THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
A BROTHER LOST

A fliers' siblings in search of closure

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / May 25, 2008

PROVIDENCE - Thirteen-year-old Gill Thorpe was listening to a radio program on the Sunday afternoon in June 1944 when two military officers came to the door at 3 Doyleston Dr. in Cranston with a telegram for his father.

"They were in full uniform, standing on the steps," recalls Gill, now 77. "I took the telegram and opened it."

"THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY AIR FORCES DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON SECOND LIEUTENANT ROBERT E THORPE HAS BEEN MISSING IN ACTION SINCE TWENTY SEVEN MAY OVER NEW GUINEA," the Western Union telegram said.

"Everything was a blur," Thorpe says, choking back tears. "He was my big brother. He was my idol. I think I was 6 when I got a Lionel train set for Christmas, and he set it up for me and let me run it first."

Gill yelled upstairs for his grandmother and older sister, Nancy, and they telephoned his parents, Walter and Nora, who were visiting with neighbors around the block.

The news that Robert "Bobby" Thorpe was lost piloting his P-47 fighter plane in the South Pacific still haunts his two surviving siblings.

"Absolutely numb" is how Gill, a retired pharmacist who now lives in North Kingstown, describes the family's reaction. "After the initial shock Mother went downhill. I used to choke up on Memorial Days and Christmases, or when they played the national anthem during the ball game. I've always had trouble dealing with Bob's loss."

But largely due to his own efforts, Gill and his sister, who is 80, are now closer to finding the closure they so desperately yearn for. Building on information Gill unearthed, the US military is preparing to recover Robert Thorpe's remains from the tiny Pacific island where it believes he was buried.

The Thorpes are among thousands of families who've been waiting more than six decades to learn the truth about loved ones lost in World War II - and their pain is testament to the enduring wounds left when soldiers simply disappear and are presumed to have died in action.

Bobby Thorpe, 22, was on a strafing mission against a Japanese base near the coastal town of Wewak when he went missing, according to military archives. All the family was initially told by the Army was that his body was "unrecoverable."

Then, in 1949, the Army notified Thorpe's parents that Bobby had actually survived the crash but was taken prisoner "on the north beach of Kairiru Island and later executed."

"No trace of the burial location of your son's remains could be found," the letter informed Walter Thorpe, who tried in vain to obtain more information.

It wasn't until 2004 that Gill decided to do some searching of his own. And what he learned through previously overlooked military records was shocking.

The Japanese officers who had run the POW camp where Bobby was held had been tried for war crimes. In their testimony, they retold in excruciating detail how the pilot had washed ashore on a log, and how they tortured and beheaded him. They also drew a map of where they buried him in a cemetery near a Catholic mission.

"I sat there and cried for two days," Gill says of his reaction.

But it would take three years - and the help of Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed - for Pentagon officials to acknowledge they had information all along that could lead to Bobby's remains, though the military insists that the failure to inform the family was a bureaucratic oversight, not an attempt to mislead.

"Although the exact location of his remains was known to US authorities a year after his death, the responsible agency denied having that information until 2007," says Ken Dooley, a childhood friend of Gill's who helped him peel back the layers of military history.

The Pentagon's MIA recovery command sent an investigative team to the Catholic mission and had hoped to excavate the site this year. But the project fell apart for logistical reasons. The command maintains the Thorpe recovery will be its top priority when it returns to Papua New Guinea next year.

But time may be running out. Bill Bennett, a World War II researcher who visited the site in 2006, told Gill that one of the missionaries, Brother Graeme, reported that graves have been disturbed and body parts removed for "traditional sorcery."

Meanwhile, Nancy Thorpe, who keeps asking her brother if he has any more news of Bobby, is in failing health and is now in an elder-care facility.

"My final wish," Gill says, "is that Nancy and me can bury Bobby next to Mother and Dad."

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