Hope Rises for Return of Bodies of Heroes of Tripoli

By Carlos Sardella, New York Times
December 21 1980

A GROUP of New Jerseyans who have been pressuring Washington officials, even the White House, for 18 months to have the bodies of early naval heroes returned from Libya and reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery have been give new hope, according to their most active spokesman.

The bodies are those of 13 men who took part in a United States Navy suicide mission against the Barbary pirates in 1804.

An Irvington insurance agency owner who is spearheading the campaign to bring the remains back says the new hope is centered on the Administration of President Ronald Reagan.

"We certainly have not done well with President Carter or, for that matter, Governor Byrne," the insurance man, John P. LaCroix, said, "but we have reason to believe we will get some action in 1981."

Still awaiting action, and supported by New Jersey Representatives, Senators, state legislators and a number of veterans organizations, is a bill introduced by Harold C. Hollenbeack, Republican of East Rutherford, calling for repatriation of the bodies by the Secretary of the Navy from five graves in Tripoli.

Now awaiting action by the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Veterans Affairs, the bill has become a rallying standard for the growing number of New Jersey citizens and national veterans organization leaders. Kenneth Greenberg, a spokesman for Representative Hollenbeck, agrees that some action is probably stirring with the pending change of administrations.

He also said there was growing hope that the repatriation action might be taken without the legislation, the result of "some kind of administration order."

Mr. Greenberg said Mr. Hollenback's office was informed by the State Department that there was no foreign policy objection to the bill - Libya is not considered a "friendly" nation - and that the State Department was prepared to "work with the Navy to seek arrangements with the Libyan Government for repatriation." Further, he said, some information contacts were being made with the Libyan mission in Washington.

The 13 heroes of the Barbary pirate war - there are conflicting reports whether the graves contain the bodies of five or more of the seamen - engaged in what naval historians have called a "incredible mission of heroism."

Commanded by Capt. Richard Somers, a native of Atlantic County's Somers Point, which was founded by his grandfather, the men formed the crew of the U.S.S. Intrepid. Laden with dynamite, the craft was intended to become a floating torch to destroy as many enemy ships as possible in the crowded Tripoli harbor. But under cannon fire on Sept. 4, 1804, the Intrepid blew up and all hands were lost.

Just a few days before that, the Intrepid, commanded by Capt. Stephen Decatur, had ventured into Tripoli harbor at night on a successful mission to burn the U.S.S. Philadelphia, a frigate that had been seized by the pirates. A mixed crew, from the U.S.S. Nautilus, the U.S.S. Constitution and the Intrepid volunteered for the ill-starred mission that followed and, as far as is known, Captain Somers ws the only member of the group from New Jersey.

Beyond patriotism, Mr. LaCroix says, it is fear that the graves are being desecrated or are, at best, uncared for.

The attempt to repatriate the bodies began in New Jersey because Patricia Dougherty, a member of the Leonia Borough Council, discovered the cemetery, all but hidden in weeds, while vacationing with a writer friend, Melba Edmunds. They found markers placed on the graves in Tripoli and commemorated by the Navy in ceremonies in 1949.

The description of the site, carried in an American Legion magazine, attracted the attention of Joseph Balsamello, commander of the Leonia American Legion Post.

With hundreds of petitions in hand, he prevailed upon Representative Hollenbeck to introduce the bill. As part of a Memorial Day observance in Leonia, the 13 naval heroes were made honorary citizens of that Bergen Country community.

The Atlantic County Historical Society, based in Somers Point, is the latest organization to join in the effort. A resolution calling upon Representative William J. Hughes, Democrat of Ocean City, has been adopted, according to Mrs. Robert J. Baldwin, president of the society, whose archives contain mementoes and books about the Somers family.

Mr. LaCroix, a Korean veteran and a member of the Navy League, believes that bringing back the bodies will help revive "a suffering Navy tradition" and fit into a resurgence of patriotism."

Representative Joseph G. Minish, Democrat of West Orange, has been pressing the Secretary of the Navy, W. Graham Clayton, Jr., to recommend immediate action without legislation. Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr., Democrat of Bedminister, is urging Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie to take action, "which is important to me, especially in view of the tense relations with Libya."

Support of the action has been pouring in from many quarters.

Lieut. Gen. C. M. Talbott, chief of staff of the Military Order of the World War, added his endorsement. The American Legion, in its national convention in Boston last August, adopted a supportive resolution.

"We have come this far and we do not intend to let up," Mr. LaCroix said.


That same year, Rep. William Hughes (D-NJ) introduced a bill in the 96th Congress (1979-1981) that requested graves at Arlington National Cemetery be reserved for the remains of the 13 sailors of the US Intrepid buried in Tripoli. He did so at the request of the family of Richard Somers, the commander of the Intrepid who was from Somers Point, NJ, part of Hughes’ Congressional district.


The 1980 attempt by the Intrepid families was quietly scuttled by Navy brass and Washington bureaucrats. Thirty-one years later, Rep. Hughes' successor, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ), teamed up with Rep. Mike Rogers to offer and pass unanimously a House amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act requiring the repatriation of the crew of the first Intrepid. Then, the Navy went to work behind the scenes and here we go again.


Leave No Man Behind. It's not just a slogan.