Intrepid (ɪnˈtrɛpɪd) —adj: fearless; daring; bold

U.S. Ketch Intrepid (1804)  19th Century painting by G. Brooking, depicting Intrepid off Tripoli in 1804, illuminated by moonlight.  Courtesy of Mr. J.M. Brotherhood, 1951.  U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Most folks today, when asked about the USS Intrepid, will point to the Essex-class carrier (CVS-11) bearing the name and serving as a museum ship in New York City.  While having a long and distinguished career (known as the “Fighting I” to those who sailed in her), that Intrepid is the fourth in a line of ships stretching back to an armed ketch captured in 1803 by another ship bearing what would become a legendary name, the USS Enterprise.  A prize in what had become known as the Barbary Coast War, her brief life under the Stars and Stripes was book-ended by missions that were noted for their audacity and were hallmarks of the young Navy of the United States.  Having participated in the capture of the USS Philadelphia under the Pasha Yusuf Karamanli of Tripoli (and named Mastico) , the Intrepid, under the command of LT Stephen Decatur sailed into Tripoli harbor where her crew boarded the grounded Philadelphia and burned her – under the guns of the harbor fort.  It was an action that Horatio Nelson is said to have called “the most bold and daring act of the age.”  By the late summer of 1804, the Tripolitan fleet was blockaded in the harbor, and another bold plan was hatched to destroy it in one stroke.

U.S. Ketch Intrepid (1804)  Contemporary sketch by Midshipman William Lewis, with a description reading: "The Ketch Intrepid taken by the Constitution of(f) Tripoli in Dec. 1803. Was the vessel with which Capt. Decatur burnt the Philadelphia in Feby 1804. She served as a store vessel off Tripoli and was at last turned into an Infernal in order to blow up part of the Bashaw's castle. In this unfortunate attempt she was blown up & all her crew perished. Cpt. Sommers, Lieuts. Wadsworth & Israel & 10 or 12 men. 4th Septr. '04."  The original sketch was in the possession of Captain C.W. Cook, O.R.C.U.S.A., 1925.  U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Turning the Intrepid into a floating bomb – or “infernal” in the term of the day, a small crew under LT Richard Somers volunteered to sail Intrepid into the anchorage where it would be detonated spreading fire and shrapnel through the anchored fleet.  Unfortunately, as would be demonstrated in another war one hundred-forty years later, vessels packed with explosives are often more hazardous to their erstwhile crews than the target.  Inbound to the harbor, something happened — they were intercepted at the entrance, a chance spark or something else set off the charges destroying the Intrepid and killing LT Somers and the dozen crew-members on board.  Recovered ashore, the remains were brutalized and turned over to a pack of wild dogs before being unceremoniously dumped in two mass graves.  The continued blockade by the US Navy and an overland assault by an expeditionary force led by US Marines forced the Pasha to sue for peace and Somers (posthumously) joined Decatur and others from the war as heroes for the young nation.  About the same time, the Somers family undertook to try and get the government to bring the LT Somers and the rest of the crew of the Intrepid home – but it pretty much faded after 1844.  In 1949, five of the crew (unknown) were re-interred in Tripoli’s Protestant cemetery.  Efforts begun around 2005 as relations between the US and Libya started to thaw went for naught in the wake of the Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon and remained in stasis until the Libyan uprising and death of Qaddafi last month.

And that brings us to today and what some are calling a “window of opportunity” with the new Libyan government to bring the crew home.  A loose coalition that comprises the chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, a Connecticut historian and a former campaign adviser to Presidents Reagan and Yeltsin is seizing that opportunity through diplomatic and legislative efforts.  Legislation has been introduced by Rep. Rogers and approved by the House, as part of the National Defense Appropriation Act directing the Secretary of Defense to “take whatever steps may be necessary to exhume and transfer the remains of certain deceased members of the Armed Forces buried in Tripoli.” Oddly enough, one of the principal obstacles is the Navy itself, with then CNO Roughead stating “Navy custom and tradition has been to honor the final resting place of those lost in downed ships and aircraft. The Navy considers the Tripoli cemetery to be the final resting place of these Sailors who sacrificed their lives for our Nation.”  The problem is that is an unevenly applied policy – all one need do is survey the MIA topic posts here to see that the US continues to exercise heroic efforts to locate, recover, identify and return remains of all of our servicemen lost in this country’s wars overseas – from the jungles of Southeast Asia to farms in the former members of the Warsaw Pact.  Perhaps the impetus to bring these heroes back would not be so strong if their final resting place, in Roughead’s terms, were honored and cared for as say those who fought and died at Normandy and Omaha beach – but they aren’t. Judge for yourself:

