The following page tells how I initially learned about the sacrifice of 2nd Lt. Robert Thorpe, an aviator from the 39th Fighter Squadron who gave his life in WWII. It is an excerpt from Chapter 26 of a book, Relentless Pursuit, that is being written by author Ken Dooley. The book is scheduled for publication in summer of 2015.
Combat in the Pacific theatre in World War II is usually associated with such epic and ferocious battles as Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Separating these tiny points of land was an endless expanse of water and occasional impenetrable jungle in the Western Pacific and the South China Seas. Here, day after day for four years, battles were waged in the skies by skilled, dedicated and astonishingly courageous pilots, many of them too young to be served in one of their hometown bars.
Wars, of course, have always been cruel destroyers of young men. As the sharp tip of the American spear, pilots of the American Fifth Air Force were charged with stopping the Japanese juggernaut advancing relentlessly down the island chains toward its goal of taking Australia out of the war.
Many died in dogfights, especially in the first year of the war when the planes they flew were inferior to the vaunted Japanese Zero. Many more died in the accidents and miscalculations that punctuated daily operations at the time. Overloaded with fuel, bombs and ammunition, their planes flipped, crashed and exploded while attempting takeoffs on jungle runways. Operating at the extreme range of their fuel capacity with primitive navigational aids, they were often lost without a trace. Attacking at low altitudes, even marginally effective Japanese anti-aircraft fire brought them down. If shot down and captured, they were tortured and murdered by their Japanese captors.
So in the terrible complexities of human brutality, civilized standards gave way to impulsive savagery, as Japanese soldiers murdered helpless, sick and unarmed POWs under what they described as "Bushido," a Japanese word for the concept of chivalry as a way of life for Japanese samurai warriors. In the 1930s, the Japanese military changed the concept of Bushido and gave birth to the "Spirit Warriors" who murdered, raped and committed crimes against humanity in the name of the Emperor.
This book is about the bravery and experiences of the men of the 39th Fighter Squadron. It is about how they avidly joined, diligently trained and faithfully, day after day, took part in missions, each of which had a significant probability of being their last. It is about how they remained staunchly committed to their military oaths, even when captured, tortured and facing execution. Then, unlike other books about the Pacific air war, it traces the consequences of Japanese war crimes in the immediate postwar period.
Most significantly, we explore how justice was not meted out for those who had been captured and killed by the Japanese. Much has been written about the trials and convictions of the "Class A" war criminals, such as Generals Tojo and Homma. Less is known about the treatment of lower-level officers who extended the war by fanatically defending isolated island bases and inflicting ceremonial executions on helpless prisoners under their "Spirit Warrior" code.
At the war crimes trials held at Tokyo and Yokohama at the end of the war, these "warriors" became whining cowards arguing that they were only acting on the Emperor's orders as they tortured and executed helpless prisoners of war.
Attorneys who defended them were not able to question Emperor Hirohito, the worst war criminal in the Far East, or even mention his name during the trials, under the orders of General Douglas MacArthur.
The young men of the 39th Fighter Squadron were thrust into a type of war never before encountered or even imagined. For these American boys, the war was conducted over a largely unmapped area with steaming jungles, glaciers and towering thunderheads. They encountered new types of illnesses (malaria and dengue), a new type of civilian non-combatant (stone-age men, women and children) and new type of enemy (barbarians with modern equipment).
They did not have books on tactics to study and remember. There were no old air battles to examine. It was all new. "Trial and error" was the only tactical lesson plan available. They were dumped into open areas and told to set up camp. These were unpopulated areas, most even unexplored. They fought the war with their brains, planes and courage.
Not everything went well, particularly in the early days of the war when they faced an enemy with more experience and better aircraft. But the pilots of the 39th Fighter Squadron persevered and made it from Port Moresby, New Guinea, to Tokyo.
This is their story.