skirmishes with the pirates.

First, Somers and his 12-man crew recaptured the USS Philadelphia, which had run aground while chasing pirates and had its 300 crew members taken prisoner. Then Somers took the Intrepid, loaded with explosives, on a daring nighttime raid into the harbor, only to have it blow apart before it reached the shore. The bodies of the 13 men who had been aboard washed up on the shore of Tripoli, where pirates dragged them through the streets, fed them to wild dogs, and ordered some of the U.S. prisoners to bury them on the beach.

Ever since word of the loss reached the United States, members of the Somers family--along with descendants of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose uncle was second-in-command on the Intrepid--have been lobbying for repatriation of the remains of the ship's crew.

The efforts had long been opposed by the old War Department, and later by the Pentagon, which argues that it considers Tripoli to be the crew's final resting place, just as many war heroes remain buried where they were killed. But the Somers family argues that only some of the crew members were placed in a cemetery many years later and that the remains of the rest were ignominiously left on the beach in unmarked graves. The family paid for an archaeological dig on the Tripoli shore in 2006 and military buttons from the Barbary Wars were found along with bones and bone fragments.

The Somers family also retained a veteran public-affairs and international consultant, Michael Caputo, who recommended a direct appeal to Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi several years ago. A meeting was set up with his heir apparent, son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, when Israel attacked Lebanon and Qaddafi backed away from U.S. contacts.

Now, with the regime on the ropes as a result of the civil uprising and NATO's assistance, Caputo urged the Somers family to be prepared for a chance to have the remains repatriated if Qaddafi cedes power. "We can't do it on our own--it's a time of war," Caputo said. "But we need to be ready when the window of opportunity opens, because it's going to be brief."

The amendment in the Defense authorization bill now must be approved by the Senate, where supporters fear a single member could have it killed at the behest of the Pentagon. Caputo said that the Somers family is girded for battle--it has lined up support from the American Legion to lobby senators for the repatriation amendment in the weeks ahead.

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