Request to Honor a WWII Veteran Print

Thank you for your interest in Lt. Robert Thorpe. If you landed here by way of a direct link, please click here for further information: Stacy House click on "Robert Thorpe" on the left side!

This project was initiated with the receipt of the following letter:  

March 6, 2013

To: Rep. Peter Martin
From: Ken Dooley

Representative Martin:

My play, "The Murder Trial of John Gordon," and your political efforts led to the pardon of John Gordon by Gov. Lincoln Chafee more than 167 years after his trial and execution. Now I must call to your attention another miscarriage of justice, involving a Cranston pilot who was captured and executed by the Japanese in 1944.

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. Obeying the Military 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.

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.

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, the five officers involved in the execution went on trial on June 22, 1948, in Yokahama, Japan. Four of the officers were sentenced to life in prison while, Okuma was sentenced to hang.

it would seem that justice finally had been done. In fact, only one of the original sentences received by the five convicted war criminals – Okuma's execution - was ever carried out. The truth about the aftermath of Bob Thorpe's brutal death only began to emerge when his father, Walter Thorpe, Bob's father, started a campaign to have his son's remains returned to Rhode Island.

Walter Thorpe had no knowledge that the Japanese officers involved had provided a detailed sketch of the burial site, because the court martial records were classified. Nor did he have much help from the U.S. officials and politicians he appealed to. During his lifetime, he compiled a thick file of correspondence with the American Graves Registration Service indicating that his son's remains were unrecoverable.

All records pertaining to the search and recovery of Bob Thorpe were closed. Walter Thorpe and his wife, Nora, Bob's mother, both died believing that their son's remains were not recoverable.

For 69 years, Gill Thorpe, Bob's younger brother, and Nancy, his sister, locked away thoughts about their brother's brutal death and the fact that he remains unclaimed in an unmarked gravesite on Kairiru Island. The American Graves Registration continues to stonewall the Thorpes about when or if their brother's remains will ever be recovered.

Many questions remain: Why was Walter Thorpe continuously lied to when he tried to get help in recovering his son's remains? Why didn't the Graves Record Administration try to find the remains with the detailed maps provided to them during the court-martial?

Perhaps these questions will never be answered. But can something be done to honor this man who gave so much to his country and has received so little in return. Much as you fought for John Gordon, I'm asking you to give this man the honor that his country has refused to provide for so many years.


If you have any comments on this issue, please feel free to send an email to:

Rep. Peter Martin