In the early 1950s, when the Cold War was heating up, the passion for war crime trials in Europe and Asia was deliberately toned down. Were a good many guilty people in Germany and Japan spared the justice they deserved? A new book about a Cranston flyer that met his death in a Japanese garrison in New Guinea raises the question again.
Ken Dooley’s nearly finished book, “Broken Trust,” demonstrates how that spirit of reconciliation has been disturbed in the last decade, as several writers have gone back and combed official records and trail transcripts that paint a Japanese culture far removed from serene gardens, arranged flowers and delicate poetry pondered in the moonlight.
In 2003, historian James Bradley published a best selling book, “Flyboys,” about captured American airmen on the Pacific island of Chichi-jima who were tortured, executed and eaten by their Japanese captors. More recently, Laura Hillenbrand followed her success with “Seabiscuit” with “Unbroken,” the story of Olympic runner Louie Zamperini, who survived 47 days at sea before he was captured and held in a Japanese POW prison. These books do not sell well in Japan and anyone who has read them can guess why.
Now Rhode Island writer Ken Dooley is mounting yet another case against that leniency in “Broken Trust,” a book about a Cranston family’s experiences losing a son and being deceived by authorities whose priorities were not always the truth or closure for grieving families.
What all of these books have in common is that they lay bare a systemic cruelty that pervaded Japanese military culture in the first half of the last century.
“When the Japanese fought the Russians in 1910, they captured 300,000 Russian soldiers,” said Dooley. “When they were released after the war, they went back to Russia and raved about how well they were treated by the Japanese. Some time after that, Hirohito and Tojo took over … and the military turned men into monsters.”
In any event, readers of those books are getting a glimpse of how cruel the Japanese were to people other than themselves. Koreans and Chinese people, even those who have no living memory of the war, still find it difficult to reconcile with the Japanese. The question posed by these new books about the Japanese in the war is whether the United States and its allies were too quick to forgive and forget. Dooley thinks so, and he feels that it continues to sting the family of Bob Thorpe.
When his P-47 was hit by anti-aircraft 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 Kairiu Island, New Guinea. The plane sank immediately, but he was lucky enough to find a log drifting nearby and was able to reach shore. Then his luck ran out.
“He was captured by a Formosan civilian unit and marched across the island to the 27th Japanese Special Naval Base Force, under the command of Rear Admiral Shiro Sato,” wrote Dooley, who has found the names of almost all the officers and soldiers who participated in Thorpe’s execution.
“A staff officer, Lt. Commander Kaoru Okuma, who spoke some English, interrogated the prisoner. When Thorpe refused to supply any information other than name, rank and serial number, Okuma slapped him and invited a group of soldiers to join in on the beating.
“Okuma reported that Thorpe supplied no useful information, so Sato ordered him to execute the prisoner. Thorpe, bleeding from cuts on his face, shoulders and back, was marched to the beach where a shallow grave awaited him. Okuma ordered two other officers to bring their side arms to the execution site so they could use the prisoner for target practice prior to the execution. Yutaka Odazawa, the man who beheaded Thorpe, warned the officers not to shoot above the waist because it would make the beheading more difficult.”
Dooley quotes transcripts from the war crimes trials of Shamada Ogaha, a medical officer, who climbed into the grave, took a long knife and proceeded to cut inside the prisoner’s body and remove an organ. There is no account of what the organ was used for, which readers of Bradley’s book may be grateful.
“Immediately after the war ended, Admiral Sato ordered all of the men involved in Thorpe’s execution to report that he had died of malaria and had been buried with full military honors,” according to Dooley. “Australian investigators later reported that the remains Sato had identified as Thorpe’s were actually those of a Japanese soldier. The five Japanese officers involved in Thorpe’s execution were charged at the Yokohama war trials in 1948. Admiral Sato and Ogaha both committed suicide shortly before they learned they were about to be arrested.”
