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The U.S. Navy's First Special Operations Mission

“[T]he most bold and daring act of the Age.”

—Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson



Stephen Decatur, Jr.


The Barbary Coast of North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, was home to pirates who had raided the sea lanes of the Mediterranean for generations, getting rich through either the capture and sale of merchantmen and their crews, or tribute from their governments, often both. Since independence freed the Royal Navy from having to protect American shipping, those merchantmen transiting the Mediterranean Sea increasingly fell prey to the pirates. To protect its maritime interests, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794, creating the U.S. Navy. When one of the republic’s new frigates, the 36-gun USS Philadelphia, was captured on October 31, 1803, in Tripoli harbor, the stage was set for the emergence of America’s first great hero of the nineteenth century, and what today would be a special operations mission conducted by SEALs: the destruction of the Philadelphia.


The Philadelphia, under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, was part of a seven-ship squadron that included the frigate Constitution (44 guns), 16-gun brigs Argus and Siren, and 12-gun schooners Enterprise, Nautilus, and Vixensent to punish the Barbary States under the overall command of Commodore Edward Preble whose flagship was the Constitution.


Though respected by his fellow officers, the 29-year-old Bainbridge was not popular with the enlisted men. In an age where physical punishment was the norm for enforcing discipline, Bainbridge had a reputation for ruthless brutality. While that aroused resentment, what really set Bainbridge apart in the eyes of superstitious sailors was that he had committed the ultimate nautical sin: that of being an unlucky captain. Even he admitted to being a “child of adversity.” In a letter to Commodore Preble, he wrote “misfortune has attended me throughout my naval career.” He wasn’t kidding. Two incidents were whoppers.


In 1798, during the Quasi-War with France and without firing a shot in defense, he surrendered his ship the Retaliation to two French frigates, thus making the Retaliation the first U.S. Navy warship to surrender to a foe. Two years later, as the captain of the George Washington, he was on an unenviable mission to deliver tribute to the Barbary Coast’s Dey of Algiers. He anchored in Algiers harbor, within point-blank range of the harbor fort’s 200 cannons. After receiving the agreed upon tribute, the Dey issued an ultimatum: deliver the Algerian ambassador and tribute gifts to Constantinople and do so flying the Algerian flag or be sunk. Bainbridge did so, carrying livestock and slaves to the Ottoman Empire capital. Though boards of inquiry exonerated him in both instances, the court of public opinion in the form of seamen found him guilty. From that point on he had a devil of a time finding crews for his ships.


Bainbridge hit the bad luck trifecta on Halloween, October 31, 1803, when he ran the Philadelphia aground on the shoals off Tripoli while trying to enforce a blockade of the harbor. Unable to free the ship, even after tossing almost all the cannon overboard, the Philadelphia was captured and its crew—at total of 307 officers and men—imprisoned.


Preble was in the Constitution off the coast of Sardinia when he received word of the loss of the Philadelphia from a Royal Navy frigate almost a month later, on November 24. The military consequences were bad. A significant portion of his small force was gone; and after salvaging both ship and cannon, the Philadelphia was restored, renamed the Gift of Allah, and made a part of the defenses of Tripoli harbor. Worse, this victory emboldened the Barbary States to demand more in tribute, with no guarantee that they would remain bought once tribute was paid.


After much internal discussion with his fellow officers, it was decided that paying a ransom for the officers and crew of the Philadelphia would be interpreted as a fatal sign of weakness and would do nothing to end the pirates’ preying on American flagged merchantmen. A show of force was necessary. The Philadelphia would have to be set fire and sunk.


The idea of sinking the Philadelphia occurred to a number of people, including Bainbridge. Having been granted correspondence privileges, in a letter to Preble written in a cipher of lemon juice that became visible when heated Bainbridge included important details about the location of the Philadelphia and harbor defenses from his officers’ prison house, which had a view of the harbor.


The mission to take a hand-picked crew on the captured Tripoli ketch Mastico, now christened Intrepid, into Tripoli harbor and sink the Philadelphia was the idea of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Jr., captain of the Enterprise. Everyone knew that, if successful, the leader of the mission would become a national hero and, perhaps even more important given the difficulty of advancement, receive a promotion. Though all the officers under his command volunteered, the man Preble chose was Decatur.


