|Pilot 2nd Lt. Robert Eric Thorpe, O-810434 (POW, executed May 31, 1944, MIA) Cranston,
MIA May 27, 1944
Thorpe attended Cranston High School, worked for his father's pharmacy and was a yachtsman in the Edgewood Yacht Club. He joined the US Army on September 18, 1942. Commissioned on August 30, 1943, after completing his flight training in Florida flying the P-47 Thunderbolt.
He was assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron and flew his first combat mission on February 2, 1943 from Port Moresby and during that month flew seventeen combat missions, including missions over Hollandia. By April 1, 1944 he had flown 150 combat hours. Thorpe earned the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster and Purple Heart (posthumously). Previously, on February 25, 1944 Thorpe survived bailing out of P-47D Thunderbolt and returned to duty. He was 20 years old when he was executed.
Built by Republic at the Indiana Division of Republic Aviation in
Evansville, IN. Constructor Number 412. Delivered to the U. S. Army. Dissembled and shipped overseas to the South-West Pacific and reassembled.
Assigned to the 5th Air Force. Assigned to the 5th Air Force, 35th Fighter Group, 39th Fighter Squadron. No nose art or nickname. The tail was painted white with a blue tip of tail and blue cowling. When lost, engine: R-2800-21 AAF serial number 41-40652. Weapon serial numbers unknown.
On May 27, 1944 took off from Gusap Airfield (Runway #5) on a strafing mission to against But Airfield west of Wewak. Last seen prior to making a strafing attack. In fact, Thorpe ditched
into the sea north of Kairiru Island.
Fate of the Pilot
Thorpe survived the ditching unhurt and used a log to swim to Kairiru Island. Ashore, he was captured by natives and volunteer Formosan civilian unit and was escorted to the Japanese Navy headquarters at St John's Mission on the southern side of Kairiru Island.
On May 30, 1944 at the Navy headquarters, Thorpe was beaten and interrogated by Lt Commander Kaoru Okuma, engineering staff officer and Lt Isamu Amenomoro, paymaster. For fun, Lt Tsunchike Yamanoto and Lt Commander Kaoru Okuma tried to shoot him in his legs using their pistols.
On May 31, 1944 a group of at least thirty Japanese assembled to watch Thorpe's execution. Before he was executed, Thorpe asked what time it was. At 4:30pm, he was beheaded by Hiroshi Odazawa using a sword. Afterwards, Thorpe's body was buried in a makeshift grave. No natives witnessed the incident. Afterwards, a radio message outlining the execution was transmitted to Truk for forwarding to Tokyo.
War Crimes Investigation
In September 1945, after the official Japanese surrender, the garrison on Kairiru Island surrendered and became Prisoners of War of the Australian Army. When interrogated, the Japanese involved conspired to conceal Thorpe's murder. In October 1945, Captain Kiyoshisa Noto submitted a sworn statement to Australian Army Headquarters at Wewak, claiming that Thorpe had died of malaria after a month of hospitalization on Kairiru Island. Eventually, statements from six Japanese participants directly involved in Thorpe’s execution were obtained, including a map of the execution site and grave.
During the 1948 Yokohama War Crimes Trail, executioner Hiroshi Odazawa plead guilty. The others plead not guilty. Lt Commander Kaoru Okuma, was convicted in 1948 for the crime and hanged in 1949. Captain Kiyoshisa Noto was found guilty for his role in Thorpe's execution and found guilty of the execution of two Australian Army "Z Force" commandos captured during the middle of April 1945. At the Rabaul Wart Crimes Trial, he was sentanced to twenty years but only served one year of his sentance then was released.
Thorpe was officially declared dead on May 31, 1944. He is memorialized on the tablets of the missing at Manila American Cemetery. The Thorpe family grave lists Robert E. Thorpe in memory in Pocasset Cemetery in Cranston, RI at plot 7, group I, plot 54 on Williams Path.
the fact that two detailed sketches were created of his grave and execution site by Japanese POWs,
the American Graves Registration closed his case on May 26, 1949,
stating his remains were "non-recoverable".
In May-June 2004, Michael Claringbould published an article Forgotten Island Aviator that mentioned the detailed sketches and rekindled interest in the case. During 2005, Brian Bennett working for JPAC investigated this case, and followed the wartime sketches and found a potential burial.
During May 2008, a team from JPAC was scheduled to followup, but did not visit the site. During August 2009, JPAC excavated the grave site believed to be Thorpe, but found nothing. To this day, his Missing In Action (MIA) case remains unresolved.
Gill Thorpe (brother)
Missing Air Crew Report
5754 (MACR 5754)
"5 Japs on Trial For R.I. Man's Death" June 22, 1948
"Assassin of Local Flyer Now on Trial" June 22, 1948
"Jap to Hang for Killing Cranston Man" July 6, 1948
"Cranston Flier's Jap Executioner Pays With Life", May 27, 1949
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Robert E. Thorpe
PNG Museum Aircraft Status Card - P-47D Thunderbolt 42-22661
FindAGrave - Lieut Robert Eric Thorpe (photos, memorial marker)
Flightpath Magazine "Forgotten Island Aviator" by Michael Claringbould,
Vol. 15, May-June 2004
RI Aviation Hall of Fame "A Rhode Island Family Asks: When is Lt. Robert Thorpe Coming Home?" October 15, 2004
North East Independent "Family Hopes to Recover Fallen Soldier's Remains" Oct 22, 2004
The Providence Journal "The Search for a brother nears its end" by Bob Kerr, November 11, 2005
The Providence Journal "A flier's life and death become clear" by Bob Kerr, August 19, 2007
Boston Globe "A Brother Lost: A flyer's siblings in search of closure" May 25, 2008
Relentless Pursuit - The Untold Story of the U. S. 5th Air Force's 39th Fighter Squadron mentions this loss
Thanks to Gill Thorpe for additional information and Kenneth D. Wilson for constructor number
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February 4, 2018