Effort under way to bring back U.S. sailors buried in Libya

Somers Point, N.J., Mayor Jack Glasser (left) and Greg Sykora are working to repatriate Richard Somers and his crew, who are buried in Tripoli, Libya.
Somers Point, N.J., Mayor Jack Glasser (left) and Greg Sykora are working to repatriate Richard Somers and his crew, who are buried in Tripoli, Libya.
Posted: October 25, 2011

More than 200 years ago, they were hailed as heroes.

Navy Master Commandant Richard Somers and a dozen volunteer crewmen sailed an explosives-laden Intrepid toward an anchored pirate fleet in the harbor of Tripoli, Libya.

The ship blew up before completing its 1804 mission, killing all aboard, and the sailors' remains were recovered and buried there.

They were never brought home.

But the death last week of ousted Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi has given fresh impetus to local efforts to repatriate Somers, a Somers Point, N.J., native and former University of Pennsylvania student, along with his crew.

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act calling on the defense secretary to "take whatever steps may be necessary" to return the remains overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives in June. It's now before the Senate, and if passed could help speed the process.

The effort follows two 2004 New Jersey Assembly resolutions that sought the same outcome.

"We have members of our military lying in a faraway country," said Jack Glasser, the mayor of Somers Point, who is a veteran and retired police captain. "We just want to bring the crew home; it's time."

Glasser has been working on the return with U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), who cosponsored the congressional measure, and Dean Somers, a distant relative of Richard Somers' who lives in Galloway Township.

Generations of the Somers family have tried, along with state and federal legislators and officials, to gain Libya's permission for the repatriation - with no success.

"I think we have an opportunity," said Dean Somers, 66. "I am hoping [the Libyans] get a better leader than they had before, someone more friendly to the U.S. This is the closest we've been in 200 years."

That feeling may be strongest in Somers Point. The Atlantic County town was named after the naval hero's great-grandfather, and residents there hold a Richard Somers Day celebration every September.

The daring attempt to destroy the pirate fleet by Somers and his crew - like early Navy SEALs on a secret mission - captured the imagination of Americans. The explosion, the cause of which is unknown, foiled the mission.

Six Navy ships have been successively named the Somers.

The town of Somers in Westchester County, N.Y., also is named in the sailor's honor. And Somers' name was placed on the Tripoli Monument, a white marble statuary at the Annapolis Naval Academy. The military memorial is one of the oldest in the United States.

Locally, efforts are under way to raise money to build a monument at Somers Point, where Somers can someday be laid to rest.

In the meantime, though, eight of the 13 sailors remain interred beneath Green Square in Tripoli, where Gadhafi followers once gathered in support of their embattled leader.

Nearby are the graves of five more, in the shade of olive trees at a tiny, walled cemetery that overlooks the harbor.

Their return would become a higher Defense Department priority if LoBiondo's measure is included in the Senate's version of the National Defense Authorization Act, said the congressman's spokesman, Jason Galanes.

"We're hopeful that the new [Libyan] government looks more favorably upon" the efforts to return the remains, Glasser said. "There's definitely more hope now that Gadhafi is gone.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "Bring this crew home. It's been 207 years."


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

 


 

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