 Normandy Cemetery
(Source: Stars & Stripes)
 Protestant Cemetery, Tripoli
(Source: Remember The Intrepid)

No comparison, I think you will agree…

And so what can you do?  Go to the Intrepid Project page where you can (1) get information to write your Senator to support the Rogers/LoBiondo amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and (2) sign the petition to bring the Intrepid 13 home.  Speaking of windows of opportunity, I understand the project will be bringing the descendants of the Intrepid 13 to Congress on later this month (Nov 16-17) to lobby the Senate – now would be a good time to contact your Senator and underscore your support for this effort.

And Remember the Intrepid

"Blowing Up of the Fire ship Intrepid commanded by Capt. Somers in the Harbour of Tripoli on the night of the 4th Sepr. 1804"  Contemporary line engraving. Text on the original, below the title line, reads: "Before the Intrepid had gained her Destined situation she was suddenly boarded by 100 Tripolines, when the Gallant Somers and Heroes of his Party, Lieuts. Wadsworth and Israel and 10 Men, observed themselves surrounded by 5 Gun-boats, and no prospect of Escape, determined at once to prefer Death and the Destruction of the Enemy, to Captivity & a torturing Slavery, put a Match to train leading directly to the Magazine, which at once blew the whole into the Air." Descriptions directly below the image are (from left to right): "Bashaw's Castle and Fort"; "Harbour of Tripoli"; "Fireship blowing up ..."; "Tripoline Gun Boats": and "American Squadron".  U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.


Heller, Boozman, Brown Bill Brings Home Fallen Sailors of Tripoli

(Washington DC) – Today, U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R-NV) introduced a bill along with Senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Scott Brown (R-MA) to repatriate the remains of sailors killed in the First Barbary War. The sailors currently lie in burial sites in Tripoli, Libya.
“Our nation has a responsibility to make sure that any fallen member of the Armed Forces is treated with respect. For more than two hundred years, these sailors have laid to rest in a cemetery on foreign soil. It’s past time that we give these men a proper military burial in the country they died defending,” said Senator Heller.
“This legislation serves as a reminder to all service men and women that we will never cease in our efforts to bring a fallen service member home, nor will we ever forget the sacrifices that have been made by them and their families,” Senator Boozman said.
“Gathering the remains of these brave sailors, two of whom were from Massachusetts, demonstrates America’s commitment to pay tribute to our fallen heroes, no matter how much time has passed. With reports that some still remain in a mass grave, we have a duty to ensure our sailors are buried with the honor and respect they deserve,” said Senator Brown.
These sailors were killed when the U.S. Ketch INTREPID exploded in the Tripoli Harbor in September 1804. Some were buried in mass graves, signifying the disrespect shown at time of the internment. The graves remain isolated and in poor condition.
This legislation would require the Department of Defense to exhume their remains, identify them and send them to a veterans cemetery located in proximity to the closest living family member or at another cemetery determined by the Secretary for military burial. If any remains cannot be identified, they would be sent to Arlington National Cemetery for internment at the Tomb of the Unknown.
Similar legislation, introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (MI-08) and Rep. Frank LoBiondo (NJ-02), passed the House of Representatives on a voice vote.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a letter in support of this legislation. A copy of the letter is viewable here:

UPDATE #2: Not so fast — despite assurances up until 1730 EDT yesterday (29 Nov) that he supported the bill, Senator McCain blocked it citing concerns from Navy leadership.  For some background on the bureaucratic inertia and blockage within DoN,  ‘Phib has a post up today well worth the review.  Fight’s not over by a longshot, but a very favorable window of opportunity may have just been slammed shut by the senior Senator from Arizona – and that is saddening to say the least.

1 Comment

  1. This is an excellent article and spot on with the details! You have made the case to bring these young back back and give them the proper burial they deserve.

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