After a more than decade-long effort by Somers Point officials, the city should know within the next two months whether it will receive the remains of Navy Master Commandant Richard Somers from Libya.
"We are currently in negotiations with Libya to return all 13 men from the Intrepid crew back to the United States, and when that deal is complete, they will be buried in Somers Point," said Sally Hastings, president of the Somers Point Historical Society.
Somers' father, John Somers, founded Somers Point. The younger Somers, who was born in 1778 in the area of what is now Somers Point, became a U.S. naval hero during the First Barbary War.
In 1804, Somers was ordered to load the ketch USS Intrepid with explosives, sail it into Tripoli Harbor and explode it among the ships of the Libyan fleet.
The Intrepid exploded prematurely - possibly intentionally to prevent enemy pirates from getting their hands on the ammunition. The bodies of Somers and his 12 crew members have been buried on "enemy soil" ever since, despite sporadic efforts over a century to secure their return.
In 2004, the State Assembly passed legislation calling for Somers' return. Somers Point, meanwhile, has been trying for more than a decade, Hastings said.
"We worked with the government for a couple of years, and the government under (former U.S. Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton said that they don't want to be involved anymore, so we still have some congressmen and senators that are backing our efforts," Hastings said.
The departments of Defense and the Navy are also no longer involved, she said.
Hastings said the society ended up going directly the Libyan government to make the request.
While ancestors cannot be found for 10 of the 13 men, she said, one family wants to perform DNA tests on the remains. The decision about where to re-bury the remains will likely fall to the local group.
Mayor Jack Glasser said the return of Somers' remains is an "outstanding" issue that will be resolved soon.
"There have been so many people who have been working on getting the remains of Richard Somers and the crew of the Intrepid, not just here in Somers Point, but in Washington - our Congressman (Frank) LoBiondo and Congressman Mike Rogers from Michigan, who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee," Glasser said.
The effort to bring Somers' remains home is being fueled by the city's creation of a Heritage Tourism District.
Hastings said the district would highlight the legacy, history and historical landmarks of Somers Point. Significant landmarks, all along Shore Road, would include: Somers Mansion, which is the oldest building in Atlantic County; the Somers Point Historical Museum, which provides historical artifacts and information about the city; and the Atlantic County Historical Society Museum, which houses a repository of historical and genealogical documents relating to Atlantic County residents, businesses, institutions and governments. And, on Oct. 19, the city plans to dedicate a monument to Somers.
Inspiration for the district came from a grant the Somers Point Historical Society recently received from South Jersey Industries to increase tourism to the area, Hastings said. The $1,500 grant will be used to promote the city's three museums via printed brochures, radio and newspaper ads and the Internet. The Somers Point Business Association also donated $500.
Regardless of Somers' final resting place, Hastings said, the monument will be located on a plot of land that was the city's original Veterans Park, next to the Atlantic County Library System's Somers Point branch. It will be renamed Richard Somers Memorial Park.
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