The 24-year-old Decatur was the son of a naval officer who had fought in the American Revolution. He had secured a commission as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in 1798 and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant the following year. Tall, trim, athletic, handsome, with curly dark hair and large brown eyes, he was a young man of great magnetism, a beau idéal of a dashing, romantic hero. It was said that his mere presence in a room would cause women to faint.


Preble’s orders to Decatur, dated January 31, 1804, were as follows: “It is my order that you proceed to Tripoli in company with the Siren [captained by Lieutenant Charles Stewart] enter that harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia. Burn her and make good your retreat with the Intrepid, if possible, unless you can make her the means of destroying the enemy’s vessels in the harbor, by converting her into a fire-ship for that purpose, and retreating in your boats and those of the Siren. You must take fixed ammunition and apparatus for the frigate’s eighteen-pounders, and if you can, without risking too much, you may endeavor to make them the instruments of destruction to the slipping and Bashaw’s castle. You will provide all the necessary combustibles for burning and destroying ships. The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance and I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it. Lieutenant Stewart will support you with the boats of the Siren and over your retreat with that vessel. Be sure and set fire in the gun-room berths, cockpit, storerooms forward and berths on the berth deck. After the ship is well on fire, point two of the eighteen pounders, shotted, down the main hatch and blow her bottom out.”

Preble had chosen Syracuse as his base of operations. Decatur’s expedition of the ketch Intrepid and brig Siren set sail the night of Friday, February 3, 1804, for a four-day voyage to Tripoli. Initially the winter weather was unusually mild. But when the ships neared the North African coast on the night of the seventh, a winter gale started forming. For five days the two ships rode out the fierce storm, anchored about ten miles off the shore of Tripoli.


Conditions were terrible in the fragile, overcrowded, vermin infested ketch. The pitching and rolling of the ship were so bad that almost everyone suffered from seasickness. On top of it all, the food had spoiled, sickening those few who could eat. Despite all this, Decatur projected an immutable air of confidence that inspired the all-volunteer crew, preventing a complete collapse of morale.


On February 12, the gale finally passed. The storm had separated both vessels and blown them well east of their position. It took an additional three days for them to rendezvous. Final preparations were made on February 15 for Decatur’s raid the next day.


Tripoli harbor is located on the western side of a wide, shoal-filled bay. To reach it, a ship must approach the harbor from the east and travel through a deep, narrow channel roughly two miles long that parallels the coast. Part of Tripoli’s defenses include a fort located on a promontory that juts into the Mediterranean roughly at the mouth of the channel. The northern side of the channel is bordered with a string of small islands that ends a few hundred feet before the harbor’s mole, or breakwater. If the Intrepid’s identity were discovered, her only chance to escape destruction in that gauntlet would be to continue straight toward the heart of the harbor’s defenses and then turn sharply to the right and sail through either the Western or Jerba passages, within a thousand yards of the northernmost of two forts guarding the northern side of the harbor.


To allay suspicion as long as possible, the Intrepid would resume identity as the native-rigged Tripolitan merchantman Mastico. The bulk of the eighty raiders would remain below deck, with eight crewmen dressed in native garb visibly manning the vessel. The plan called for the ketch to languidly sail toward the harbor, timing its arrival at the mouth of the harbor at dusk. There, the Intrepid would rendezvous with rowboats from the Siren and together they would proceed to the Philadelphia.


On the afternoon of the 16th, the Intrepid, flying English colors, began its slow, seemingly careless approach to Tripoli. So good was her disguise that she received answering colors raised over the British consulate in Tripoli. When dusk fell, the rowboats from the Siren, which had been becalmed, failed to show. Decatur decided not to wait. They would go forward alone.


The Philadelphia was anchored about 300 yards from the tip of the mole, and the Tripolitan guards on her casually observed the ketch as she neared. Once the Intrepid came within hailing distance, her Maltese pilot, Salvador Catalano, speaking Arabic, told them the story Decatur had created: that they had been damaged in the recent gale, lost their two anchors, needed assistance, and requested permission to make fast to the frigate for the evening. Permission was granted.


