Relentless Pursuit

The Untold Story of the U.S. 5th Air Force's 39th Fighter Squadron

Author and Pi Patel are happy and proud to announce the publication of a book about World War II, Relentless Pursuit. This project started as a simple request to get proper recognition for 2nd Lt Robert Thorpe, a Rhode Island native who was shot down, captured, tortured and beheaded by the Japanese.

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Relentless Pursuit Book Cover
Sgt James W Scott
Lt Robert Thorpe
39th Fighter Squadron WWII P-38
Morgan Scott Sydney
Capt Charles S. Gallup

Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue

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.

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 it traces the consequences of Japanese war crimes in the immediate postwar period.

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39th Fighter Squadron

Thorpe's Last Flight

When his P-47D Thunderbolt was hit by small arms 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 Kairiru Island, New Guinea.

Relentless Pursuit Forward

The Foreward

By Dr. Patrick T. Conley, Historian Laureate of Rhode Island.

Japanese War Crimes Trials

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Lew Lockhart Rhode Speaks Island State House

Rhode Island House Ceremony

Captain Lew Lockhart speaks on behalf of his friend, 2nd Lt. Robert Thorpe at the Rhode Island House of Representatives ceremony.

Relentless Pursuit Epilogue


By J. William Middendorf II, Former US diplomat and Secretary of the Navy.

Thorpe's Last Flight

When his P-47D Thunderbolt was hit by small arms 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 Kairiru Island, New Guinea. The plane sank immediately, but he was lucky enough to find a log drifting nearby. Using it for flotation, he managed to reach shore.

There his luck ran out. Thorpe was captured by a Formosan civilian unit and marched across the island to the 27th Japanese Special Naval Base Force. Rear Admiral Shiro Sato, the unit commander, ordered his senior staff officer, Captain Kiyohisa Noto, to take charge of the prisoner. Noto, in turn, instructed Lt. Commander Kaoru Okuma to interrogate him.

Okuma's interrogation got nowhere. Article V of the Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces states:

"When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause."

Obeying the Code to the letter, Thorpe refused to provide any information beyond name, rank and service number. Okuma became enraged and beat the prisoner unmercifully. He then invited Japanese enlisted personnel to join in the beating, and Thorpe was struck repeatedly with fists and sticks.

"I invited anyone who wanted to beat the flier to go ahead and do so," Okuma admitted at his court martial held in Yokohama, Japan in 1948.

But the beatings were only the beginning. Thorpe learned that he was to die, and, bleeding from his back, shoulders and face, he walked, unassisted, to his execution site where his death was to be slow and painful.

According to court marshal testimony, Okuma took out his sidearm and announced his intentions to use the prisoner for target practice. Yutaka Odazawa, who had been selected to execute the prisoner, warned that anyone who attempted to shoot the prisoner should aim low because any wound above the waist would "make it difficult to behead him."

Okuma shot Thorpe in the leg, then invited two other officers, Tsunohiko Yamamoto and Naotada Fujihira, to shoot at the prisoner but "avoid any hits above the knees." Before firing, Yamamoto told Thorpe that he was going to kill him with his pistol.

Thorpe remained standing, even though he had been hit twice in the leg. His hands were tied but he was not blindfolded. It wasn't until he was shot in the stomach that he finally fell to his knees and was dragged to a grave that had already been prepared for him. He said nothing, but witnesses reported that his lips moved as if in prayer. One Japanese officer described Thorpe's behavior as "magnificent."

Odazawa then gave the prisoner a drink of water from the nearby stream, pushed his head down, washed his neck with the water, and then washed his sword - all in accordance with the Bushido spirit of cleansing the soul.

He then swung his sword and chopped through the neck with one stroke so that the prisoner's head dangled from the body, attached by only a small shred of skin at the throat. The body then fell head first into the pit.

Petty officer Ogaha, a medical officer, climbed into the grave, took a long knife and proceeded to cut inside the prisoner's body and finally removed a dark, brown organ from the body and announced that he was going to preserve it.

Witnesses said it was something like a bag, small and bloody, probably the kidneys. Immediately after he had removed the organ, the grave was covered up by some of the enlisted men.

The grave was located in the large gardens about 20 meters west of a stream and about 50 meters north of the main road in the fields.

After the war ended, Noto called a meeting in Kairiru Island attended by all of the company commanders, together with Admiral Sato. Noto warned that if any questions were asked by the American authorities as to the disposition of this flyer, they were to say nothing about the execution.