Testimony of what actually happened on their watch indicates that there was little honor to preserve at that point. As one Japanese soldier testified about Thorpe’s death:
“Odazawa then made a speech of two or three minutes and he told the prisoner, in Japanese, not to worry, that he would kill him himself and he then laughed. The crowd also laughed and these remarks were not translated to the prisoner. I then went up to Odazawa and asked him to wait a moment before he cut off the prisoner’s head, as I wanted to practice shooting at the prisoner. Odazawa said, ‘If the bullet strikes the upper portion of the body, it will make it difficult to behead him so aim any place below the hip.’ I nodded to Odazawa’s request and aimed at the ankle. The prisoner did not move nor did he utter a word. He took a very calm attitude … Immediately after he fired the shot, the American sort of staggered three or four steps to the side and it appeared to me that Fujihira had struck him in the leg. Fujihira said just prior to firing the pistol, ‘You have not done a good job and I will show you how to do it as I am an expert’ … Odazawa took the prisoner by the back of the neck and pushed him to the ground in a kneeling position with his head bowed forward right at the edge of the grave.”
Odazawa then poured water on the prisoner’s neck and on his samurai sword.
“Odazawa then performed an act as though it were from a play. It was in sort of a contemptuous manner and everybody laughed. Odazawa then withdrew his sword from its sheath and struck the prisoner one slanting blow on the neck.”
A garrison commander, Kaoru Okuma was sentenced to death and hanged at Sugama Prison in 1949. Although the other four officers received life sentences, they were all paroled within five years. The court martial records were sealed and became part of what Dooley calls “an elaborate plot in which Walter Thorpe, Bob’s father, was told that the remains of his son were not recoverable.”
Dooley said the court martial records contained a detailed map showing exactly where Bob Thorpe had been buried on the day of his execution. Is it possible to find the remains and bring them home?
Dooley said the subject of the government’s efforts for their recovery comes up periodically but not with any particular urgency.
“There’s always the weather or something that postpones it,” said Dooley. “But even the family has no firm belief they will be found or returned.”
Gill Thorpe said earlier this week that the last he heard about the recovery effort was in 2010, when the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii reported to Sen. Jack Reed’s office in 2010.
“In 2009, they excavated the site identified and found nothing,” said Walter Thorpe. “They tried their best, but there’s really not much they can do. The site is very small. But they did say they are leaving the case open in case they get more information.”
“At the time of his death, the 20-year-old Thorpe was already an authentic American hero. He had struggled to reach the minimum weight required to enlist in the Army Air Corps and then to build the upper body strength needed to fly the huge and rugged P-47,” said Dooley, who is now asking Newport House Representative Peter F. Martin to have the General Assembly pass a resolution honoring Thorpe. Martin is obliging him.
“Lt. Thorpe was a hero in every sense of the word. He probably could have escaped some of the brutality if he had been willing to cooperate with his captors. Instead, he went to his death bravely and defiantly,” said Martin, who has devoted part of his website to the memory of Thorpe.
Two years ago, Martin introduced a bill calling for the pardon of John Gordon, who was executed in 1845 for the murder of Amassa Sprague, a wealthy mill owner. Martin said it was Dooley’s play “The Murder Trial of John Gordon” that convinced him Gordon was innocent. Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed a pardon for John Gordon in 2011.
On May 17 at 1 p.m. at the Rhode Island State House, Thorpe will be honored at a special ceremony. Dooley can take some credit for that. He said he didn’t know Bob Thorpe that well, but he knew his younger brother.
“I grew up as a close friend of his brother, Gill Thorpe, who lived on the next street to me in Edgewood,” said Dooley. “I can still remember the pall that fell over the neighborhood when Gill's family was informed that Bob was missing.”
Dooley said he expects to be done with his book soon and will publish it this summer. When he does, Rhode Islanders will get a glimpse of the Rhode Island Bob Thorpe and his family lived in before the war, and remind people once again of what so many sacrificed in that war.
“I was able to locate two pilots who flew with Bob on that final mission,” said Dooley. “Fred Tobi died last year, but Captain Lewis Lockhart, age 93, from Franklin, Tennessee, will be coming to the ceremony. He will also be honored.”