It was an exciting time to be thirteen years old in 1944, especially for Gill Thorpe and myself, living one street apart in Edgewood, Rhode Island. My brother Jack was fighting in the Pacific with the 1st Division of the U.S.M.C., and my brother Bill was in Europe with the 88th Infantry Fighting Blue Devils Division. Gill had a brother, Bob, a P-47 pilot with the 39th Fighter Squadron flying combat missions in New Guinea.
What army censors took away, Gill and I were able to replace with imagination, as we exchanged stories about the exploits of our brothers. Neither one of us was the least bit worried about their safety. John Wayne was winning the war in the Pacific and Errol Flynn, when he was not playing Robin Hood or General Custer, was handling the Nazis in Europe.
Only the bad guys got wounded or killed in war. Nothing happened to the good guys. That thinking all changed one day in early June of 1944, when an army vehicle stopped in front of the Thorpe home. Gill was home with his sister, Nancy, when two Army officers came to the door and asked to speak to the parents of Lt. Robert Thorpe. Gill explained that his mother and father, Walter and Nora Thorpe, were playing bridge at a cousin's home.
One of the officers told Gill that his brother had been missing since May 27th, and handed him a telegram to deliver to his parents. Gill called his father immediately. "Bob's missing in action," he said to his father. Gill still remembers his parents returning to the house, his mother crying softly. His father didn't say anything as he read the telegram. Word spread through the neighborhood quickly.
A few days after the official visit, an article from the AP appeared in the Providence Journal reporting that Lt. Robert Thorpe was missing after a strafing mission against an enemy air strip near Wewak, New Guinea. His plane was last seen as it went into a dive and was hit by enemy ground-fire. The target was close to the ocean, so it was presumed that his plane had fallen into the sea. No trace was found of him or his plane, and he was officially listed as missing in action.
The news about Bob Thorpe served as a wake-up call for all of the young boys who had previously felt that war was so exciting. Gill and I suddenly realized good guys do get hurt in wars. We never again looked at John Wayne or Errol Flynn the same way.
Four years later, on June 21, 1948, Nora Thorpe received a phone call from a woman in California offering her condolences on the death of Bob Thorpe. She had a son who was also killed in action and wanted to share her grief with another Gold Star mother. When Nora explained that Bob was "missing" and the family still had hopes that he would be found, the woman read her an article that appeared in her local newspaper. It named five Japanese officers who were going on trial for torturing and beheading Robert E. Thorpe in May of 1944.
Nora called her husband at the drugstore, and Walter made inquiries about the story. Before he received any formal notification from the military, an article appeared in The Providence Journal on June 22, 1948, describing what was called one of the most revolting crimes uncovered by war crimes investigators. Five Japanese officers admitted beating Lt. Thorpe, using him for target practice, beheading him and desecrating his body at a beach on Kairiru Island, New Guinea.
Admiral Kenro Sato, the officer who gave the order to execute Thorpe, committed suicide in 1948 after learning that he was about to be arrested and charged in the War Crimes Trials at Yokohama. CWO Waichi Ogawa, who was charged with desecrating Lt. Thorpe's body, hanged himself at Sugamo Prison shortly before the trial began.
On July 6, 1948, three Japanese officers were sentenced to life imprisonment, while a fourth received a twenty-year sentence. Lt. Commander Kaoru Okuma, the officer in charge of the execution, was sentenced to death. On May 27, 1949, five years to the day of Bob Thorpe's last mission, Okuma was hanged at Sugamo Prison in Japan.
The Thorpe family accepted the news quietly and made no public comment, even after the sentences were announced and Okuma was hanged. Nora Thorpe never fully recovered from her son's brutal execution. Friends say her beautiful smile disappeared right after she learned about Bob's death, and she became withdrawn and quiet. She died prematurely in 1956 at the age of 56.
Behind the scenes, Walter Thorpe never stopped in his efforts to have his son's remains returned to Rhode Island, even though he was told repeatedly they were unrecoverable. The trial records of the officers found guilty were classified as "secret," under the direct orders of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in Japan.
Walter Thorpe never accepted the "unrecoverable" explanation, reasoning that if his son had been executed on a beach, his remains had to be buried somewhere. He enlisted the aid of several elected officials to get some answers. All inquiries continued to be answered with a one-word comment from the military - "unrecoverable."
Walter's Thorpe died in 1977 at the age of 82. He had never fully escaped the nagging feeling that his son's remains were out there somewhere near the beach where he had been tortured and buried. His goal of burying Bob's remains in the family plot was never achieved.
Gill followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a pharmacist and, with his sister Nancy, took over the family business. Almost sixty years later, Gill decided that he had not done enough in his brother's behalf.
