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Forgotten Island Aviator
by Michael Claringbould Flightpath Magazine Vol. 15, May-June 2004

By early 1944 Wewak had become the largest Japanese stronghold on mainland New Guinea. Isolated and cut off from Japan, the many transport ships from Korea and Japan which had once supplied the huge garrison there, ceased to arrive.  The Japanese 18th Army under the command of General Hatazo Adachi prepared to survive on market gardens, and dug in for a final battle.  Most military units at Wewak were Imperial Army ones, however there was also a smaller Navy detachment, and in early 1944 it was decided to consolidate all Navy units on Kairiru Island, only a few miles offshore Wewak.  They were joined by the dishevelled remnants of other Navy detachments which had retreated by foot from other parts of New Guinea.  As a result, about 1,500 Imperial Navy troops were sent to the island where they were reformed into the 27th Special Base unit.  Limited supplies along with constant Allied aerial and naval bombardment darkened the shadow of impending defeat.  The daily air attacks took pathos to new depths – the Japanese on Kairiru dyed their chickens green in the hope they wouldn’t be strafed by marauding Allied fighters.  By the end of 1944 soldiers in the Wewak region were dying of disease and starvation at around ten per day.

At the centre of Kairiru Island is a dormant volcano.  Its northern shore is characterized by rocky cliffs, whilst the southern coast has mud flats and black sandy beaches.  Headquarters for the recently-formed 27th Special Base unit was located near the island’s south coast, while its troops were scattered in small clusters all over the island.  There was a seaplane jetty and base – for Pete floatplanes – near Headquarters, but the sole surviving Pete was evacuated to Hollandia in April 1944, where a few days later it was destroyed.  USAAF Fifth Air Force and RAAF units bombed the island almost daily from March 1944 onwards, in what the famished Japanese confined to Kairiru cynically termed teiki-bin or the ‘daily service’.  In the end there was no battle for Kairiru Island, for the Japanese there ultimately surrendered to Australian forces in September 1945, along with the rest of Wewak’s 18th Japanese Imperial Army.  Even today the island is littered with vast quantities of the remains of scattered WW2 Japanese materiel, including trucks, searchlights, and two Pete seaplanes.

That is where the story ends, save for the fate of a young American aviator who still rests on the island.  From 1946 to 1948 a series of interrogations took place in Japan, during which it was concluded that the 27th Special Base unit commander and staff conspired to conceal the execution of the American in May 1944.  Whilst such an incident is relatively unremarkable on the larger scale, the story becomes abnormal when it has been established that in the year 2004, 2/Lt Robert Eric Thorpe still lies unclaimed in an unmarked gravesite on Kairiru Island.  His executioner, Hiroshi Odazawa, was never brought to trial through lack of political will. The comedy of errors which surrounds the failure to reclaim Thorpe epitomizes the failure to resolve the fate of thousands of missing Allied aviators in the vast Pacific, even though there was sufficient evidence to do so subsequent to the cessation of hostilities.  If this article leads to Thorpe’s reclamation by the US military, this can only be a good thing. 

To understand Thorpe’s anonymous fate, one must wade through the forty-five or so pages of WW2 Missing Aircrew Report 5754.  It is sobering reading, a confrontational exposure of the hatreds which were played out between two disparate nations, played out in a remote tropical island in which neither had valid long-term interest.  After the surrender, the Japanese involved conspired to conceal the murder, by claiming that Thorpe had died of malaria after a month of hospitalization on the island. In October 1945, Captain Kiyoshisa Noto submitted a sworn statement to Australian Army Headquarters in Wewak to this effect.  Defiantly however, it is Thorpe as the final innocent who remains unclaimed, a young man whose last words before execution were to ask what time it was. During post-war investigations, separate statements from six Japanese participants directly involved in Thorpe’s execution were obtained.  None of the six was prosecuted. 

