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The commandos were part of President Jefferson’s war against the Barbary pirates, who terrorized shipping off the coast of North Africa in the early 1800s. The commandos died while on a stealth mission to infiltrate Tripoli’s harbor and sail a flaming ship into the enemy fleet that lay anchored there, trying to destroy it and force the release of U.S. sailors whom the pirates imprisoned on land.

Their ship, the USS Intrepid, caught fire prematurely either by accident or because it was hit by a shot from the enemy, and all 13 men perished. The bodies of the commandos, who some say are the early version of today’s SEALs, were recovered by the residents of Tripoli.

According to accounts, the remains were fed to dogs, then the U.S. prisoners of war were forced to bury what was left. At some point, five of the sailors’ remains ended up at a separate location known as the Old Protestant Cemetery.

In his 2008 letter, Adm. Roughead said the Navy in 1949 held a formal memorial ceremony for the sailors at the grave site, and he agreed that the site needs better care.

There are historical precedents, however, for repatriation, including naval hero John Paul Jones, whose remains President Theodore Roosevelt ordered be brought back from Paris and reburied at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

The Navy commandos’ repatriation has been championed by descendants of the men and by the town of Somers Point, N.J., named after the family of Lt. Richard Somers, who led the band of commandos on their fatal mission.

In an 1842 profile of Somers for Graham’s Magazine, novelist James Fenimore Cooper said that “it might be well to instruct the commander of some national cruiser to search for their bones, that they might be finally incorporated with the dust of their native land.”