For years, the Navy has been reluctant to reclaim the remains of its first 13 commandos, who perished in a failed raid on Tripoli Harbor in Libya in 1804 — but pressure has been growing in Congress to force it to do just that.
A final showdown could happen this week in the Senate, where Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, has offered an amendment to compel the Navy to bring home the mangled bodies of the 13, who died while trying to destroy a pirate fleet during the Barbary Wars.
But the Navy is quietly resisting, telling senators that it would prefer to leave the bodies in the two different burial locations.
"These servicemen are currently buried in poorly kept mass graves far away from the country they served and died defending," Mr. Heller said. "Bringing them home and giving these men a proper military burial will allow their families and other Americans an opportunity to better remember the sacrifices they made for our great nation."
That repatriation is even a real option is a major turn of events, made possible by politics.
For much of the past few decades, the chances were stymied by the turbulent U.S. relationship with Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who alternately ran cold, then hot, then cold toward the idea, which was being pushed by descendants of the commandos.
But the Gadhafi regime now has been overthrown, and the repatriation effort has the support of the two national heavyweight veterans groups, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Now it's the Navy that stands opposed, arguing that the sailors already have been honored in Tripoli. A spokeswoman said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, considers that the appropriate final resting place.
"To honor Commander Richard Somers and the crew of Intrepid, a formal memorial ceremony, including a procession in which 89 Sailors and Marines marched the length of Tripoli's waterfront, was held April 2, 1949, at Tripoli's Protestant Cemetery. It was attended by Rear Adm. Cruzen, the Commander of Cruiser Division Two, Prince Taher Bey Karamanli of Libya and other members of the U.S. Consulate," said Lt. Cmdr. Alana Garas, a spokeswoman for the Navy.
Adm. Greenert's stance is the same as his predecessor as chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, who in a 2008 letter to Rep. Mike Rogers, a sponsor of the House repatriation effort, said Navy custom is to honor the final resting place of those lost in downed ships or aircraft.
Despite the Navy's objections, the House included repatriation language in its version of the annual defense policy bill. The Senate is taking up its own version of that bill, which is considered one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation.
If the Senate follows the House's lead by adopting the amendment Mr. Heller has proposed, it will virtually ensure that the language becomes law.
More than 100 amendments to the bill are pending, though, and much will depend on Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee. If Mr. Levin accepts the amendment, it should be adopted without problem, but if he opposes it, that could precipitate a floor fight.
Mr. Levin's office didn't return a message seeking comment, though repatriation supporters, who came to Capitol Hill this month to lobby, said he committed to giving them floor time for the amendment.
The supporters also said they have been "amazed" at the efforts of Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who served as Navy secretary in the Reagan administration and who has been forceful in advocating for the commandos' return.
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."
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