In Memorial Day ceremonies, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, stood silently next to the graves of American sailors in a tiny walled cemetery overlooking Tripoli harbor.

Flowers and small U.S. flags decorated aboveground stone crypts where the seamen were buried in the shade of olive trees.

More than 200 years ago, Navy Master Commandant Richard Somers and a dozen volunteer crewmen sailed an explosives-laden Intrepid toward anchored pirate ships in the harbor.

The Intrepid blew up before the mission's completion, killing all aboard. Somers, who was educated in Philadelphia, and fellow officers Henry Wadsworth and Joseph Israel and other crew members were recovered and buried.

Following Stevens' death Sept. 11 in an attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the recent desecration of the graves of dozens of British Commonwealth soldiers at Tobruk, local efforts to repatriate the sailors have been redoubled.

Since the 1804 deaths, generations of the Somers family, along with state and federal legislators and officials, have worked, without success, to gain Libya's and the Navy's help to return the remains.

They've been joined by many others, including Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser; naval historian and author Chipp Reid, who wrote the just-released book Intrepid Sailors; and historian and author William E. Kelly Jr., who wrote a history of Somers Point called Three Hundred Years at the Point.

"I would like to see [the Intrepid's crew] shown some respect," said Michael Somers, 40, a Berlin resident and second cousin of Richard Somers seven times removed. "The soldiers of other wars are brought home."

"Why not these?" asked Somers, a paramedic who grew up at Somers Point. "With so much instability there, we don't know what will happen next and whether we will ever be able to reclaim them."

The remains "should be brought to Somers Point for burial," said Reid, who addressed members of the staffs of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on Friday on the proposed recovery. "This can't be that tough.

"Our fear is that their graves will be desecrated" like those of 35 World War II soldiers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa who were buried at Tobruk, said Reid, 48, of Annapolis, Md.

The Old Protestant Cemetery, where the Intrepid crew is buried, "is small and its only security is a padlock on the front gate," he said.

The sailors "should be brought back quietly, quickly, and without fanfare," added Kelly, who sent a copy of his book and a letter detailing the proposed recovery effort to Stevens a week before his death.

Kelly believes five crew members are buried at the cemetery while eight others are under what is now a parking lot at Green Square, where the followers of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi once held demonstrations.

Commandant Somers, who is believed to be at the walled cemetery, was born in Somers Point, named after the naval hero's great-grandfather. Residents there hold a Richard Somers Day celebration every September.

"Maybe if we wait a week, the Islamists will go to the cemetery and it will be too late," said Kelly, 60, of Browns Mills. "We don't want to call too much attention to this because the graves could be desecrated."

Gadhafi's killing in October 2011 gave fresh impetus to the effort to bring the crew home. Maybe the country's new leadership would make the transfer easier if the Navy got on board with the project, supporters thought.

They were further encouraged by the passage of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the completion of a study to determine the feasibility of returning the remains.

That study, released this fall, focused on the problems of recovering the sailors, however, and did not recommend the project. It estimated the cost of recovery and identifying the remains to be about $770,000.

Proponents of the repatriation estimate it could be done for under $50,000.

Somers, Wadsworth, and Israel are believed to have separate coffins, each with markers that say, "Here lies an American sailor who gave his life in the explosion of the United States Ship Intrepid in Tripoli Harbour. . . . "

The rest of the remains were interred on the beach and later - when unearthed during a highway project - were moved to the walled graveyard, Reid said.

The walls were crumbling in recent years until restoration shortly before a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in December.

Kelly said Panetta and the secretary of the Navy do not appear "to have the time or inclination to deal with this issue at the moment, yet it is one that needs to be addressed and acted on as soon as possible."

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R, N.J.), who has supported the effort, met with Navy officials in recent months before the ambassador's death, but a spokesman said he has larger issues to deal with now. While he "is committed to bringing the fallen commandos home, current efforts are put on indefinite hold due to the situation on the ground in Libya," said the spokesman, Jason Galanes.

The recovery effort, though, continues to stir residents across Somers Point. Several of them work with groups to bring the sailors back to their community.

"We have selfish reasons," said Greg Sykora, 48. "We want to bring our son home. . . .

"These men are heroes," he said. "Why would you not want to repatriate them?"

Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.