REPORTING FROM TRIPOLI, LIBYA -- In a walled cemetery overlooking Tripoli’s harbor lie the plain sandstone graves of the crew of the Intrepid, a U.S. ship that blew up on a secret mission 200 years ago.
"Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of the United States Ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbor Sept 4., 1804," reads a plaque on one of the graves in this tranquil resting place shaded by a gnarled tree and protected by 12-foot walls and a wooden door.
On Saturday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, on his first visit to Libya, placed a wreath at the grave site and stood silently for a moment, his head bowed.
Under pressure from descendants of the crew, Congress this month ordered the Defense Department to study the feasibility of repatriating the remains to the U.S.
But the Navy argues that as long as the cemetery is properly maintained, the remains should be left in Tripoli -- in keeping with the service's tradition that sailors killed in battle should lie where they fall.
Panetta did not mention the debate about whether to dig up the graves, but after touring the cemetery on a four-hour stop in Libya, he appeared inclined to side with the Navy.
"The Libyan people have maintained this cemetery with the respect and honor it deserves," he said in a statement.
The 13-man Intrepid crew under the command of Lt. Richard Somers was on a secret night mission to attack pirate ships, but the explosives-packed Intrepid blew up accidentally before reaching the harbor.
The next morning, 13 bodies washed ashore, and an angry mob dragged them through the city. The remains were eventually interred in an unmarked mass grave outside the city.
“Having sailed into harm's way to secure our nation's interests, they volunteered for a dangerous mission and paid the ultimate price,” Panetta said.
In 1949, under pressure from the crew's descendants, the Libyan government arranged to rebury the remains in the so-called "Protestant cemetery" that Panetta visited Saturday.
But especially under former Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, who was ousted and killed this year after more than four decades in power, the Libyan government's care for the cemetery appears to have waxed and waned over the years.
But after complaints from family members that the graves weren’t being cared for, the Kadafi government began a renovation project that was completed in January — just weeks before the start of the rebellion that drove Kadafi from power.
--David S. Cloud
Photo: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta places a wreath at a cemetery in Tripoli on Saturday to honor 13 U.S. sailors killed in 1804 when their ship exploded during a secret mission. Credit: Mahmud Turkia / AFP/Getty Images