He began to make inquiries in 2003. He was given the name of Michael Claringbould, a historian and author of several books on the 5th Air Force, which included the 39th Fighter Squadron, Bob's unit in New Guinea. Claringbould grew up in Papua New Guinea, and became an expert at locating missing planes and aircraft downed in the Pacific in WWII.
Claringbould gave Gill a "Missing Air Crew Report" containing critical information about Bob's capture and execution, including two sketches of his burial site, only yards from the beach where he had been beheaded. Thorpe immediately contacted Sen. Jack Reed's office with the detailed maps of his brother's grave.
Bob Kerr, a columnist for The Providence Journal, wrote a column about Gill's efforts that attracted my attention. I had left Rhode Island in 1960 and spent the next forty years as a writer, working in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I assumed Bob's remains had been returned after the trials in 1948.
I called Gill and we had our first conversation in thirty years. Gill sent me a copy of "The Missing Crewman Report" Claringbould had given him. After reading the report, I called Gill and advised him to get copies of the records from the trials in Yokohama in 1948.
When Gill said he did not know how to go about it, I decided to take action under the "Freedom of Information Act." After a number of letters, phone calls, and trips to Washington, D.C., I finally obtained official transcripts of the trials of the five officers convicted of torturing and beheading Bob Thorpe. I read the transcripts in a hotel room, finishing it at 3 a.m.
The actual details of what Bob Thorpe had endured kept me up for the rest of that night and for many nights to come. I decided that morning to write a book about Bob Thorpe and the courage, conviction and dignity he displayed on that lonely beach where he made the ultimate sacrifice for his country so many years before.
I began with a search for former pilots of the 39th Fighter Squadron who flew with Bob Thorpe in New Guinea. I hit gold with my first contact, John Dunbar, a pilot who remembered flying with Bob at Gusap Air Base, New Guinea. John had kept a diary of his time with the 39th, which provided critical information for this book. It was John who gave me the contact information for Fred Tobi, Bob Thorpe's closest friend in the 39th Fighter Squadron. I was living in Sarasota, FL, at the time, about 45 minutes from Fred Tobi's home in Tampa.
Fred had gone through flight training with Bob Thorpe at Dove Field in Arcadia, Florida. He remembered meeting Bob's mother, Nora, when the two pilots got their wings in 1943. After I had several interviews with Fred, Gill Thorpe flew to Tampa to meet with his brother's best friend. Now a retired fruit broker, Fred had almost total recall of his time in New Guinea.
He still remembers his first combat mission with Bob Thorpe. "Bob and I were sent in a fighter sweep against Wewak, a Japanese air base," Tobi said. "We were deployed in four flights of four. Outcast Red was leader, with White Blue and Green the other flights. The air and sky were clear. We flew over Wewak and observed that it was pretty beat up with wrecked aircraft and craters on the runways." Tobi said that he and Bob always made it to their target, which was usually Wewak. When they weren't escorting bombers, they were strafing the fields at Wewak.
Fred shared a tent in Gusap, New Guinea, with Bob Thorpe, Marques Trout and James C. Steele. Like Bob Thorpe, James C. Steele was captured by the Japanese and executed. After flying 97 missions, Fred Tobi was horribly burned when his P-47 crashed on takeoff in New Guinea in 1944. He spent the next three years undergoing extensive surgery and did not leave the hospital until 1947.
Fred made arrangements for me to meet with Captain Lew Lockhart, at his home in Brentwood, TN. I learned that Lockhart had flown 149 combat missions with the 39th FS in New Guinea. He and Tobi were both on what was to be Thorpe's last combat mission on May 27, 1944.
"I was leading Blue Flight and Fred Tobi was my wing man," Lockhart said. "Bob Thorpe was the wingman for Lt. Raymond Kramme in Green Flight. Lt. James Robertson was also on Green Flight. Major Denton, the squadron commander, was leading Red Flight.
"Overall, it was a successful mission, with one big negative. Bob didn't return. At the debriefing, Robertson said he saw Bob just before he made his final run, and his aircraft was in good shape. Kramme said ground fire was heavier than usual, and Bob may have been hit. Weather grounded the squadron the next morning, but Fred Tobi and I broke orders and went looking for Bob," Lockhart said. "No trace of him or the plane."
It was through Fred Tobi and John Dunbar that I made contact with Frank Royal; two-time CO of the 39th FS and probably its most beloved leader; S/Sgt. Roy Seher; Jack Frost and Chuck O'Sullivan. They patiently answered questions posed by me, a former staff sergeant who fought the Korean War in Europe and Africa with a typewriter.