On 27 May 1944 Thorpe departed the vast USAAF base at Gusap in New Guinea’s Ramu Valley in P-47D Thunderbolt serial number 42-22661, assigned to the 39th Fighter Squadron of the 35th Fighter Group.  At this stage of the war the unit’s Thunderbolts were being used to maintain pressure on the garrison at Wewak through strafing missions.  Thorpe’s introduction to combat had not been smooth.  On 25 February 1944 his engine had seized out of Nadzab, forcing him to hurriedly bail out.  Thorpe escaped with a few bruises but the Thunderbolt slammed into the nearly Finesterre Ranges, lost forever. Like Nadzab, Gusap base was also mammoth, and in addition to Thunderbolts was crowded with Douglas A-20Gs, P-40Ns and several RAAF liaison detachments.  We do not know why Thorpe ditched his fighter after strafing Wewak, but it is most likely that a critical part of his R-2800 radial engine was hit by small arms fire, thus forcing him down.  Regardless, we do know Thorpe ditched the Thunderbolt in waters north of Kairiru Island.  He told his captors that he swam to shore with the aid of a floating log.  Once there, natives and civilians from a ‘volunteer’ Formosan civilian unit based on the island captured and escorted him over the mountains on a native trail to Headquarters on the south side.  During subsequent interrogation Thorpe told his captors that he was from Cranston, Rhode Island, New York.  He said was keen on sport.  Both his parents were alive, and he had recently graduated from college.  The Japanese noted that he was clean shaven, with reddish brown hair.  With his hands tied behind his back, there is Japanese commentary in the file which states that he stood out as he was taller than the Japanese present.  Before execution Thorpe was beaten and interrogated by Lt Commander Kaoru Okuma, engineering staff officer, and paymaster Lt Isamu Amenomoro.  Neither were charged in connection with the crime, nor was Lt Tsunchike Yamanoto who tried to shoot Thorpe in the legs prior to his beheading, along with Okuma.  About thirty Japanese were present at the execution which took place about 1630 hours.  A radio message outlining the execution was later transmitted to Truk for forwarding to Tokyo.  No natives witnessed the incident, and Thorpe was buried in a makeshift grave.

Arguably the most key player involved, the 27th Special Base Commander, Rear-Admiral Shiro Sato, committed suicide at home in 1947.  His Chief of Staff, and the officer responsible for ordering Thorpe’s death, Captain Kiyoshisa Noto, was sentenced to twenty years at Rabaul prison for this and other war crimes (including the execution of two Australians on Kairiru Island in 1945), yet served only one year of a twenty year sentence.  The first repatriation of the Japanese occupiers of Kairiru Island occurred on 26 December 1945 when the Koei Maru took several hundred back to Japan.  The island went back into the exclusive care of the villagers there, and it has remained that way ever since.  It is a remarkable place today, for much Japanese equipment including AA guns and searchlights, still remains there.

Remarkably, on 26 May 1949 the American Graves Registration Service recommended that Thorpe’s remains be declared non-recoverable, and that all records pertaining to the potential search and their recovery be closed.  This was despite the fact that two detailed sketches, one locating Thorpe’s burial site to the nearest meter, were sketched by two Japanese involved in the execution.  There is no good reason given for not collecting the remains.  One can only conclude that it was not considered a priority.  Unhappily Thorpe’s family, as in the case of thousands of other US families, were told only that he had been captured and beheaded somewhere in the South Pacific.  Thorpe’s brother, Gill, who still lives on Rhode Island, has lived with the uncertainty of his brother’s fate for sixty years.

Thorpe’s file remained classified for thirty years, then fell into dusty obscurity.  According to the US military, Robert Eric Thorpe, the young man in his early twenties who was born on one island and died on another, simply disappeared.  The sketches in the MACR provide references to where he lies.  Whilst they are not definitive, they provide sufficient clues to indicate Thorpe’s final resting place.  Too many Pacific aviators have “disappeared”, and Thorpe should not remain one of them.  Let us hope the powers that be soon bring him home.    

Michael and Brad Marden visited Wewak in November 2003.  Sources include but are not limited to, MACR 5754, 39th FS unit history, and Kaigun Kikusen-tai Janguru Ni Kiyu, by Tetsuo Watanabe, a Japanese Navy officer based on Kairiru Island from March 1944 until the surrender. John Douglas, a Port Moresby-based adventurer and explorer also ably assisted, as did Thorpe’s brother, Gill.

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