From the S&S archives: The shores of Tripoli
July 28, 2006
THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI, familiar in song and story to every American schoolboy, are an ever-present reality to the thousands of U.S. airmen stationed at Wheelus Field
Being on the scene, as it were, they derive a certain added poignancy from the story. Even after 150 years it's a great yarn and stands up well in the retelling.
Back around 1800, when the U.S. was an infant nation, Tripoli pirates were the scourge of the Mediterranean, demanding tribute from all ships sailing in the area. In retaliation, the U.S. sent three frigates and a sloop to blockade the port. During the operations, the frigate Philadelphia ran aground and the captain and crew of 300 were imprisoned and held for ransom until the end of the war.
On Feb. 16, 1804, Lt Stephen Decatur sailed the Intrepid, a disguised Tripolitanian ship, into the harbor unchallenged. Boarding the Philadelphia, Decatur and his men overpowered the pirate crew and burned the frigate. The Intrepid made a later and not so fortunate sortie into the harbor under Lt Richard Sommers and Midshipman Harry Wadsworth, with 10 volunteer seamen aboard.
She carried a hundred barrels of gunpowder and was to be taken into the area where the pirate fleet lay and set afire. While the ship was making her way toward shore, a tremendous explosion occurred and all hands were lost.
The graves of five unidentified American sailors, believed to have been among the volunteers of the ill-fated Intrepid, today lie beneath a spreading olive tree in a tiny walled cemetery in Tripoli.
The remains of the Philadelphia now lie under one of Tripoli's port buildings. Legend has it that the venerable warship's mast is , the same one that today flies the Libyan flag from the ramparts of the castle in the harbor.
U.S. airmen serving on the shores of Tripoli today may not be engaged in such exciting pursuits as their counterparts 150 years ago. But their mission is certainly more vital to the continuance of world peace. Rather than pirates, however, their chief enemy is boredom. Tripoli, which along with Bengazi is the co-capital of Libya, lies about five miles west of Wheelus Field. While in moments of enthusiasm it has been called the "cleanest city in North Africa," it could hardly be called the most stimulating.
A city of 135,000 population, Tripoli boasts a picturesque harbor dominated by a 16th-century castle and a downtown European section that rivals any metropolis on the continent for modernity. The Arab section of the city, off-limits to servicemen after sundown, is as colorful and turbulent as any to be found in this part of the world.
The Roman arch of Marcus Aurelius, a relic of Tripoli's golden age under the Caesars, is one of the chief attractions. In this section, too, is a group of concessionaires offering Libyan artware to tourists and servicemen.
The Carthaginian Phoenicians conquered the Berber tribesmen inhabiting the Libyan coast around 700 B.C. and founded the triple cities (Tripolitania) of Leptis, Sabratha and Oea. Tripoli is built on the ruins of the last named, which also conveniently provided the brand name for a local beer.
Italian influence continues to reign in the city's European section, a carryover from the 1930s when Mussolini launched an intensive colonization campaign in Libya. Since 1951, when Libya became the first country to receive its independence under United Nations auspices, however, this influence has been dwindling.
There are three night-clubs catering to American service personnel. Two of these are housed in a pair of the city's principal hotels, the Uaddan and Del Mahari. The third is the Oriental Cafe near the old city. These are all great places to visit and so is Tripoli itself, say airmen stationed at Wheelus.
But it gets sort of monotonous. Outside of those two other Phoenician cities, Sabratha and Leptis, there's no place else to go.