The memories of these men are astounding. Every time I checked their accounts of missions, squadron records, lost pilots and planes, their recollections were extremely accurate.
Lew Lockhart spent many hours on the telephone with me, reliving his days with the 39th when his plane crashed on takeoff, and he escaped with a few minor bruises and was flying the next day. I will always remember his laughter when he told me about a trick he had discovered while ferrying P-38s from Australia to New Guinea. "I would remove the ammunition and replace it with beer for my thirsty friends in New Guinea."
Jack Frost was able to make a not particularly technical person understand the Lindbergh method of extending the range of bombers and pursuit aircraft. His story about confiscating Gen. Douglas MacArthur's lumber provides one of the light moments in the book.
Lew Lockhart introduced me to a very special person by the name of Mary Morgan Martin, daughter of Captain George Morgan who was killed in the Battle of the Philippines in 1945.
Mary's mother, Lt. Mary Scott Morgan met Captain George Morgan while serving as a nurse in Australia. They fell in love, returned to the States and were married in Washington State. Even though he had already flown 149 missions with the 39th Fighter Squadron in New Guinea, he was recalled for the battle of the Philippines.
Mary's mother was three months pregnant with Mary when Captain Morgan was killed. His plane was hit by ground-fire, and he was struck by the fuselage while bailing out.
Mary sent me her father's wartime love letters to her mother, photos, clippings and daily squadron reports I never would have been able to find on my own. She painstakingly restored all of the photos in this book, many of them taken by her father. Without Mary Morgan Martin, there would not be a book.
Mary also answered a question that had bothered me early in my research. Fred Tobi became quite emotional when I told him about the brutality of Bob Thorpe's death. He had never contacted the Thorpe family after the war to find out what happened to his best friend. He knew nothing about the trial of the Japanese officers who had murdered Bob Thorpe.
"Silence seemed to be the accepted practice," Mary Martin said. "These men were uncomfortable in discussing death, having been so close to it themselves. They did not know how their visits or telephone calls would be received. There were reports of grieving relatives verbally attacking survivors by saying things like, "Why did he die and not you?" So Mary understands why even close friends like Fred did not try to find out what happened to Bob.
After meeting these incredible people and listening to their fascinating stories, I changed the focus of the book from Bob Thorpe to the entire 39th Fighter Squadron. I began an eight-year journey through squadron mission reports, letters, diaries, photographs, telegrams, telephone interviews, emails and records of war crimes trials.
The journey was not always easy, especially when reading about the deaths of these outstanding young men and the families they left behind.
Fred Tobi, John Dunbar, Roy Seher and Chuck O'Sullivan died while I was still writing this book. Lew Lockhart and Jack Frost are both 94 and Frank Royal will turn 100 this summer.
I want to send special thanks to Linne Haddock for a treasure trove of information that was so invaluable in telling this story. Linne is the daughter of Col. Frank Royal, the man who put the 39th FS together in Brisbane, Australia in 1942.
It is always dangerous for an author to choose brighter and better writers for the Foreword and Epilogue of his book. I took that risk by asking Dr. Patrick T. Conley and former Secretary of the Navy J. William Middendorf to fill those roles.
As expected, Dr. Conley proved to be a tough act to follow. As Historian Laureate for the State of RI, I am not at all surprised by his legendary knowledge of Rhode Island history. I was impressed however, by his total command of world history, including World War II.
Secretary Middendorf takes special pains to explain his arrival in the Pacific theater as a young naval officer after the fighting had ceased. He does not mention that it was under his watch as the Secretary of the Navy that the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine and the companion Trident missile, the Aegis surface-launched missile system, and the F/A18 carrier based fighter aircraft were all introduced.
I am deeply indebted to one man who acted as my personal alarm clock in restarting this book that had slowed to a crawl until he became involved. As chief motivator and graphic designer, former State Representative Peter Martin deserves special recognition. His experience as a software development project manager and his technical skills played a huge role in keeping this book on schedule and bringing it to a successful conclusion.
I owe special thanks to several people, starting with Louise Casavant, my chief proofreader. Louise's diligence and enthusiasm in checking facts were invaluable. I am also grateful to my other proofreader, Dr. Donald Deignan, who made several important contributions.
I would like to recognize my special researchers, Wayne N. Muller and Steve Petrides, for assembling more than 2,000 separate pieces of information into one cohesive unit.
I am especially grateful to my childhood friend, Gill Thorpe for allowing me to tell the story of his brother's tragic capture and death.
Finally, I want to thank all of the men of the 39th Fighter Squadron, living and dead, who served in World War II. They were, indeed, the greatest generation.