Bob Thorpe's Last Flight Print

When his P-47D Thunderbolt was hit by small arms fire during a strafing run on the Japanese garrison at Wewak on May 27, 1944, 2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe ditched in the waters off Kairiru Island, New Guinea. The plane sank immediately, but he was lucky enough to find a log drifting nearby. Using it for flotation, he managed to reach shore.

There his luck ran out. Thorpe was captured by a Formosan civilian unit and marched across the island to the 27th Japanese Special Naval Base Force. Rear Admiral Shiro Sato, the unit commander, ordered his senior staff officer, Captain Kiyohisa Noto, to take charge of the prisoner. Noto, in turn, instructed Lt. Commander Kaoru Okuma to interrogate him.

Okuma's interrogation got nowhere. Article V of the Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces states: “When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause."

Obeying the Code to the letter, Thorpe refused to provide any information beyond name, rank and service number. Okuma became enraged and beat the prisoner unmercifully. He then invited Japanese enlisted personnel to join in the beating, and Thorpe was struck repeatedly with fists and sticks.

"I invited anyone who wanted to beat the flier to go ahead and do so," Okuma admitted at his court martial held in Yokohama, Japan in 1948.

But the beatings were only the beginning. Thorpe learned that he was to die, and, bleeding from his back, shoulders and face, he walked, unassisted, to his execution site where his death was to be slow and painful.

According to court marshal testimony, Okuma took out his sidearm and announced his intentions to use the prisoner for target practice. Yutaka Odazawa, who had been selected to execute the prisoner, warned that anyone who attempted to shoot the prisoner should aim low because any wound above the waist would “make it difficult to behead him."

Okuma shot Thorpe in the leg, then invited two other officers, Tsunohiko Yamamoto and Naotada Fujihira, to shoot at the prisoner but "avoid any hits above the knees." Before firing, Yamamoto told Thorpe that he was going to kill him with his pistol.

Thorpe remained standing, even though he had been hit twice in the leg. His hands were tied but he was not blindfolded. It wasn't until he was shot 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."

Odazawa then gave the prisoner a drink of water from the nearby stream, pushed his head down, washed his neck with the water, and then washed his sword - all in accordance with the Bushido spirit of cleansing the soul.

He then swung his sword and chopped through the neck with one stroke so that the prisoner's head dangled from the body, attached by only a small shred of skin at the throat. The body then fell head first into the pit.

Petty officer Ogaha, a medical officer, climbed into the grave, took a long knife and proceeded to cut inside the prisoner's body and finally removed a dark, brown organ from the body and announced that he was going to preserve it.

Witnesses said it was something like a bag, small and bloody, probably the kidneys. Immediately after he had removed the organ, the grave was covered up by some of the enlisted men.

The grave was located in the large gardens about 20 meters west of a stream and about 50 meters north of the main road in the fields.

After the war ended, Noto called a meeting in Kairiru Island attended by all of the company commanders, together with Admiral Sato. Noto warned that if any questions were asked by the American authorities as to the disposition of this flyer, they were to say nothing about the execution.

At a second meeting, Sato explained that the remains of a Japanese soldier had been turned over to the Australian authorities with the information that they were the remains of a deceased American pilot.

Sato and Noto ordered Lt. Commander Kazuo Maruyama, Chief Surgeon of the 27th Special naval Base, to report that the captured American had died of illness in the hospital.

Australian doctors reported that the remains were Japanese, and a subsequent investigation led to charges against five Japanese officers:

  • Yutaka Odazawa
  • Kiyohisa Noto
  • Naotada Fujihira
  • Tsunehiko Yamamoto
  • Kaoru Okuma

Admiral Sato and Petty officer Ogaha had both committed suicide shortly after the war ended.

All five officers were charged with violating the laws and customs of war by causing and permitting the unlawful beating, shooting and execution of an American prisoner of war, Second Lieutenant Robert Thorpe.

The trial opened on June 22, 1948 in Yokahama, Japan and lasted until July 6, 1948. The Providence Journal reported that "Assassins of Local Flyer Now on Trial in Japan." The article described the execution of Thorpe as "one of the most revolting crimes uncovered by the war crimes investigators." At the end of the trial, the Journal reported that Kaoru Okuma had been sentenced to death, Kiyohisa Nota received 20 years at hard labor, while Yutake Odazawa, Naotada Fujihira and Tsunehiko Yamamoto were sentenced to life at hard labor.

In May of 1949, the Providence Journal reported that Kaoru Okuma had been hanged for his role in Thorpe's brutal execution.

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Rep. Peter Martin

The Robert Thorpe segment of this web site was originally created in March of 2013 -