Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Navy abandons its dead? or honors them?

There has been significant press lately on an issue more than 200 years old: thirteen American Sailors, often referred to as the first predecessors of today’s Navy SEALs, remain buried on Libyan soil. The families of some of those Sailors want the remains repatriated to the United States. Navy officials argue that the early practice of burying its dead at sea and along foreign coastlines near the site of death constitutes an official burial, and therefore considers the matter closed. Is the Navy honoring its dead? or doing an injustice to their memory? The issue is hotly contested.

The thirteen Sailors in question constituted the volunteer crew of USS Intrepid, a captured vessel rigged as a floating bomb that was sailed into Tripoli Harbor during the Barbary Wars. The vessel exploded before achieving its objective, and the bodies of the Sailors washed ashore. There, they were purposely subjected to being eaten by dogs and other atrocities, as American prisoners were forced to watch. Some of these prisoners finally appealed to the Tripolitan leader and were allowed to bury the remains in an unmarked grave. Later, the remains of several Sailors, presumably from the Intrepid crew, were discovered by an Italian occupation force in the 1930s while constructing a road, exhumed and reburied in a nearby protestant cemetery under unnamed headstones indicating they were part of the Intrepid crew.

What must be absolutely clear to everyone hearing about this is that those Sailors deserved better than they got. And while the issue of identifying and repatriating all of the Intrepid Sailors brings many logistical complications, such as lack of a means of identifying them, some would prove much easier. The families of Master Commandant Richard Somers, who commanded Intrepid and Lieutenant Henry Wadsworth, second in command, began efforts to repatriate their remains as early as 1830. These remains could be identified with DNA supplied by living descendants, who continue their ancestors’ appeal. Furthermore, supporting research indicates that their remains are, in fact, located in the Protestant Cemetery, and have been since 1804.

The fact is, we have an obligation to these heroes to bring them home – if not to do so wholesale for all of the Sailors, at least to honor the almost 200-years of continual requests of the two families seeking the remains of their ancestors. The Navy, and indeed the Federal Government, cannot possibly undertake to locate and identify every Sailor buried overseas in the centuries when that practice was morally and socially acceptable, and repatriate their remains. But in this particular instance, where 1) those Sailors were clearly not buried in accordance with the standards and customs of the Navy, nor the honor due them, 2) the families of the Sailors have requested the return of the remains, and 3) the location of the remains is known – the return of such remains should not be a question, but considered the duty and obligation of our nation to those Sailors and their families.

To learn more about the Intrepid crew, and efforts to repatriate their remains, visit author Bill Kelley’s excellent blog. I strongly encourage our members to give Mr. Kelley and the Intrepid Project their support in this great initiative.


1 comment:

Michael said...

Please check in also at http://www.IntrepidProject.org to get full information from the families. There's also a petition for supporters!