Saturday, July 13, 2013

Beheaded on New Guinea, Honored in Rhode Island

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May 27th, which happens to be Memorial Day in both United States and Japan this year (2013), was the 69th anniversary (1944) of the downing of Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe's P-47D Thunderbolt by Japanese ground fire near Kairiru Island, New Guinea.

Lt. Thorpe, 20, after ditching his damaged plane, swam ashore to Kairiru. There, he had the misfortune to become a POW to some of Imperial Japan's more sadistic Naval officers.

According to a Yokohama War Crimes Trial summary record (Case 329), Thorpe was first beaten and interrogated by Lt. Commander Kaoru Okuma and and Lt. Isamu Amenomoro. When Thorpe continued to refuse to supply any information other than name, rank and serial number, Okuma invited a group of soldiers to join in on the beating.

Whether Thorpe cooperated or not, the Commander of the 27th Japanese Special Naval Base Force Rear Admiral Shiro Sato had already ordered his execution. He explained to his Chief of Staff that on the Mainland all captured American flyers were executed and that "under the present circumstances...the execution of the prisoner of war cannot be helped."

Lt. Yutaka Odazawa, who had been selected to execute the prisoner, warned his fellow officers who wished to use Thorpe as target practice to shoot the prisoner below the waist otherwise it would difficult to behead him. After a number of gunshot wounds, Thorpe dropped to his knees and was held in this position at the edge of freshly dug grave. The trial records note:
Odazawa said to the flyer, "I am going to behead you under orders";  "I am golng to kill you"; "I Odazawa will now proceed to execute you"; "You wilI first go to Paradise, and I will follow you later on"; "Due to the war, it cannot be helped; I will dispose of you." He then poured water on the prisoners neck and on his samurai sword. With one blow of the sword, he struck the prisoner in the back of the neck. The head was not completely severed, but was hanglng by a small bit of flesh. After the blow the prisoner fell into the grave.
In the trial testimony, it was said that a Medical Petty Officer Waichi Ogawa climbed into the grave and cut out an organ from the deceased flyer. It does not say what was removed, but it is likely to have been the liver. As documented in James Bradley's, Flyboys: A True Story of Courage (2003), it was not unusual for Japanese commanding officers to consume the liver of their enemies.

Rear Admiral Shiro Sato killed himself and his entire family at his Yokosuka home in 1946. Petty Officer Waichi Ogawa was Sugamo Prison's first suicide (August 1947) during the Yokohama Class B and C War Crimes Trials. Lt. Commander Kaoru Okuma, was convicted in 1948 for his war crimes and hanged in 1949. Oddly, according to court records, his own father concurred with the death sentence.

Remembered in Rhode Island
On May 14th, Rhode Island State Representative Peter F. Martin (D-Dist. 75, Newport) introduced a Resolution on the House floor – unanimously supported by the Chamber – honoring Rhode Island native Lt. Robert E. Thorpe. “Lt. Thorpe is a hero in every sense of the word,” said Representative Martin. “He probably could have escaped some of the brutality inflicted upon him if he had been willing to cooperate with his captors. Instead, he went to his death bravely and defiantly.”

State House Resolution H 6114 (2013) "requests the Governor to honor 2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe posthumously with the Rhode Island star and the Rhode Island cross for his extraordinary heroism in the service of our nation during WWII; and be it further RESOLVED, That this House hereby urges the Graves Record Administration to re-investigate and bring the remains of 2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe home."

2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe's unmarked grave was never found and a memorial had never been held. Yet, his family and dedicated others have in the past decade stepped up efforts to locate him. During August 2009, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) did excavate a grave site thought to be Thorpe's, but found nothing.

On May 17th, the Rhode Island State House finally honored Lt. Thorpe at a special ceremony [a video worth watching]. Present were Lt. Thorpe’s brother Gill and members of his family as well as Capt. Lewis Lockhart, a WWII fighter pilot who was Lt. Thorpe’s friend. Political leaders present included Governor Lincoln Chaffee and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is the first Asian-American mayor in Rhode Island. Mayor Fung declared May 17th Robert E. Thorpe, Jr. Day in Cranston.

Video of the Ceremony

A book in the works, Broken Trust by Ken Dooley [to be published August 2015 as Relentless Pursuit], documents Thorpe's life, death, and the quest to bring him home. One journalist who previewed the book said it suggests the question "Were a good many guilty people in Germany and Japan spared the justice they deserved?" He compares the draft with the bestseller Unbroken and observes that they demonstrate "how that spirit of reconciliation has been disturbed in the last decade, as several writers have gone back and combed official records and trial transcripts that paint a Japanese culture far removed from serene gardens, arranged flowers and delicate poetry pondered in the moonlight."

Dooley said at the memorial ‘‘There once lived a man named Robert E. Thorpe, who stood on a lonely beach and who, in the words of one of his tormentors, died magnificently.’’

These memorials, resolutions, books, articles, and videos show that Imperial Japan's victims are not forgotten. A new generation still searches for closure. The Japanese are wrong to believe we will forget.

1 comment:

  1. On June 12, 2015 a memorial stone was placed at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter, RI in honor of 2nd Lt Robert Thorpe.
    Ken Dooley's book, which has expanded in its focus and now has a new name: Relentless Pursuit - the Untold Story of the U.S. 5th Air Force's 39th Fighter Squadron, has been completed and will be available in August 2015.
    For further information:


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