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This article appeared in the Providence Journal in 2007.  
A Flyer's Life and Death Become Clear Print

Gil Thorpe flew down to Florida six weeks ago to meet Fred Tobi. Tobi was best friends with Gil's brother, Bob, when the two flew fighter planes in the Pacific in World War II.But Gil didn't know Tobi existed until his childhood buddy, Ken Dooley, showed up and started asking questions.

I know that's a bunch of names for just the first paragraph, but those names are part of an extraordinary connection that's been made between Gil Thorpe and the brother he lost 43 years ago. A book is being written about it.

When Thorpe and Tobi talked in Florida, it was the first time Thorpe had talked to any one who know his brother during the war years. It was part of putting the pieces of a life, and death, back together after more than half a century.

Thorpe remembers the day - May 24, 1944 - when two soldiers came to the family's house in Cranston with a telegram that informed them that Lt. Robert Thorpe had been shot down in his P-47 in the Pacific. Gil was just 14 and ran to a nearby house where his parents were playing cards to tell them.

In 1947, the Army declared that Robert Thorpe's remains were unrecoverable. And Gil Thorpe took that official declaration with him through a good part of his life as he pursued his career as a pharmacist and married and raised a family.

Then, early in 2003, carrying the uneasy feeling that he hadn't done enough to really find out about his brother's final days, he started looking back. He learned that if he hadn't done enough, neither had the government that sent his brother to war.

He began making connection, and the connections continue. He went on the Internet and contacted the P-47 Association sites. Claringbould provided a previously unseen Missing Air Crew Report that contained two sketches of Robert Thorpe's burial site.

The remain, it appeared were not as unrecoverable as the Army had declared. And there were other surprises to come.

Thorpe, of Wickford, contacted Senator. Jack Reed's office, and he says that there is regular contact between Reed's office and the officials in charge of searching for the country's war dead. it is a slow, careful process, he says. He and members of Reed's staff push as hard and as often as they can.

"Everything is in six-month boxes," he says, "Every six months we stir the Pot.

He says it appears things are happening, that a search will take place.

And now, Ken Dooley has come back into Thorpe's life. The two had been close friends when they were kids, but they had lost touch. When Dooley was sent a copy of an earlier column I had written about Thorpe and the pursuit of his brother's remains, he was surprised. He had always assumed that Robert Thorpe's remains had been found and buried with his parents. He called his old friend.

"I got involved," said Dooley from his home in Florida.

Did he ever. Gil Thorpe is amazed at the work Dooley has done and continues to do.

"I've been writing all my life," says Dooley who attended La Salle Academy and Providence College around a stint in the Air Force.

He has written dozens of books, from how-to manuals to a biography of Red Auerbach. And he Put years of experience and writer's instinct to work in pursuing long-concealed details ofa grizzly, barbaric death and the deceptions that followed.

The Thorpes were aware that Robert did not die when his plane crashed. We was able to get out of the aircraft, grab hold of a log and reach the tiny Pacific island of Kairiui. He was captured, beaten, shoot several times and beheaded. Some of his organs were removed before his burial.

Five Japanese officers and soldiers were tried for his death in Yokahama, Japan, in 1948. The Providence Journal, which had referred to Thorpe's execution as "some of the most revolting crimes uncovered by the war crimes investigators," reported that the commanding officer involved had been executed and others sentenced to life at hard labor.

But Dooley says that the sentences were never imposed. Earlier this year, while working through hundreds of pages of previously classified documents acquired under the Freedom of Information act, he found records of a clemency hearing held in Yokahama.

None of the accused served more than one year in prison," Dooley writes in Broken Trust, a book that is still a work in progress about Robert Thorpe's death and the government's failure to inform his family.

There are all kinds of questions raised by the records Dooley has uncovered: Why were the Thorpes told that remains were unrecoverable when officials know of the two sketches of the burial site? Why was a false report released about the sentencing of the Japanese responsible for Thorpe's death.

The research goes on, at the National Archives and any where the trail leads. Dooley continues to write his book. And Gil Thorpe continues to learn more about his older brother.

In one of the most moving passages of the unfinished book, Dooley tells of how Thorpe remained silent as he was let to his execution. He has already been beaten and shot. His hands were tied.

It was not until he was show in the stomach that he finally fell to his knees and was dragged to a grave that had already been prepared for him. He said nothing, but witnesses reported that his lips moved as if in prayer. One Japanese officer described Thorpe's behavior as 'magnificent.'"

He recalls that five hours the spent with Fred Tobi in Tampa. Dooley had located Tobi though his fighter squadron association.

Tobi and Bob Thorpe had survived flight training together, hung out together and served in the Pacific together. Tobi was not on the mission on which his friend was shot down.

"It was pretty emotional," says Thorpe of the conversation. "He told me he was very quiet."

And, when there was some friction within the group, it was Bob Thorpe who dealt with it, who defused some tense situations, Tobi said.

Gil Thorpe says he could not have talked about his brother so freely a few years ago.

"I never know until Ken started me thinking, then a lot of information just spilled out.

"The ironic part of Bob's life was that he struggled to get out of high school, but then he went in the Air Force and finished near the top of his class. Bob loved to fly."

bkerr@projo.con / (401) 277-7252

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Rep. Peter Martin