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Justin Taylan 2008
|Pilot 2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe, O-810434 (POW, executed May 31, 1944, MIA) Cranston, RI
Ditched May 27, 1944
Built by Republic at the Indiana Division of Republic Aviation in Evansville, IN. Constructor Number 412. Delivered to the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) as P-47D-3-RA Thunderbolt serial number 42-22661. Dissembled and shipped overseas to the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) and reassembled.
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 serial number 41-40652. Armed with eight .50 caliber machine guns, serial numbers unknown.
On May 27, 1944 took off from Gusap Airfield (Runway No. 5) pilot 2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe on a strafing mission to against But Airfield on the north coast of New Guinea. The weather was reported as clear with unlimited visibility. Last seen by 2nd Lt. James M. Robertson before the strafing attack. When this aircraft failed to return it was officially listed as Missing In Action (MIA).
Statement of 2nd Lt. James M. Robertson via Missing Air Crew Report 5754 (MACR 5754) page 8:
"Just as the first strafe run was started, I saw Lieut. Thorpe, who was flying my wing peel off to make the pass. The airplane appeared to be O.K."
When this aircraft failed to return, his squadron searched for his missing plane twice. On May 27, 1944 at 12:39 P-47 piloted by 1st Lt. Raymond W. Kramme took off on a search of the entire Wewak area and all the islands within 20 miles of Wewak but returned with no sightings. On May 29, 1944 at 8:07am P-47 piloted by Major Harris L. Denton took off leading a search flight but did not reach the target area due to bad weather and returned with nil sightings. Another search was scheduled once the weather cleared but is unclear if it was ever flown.
Fate of the Pilot
In fact, Thorpe ditched into the sea to the north of Kairiru Island. Thorpe landed unhurt and used a log to swim to the nearby island. Ashore on Kairiru Island, he was captured by natives and volunteer Formosan civilian unit and escorted to the Japanese Navy headquarters at St. John's Mission.
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 sentenced to twenty years but only served one year of his sentence then was released.
Despite the fact that two detailed sketches were created of Thope's execution site and grave by Japanese POWs, the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) 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 follow on this research did not visit the site. During August 2009, a team from JPAC excavated the grave site believed to be Thorpe, but found nothing. To this day, Thorpe remains listed as Missing In Action (MIA).
Thorpe was officially declared dead on May 31, 1944. He earned the Air Medal with oak leaf cluster and Purple Heart, posthumously. He is memorialized at Manila American Cemetery on the tablets of the missing. He is also memorialized on the Thorpe family grave in Pocasset Cemetery in Cranston, RI at plot 7, group I, plot 54 on Williams Path.
Gil E. Thorpe (brother passed away January 14, 2018)
NARA World War II Army Enlistment Records - Robert E. Thorpe
Missing Air Crew Report 5754 (MACR 5754) created May 29, 1944
Telegram from War Department reporting Robert E. Thorpe Missing In Action (MIA) June 11, 1944
News "5 Japs on Trial For R.I. Man's Death" June 22, 1948
News "Assassin of Local Flyer Now on Trial" June 22, 1948
News "Jap to Hang for Killing Cranston Man" July 6, 1948
News "Cranston Flier's Jap Executioner Pays With Life", May 27, 1949
PNG Museum Aircraft Status Card - P-47D Thunderbolt 42-22661
American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) - Robert E. Thorpe
FindAGrave - 2Lt Robert Eric Thorpe (tablets of the missing)
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?" Oct 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 (2015) mentions this loss
Thanks to Gil Thorpe, Michael Claringbould and Brian Bennett for additional information
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May 27, 1944
May 31, 1944
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