By this time, the wind had completely dissipated, and it was necessary for the ketch to be pulled to the Philadelphia by hawser. As the frigate’s deck was ten feet higher, guards were able to look down on the deck of the Intrepid. Just before she reached the frigate’s side, one guard saw that the Intrepid still had her anchors and a number of armed men on her deck. Immediately he shouted the alarm: “Americanos!”


When he heard that, Catalano panicked and demanded Decatur give the order to board. But a gap remained between the ships and Decatur stated, “No order to be obeyed but that of the commanding officer.” The men on the ketch held back. Meanwhile confusion reigned on the Philadelphia with some guards believing the warning and others not. When the Intrepid came under the Philadelphia’s forechains, Decatur gave the command: “Board!”


Lewis Heermann, a member of the boarding crew, later recalled, “The effect was truly electric. Not a man had been seen or heard to breathe a moment before; at the next, the borders hung on the ship’s side like cluster bees; and, in another instant, every man was on board the frigate.”


Decatur grabbed the forechain and began clambering up. By the time he reached the Philadelphia’s deck, many of the raiders were already fighting on the frigate’s deck. Others, meanwhile, had slipped through the open gun ports. The orders were to keep noise to a minimum, so the fighting was done by swords, pikes, and knives.


Taken by surprise, the demoralized Tripolitans for the most part put up a half-hearted defense. A number escaped by rowing away in a boat or by leaping overboard and swimming to the beach. About 20 guards who rallied were swiftly cut down and their bodies thrown into the water.


Within ten minutes, the assault part of the operation was over. They had taken one prisoner, badly wounded. For the Americans’ part, they suffered only one man slightly wounded.


Decatur then issued orders for the Philadelphia’s destruction, an act with some irony of its own as it was his father Stephen Decatur, Sr. who had commissioned the Philadelphia. As planned, the men split into squads and set about to their assigned tasks. Combustibles from the Intrepid were distributed throughout the Philadelphia, the storerooms, gun room, cockpit, and berth deck. When everything was in place, Decatur strode along the deck and at each hatchway leaned over and shouted, “Fire!” Upon hearing the order, a sailor took his three-inch length of spermaceti candle soaked in turpentine, lit it, and threw it on the combustibles.


The fires spread so rapidly that some raiders were almost trapped below decks. Decatur calmly remained on the burning Philadelphia until every man had reached the Intrepid. He then leaped aboard the ketch.


The Intrepid almost became a victim as well. Her main boom ran afoul of the frigate and her jib sail flapped dangerously close to the licking flames. The crew managed to free their ship and broke out long oars to use as poles to push their ship away from the burning hulk. But the hot air created a funnel effect that kept drawing the ketch back to the Philadelphia. Quickly Decatur ordered a team to take one of the ketch’s boats and tow the Intrepid around so her sails could catch the small breeze.


Using a combination of sail and oars, the Intrepid headed toward the Western Passage and safety. The ketch began taking small arms and cannon fire, but both proved inaccurate. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia had become an inferno that turned night into day throughout the harbor. The ship remained ablaze for hours. The men aboard the Siren, some forty miles to the north, were still able to see the glow of the fire from the frigate at 6 o’clock the following morning.


Though this one battle only began to settle America’s accounts with the Barbary pirates, news of Decatur’s success electrified the nation. Internationally it boosted esteem for the fledgling nation’s navy as exemplified by Britain’s greatest admiral, Lord Nelson's praise that soon became famous. In addition to becoming America’s first post-Revolutionary War hero, in May 1904 Decatur was promoted to captain, becoming at age 25 the youngest ever to reach that rank in the U.S. Navy. Decatur would participate in additional battles against the Barbary States and was instrumental in the U.S. Navy’s ultimate victory over them, receiving the accolade “the Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates.” In 1816 he was appointed to the new Board of Naval Commissioners. Four years later he died as a result of wounds suffered in a duel.


As commissioner, Decatur became involved in the Washington social scene, a circumstance no doubt aided by his stunning wife Susan, whose many suitors included Vice President Aaron Burr and Jérôme Bonaparte, the youngest brother of Emperor Napoleon I. At one dinner gathering, Decatur added to his fame for an after-dinner toast that later suffered misinterpretation as a statement of blind chauvinism: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

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