At a second meeting, Sato explained that the remains of a Japanese soldier had been turned over to the Australian authorities with the information that they were the remains of a deceased American pilot.

Sato and Noto ordered Lt. Commander Kazuo Maruyama, Chief Surgeon of the 27th Special naval Base, to report that the captured American had died of illness in the hospital.

Australian doctors reported that the remains were Japanese, and a subsequent investigation led to charges against five Japanese officers:

  • Yutaka Odazawa
  • Kiyohisa Noto
  • Naotada Fujihira
  • Tsunehiko Yamamoto
  • Kaoru Okuma

Admiral Sato and Petty officer Ogaha had both committed suicide shortly after the war ended.

All five officers were charged with violating the laws and customs of war by causing and permitting the unlawful beating, shooting and execution of an American prisoner of war, Second Lieutenant Robert Thorpe.

The trial opened on June 22, 1948 in Yokahama, Japan and lasted until July 6, 1948. The Providence Journal reported that "Assassins of Local Flyer Now on Trial in Japan." The article described the execution of Thorpe as "one of the most revolting crimes uncovered by the war crimes investigators." At the end of the trial, the Journal reported that Kaoru Okuma had been sentenced to death, Kiyohisa Nota received 20 years at hard labor, while Yutake Odazawa, Naotada Fujihira and Tsunehiko Yamamoto were sentenced to life at hard labor.

In May of 1949, the Providence Journal reported that Kaoru Okuma had been hanged for his role in Thorpe's brutal execution.

Foreward to Relentless Pursuit

This volume was inspired by the grisly, horrific death suffered by Lt. Robert Thorpe, a downed and doomed American pilot, at the hands of his Japanese captors. Although this atrocity occurred long ago on the other side of the world, for prolific author and playwright Ken Dooley it hit home. The Thorpe family of Cranston, Rhode Island had been Dooley's neighbors and friends.

Lt. Thorpe met his fate stoically and heroically on a beach in New Guinea in May 1944. He was beaten, used for target practice, beheaded, and then his tormentors desecrated his lifeless body. Dooley, using the original court transcripts, describes the post-war trials of the sadistic naval officers who perpetrated this act. Three of those involved met more merciful deaths - two by suicide, the other by hanging. Four more were jailed for their crime.

The cold steel of battle nearly always pierces the thin veil of civility that masks human barbarism and brutality. This exposure of our primitive instincts is the great tragedy of war.

In the process of uncovering and relating the travails of Bob Thorpe, Dooley describes the litany of war crimes committed by the Japanese against military captives and civilian populations throughout East Asia. They rival those of Hitler. However, the focus on American prisoners of war discloses one irony - despite Germany's monstrous madness towards Jews, Russians, and Polish Catholic civilians, its treatment of American prisoners of war was far less barbarous than the actions of Japan. A sitcom like "Hogan's Heroes' is inconceivable in a Japanese concentration camp setting.

A far greater irony demonstrating the folly of war is that West Germany quickly became a leading American ally in Europe, and Japan, under the effective stewardship of General Douglas MacArthur, became America's most important East Asian ally after the fall of China to Communism in 1948 - the year that five of the officers accused of murdering Bob Thorpe were tried and convicted.

Dooley's gripping and meticulously researched tale goes far beyond the tragic fate of Bob Thorpe. It is a detailed account of American airmen in a vital but somewhat neglected theater of the Pacific War - the East Indies (present-day Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. It not only relates their amazing exploits but also describes in minute detail the technology of the planes they flew, the terrain they traversed, and the daunting difficulties they encountered, and overcame. Dooley not only learned aviation technology, he spanned the country to interview surviving pilots of Thorpe's unit (the 39th Fighter Squadron), and waded through thousands of pages of records generated by the war crimes courts. As Rhode Island Historian Laureate, I am inclined to comment upon Rhode Island's earlier contacts with that area of the world where Bob Thorpe was assigned and met his dreadful demise.

Captain Robert Gray of Tiverton, the first American to circumnavigate the globe, sailed his ship Columbia just north of New Guinea on his triumphant 1790 voyage. This intrepid navigator took the same route again in 1792 on his second global circumnavigation after exploring America's northwest coast, and named its great river, the Columbia, in honor of his sturdy vessel.

Merchants from Rhode Island families such as the Browns and the Ives and other traders like Edward Carrington repeatedly dispatched their sailing vessels from Providence to the Dutch East Indies in the early 19th century. These ships, called East Indiamen, acquired sugar, spices, and large cargoes of coffee from Java and its surrounding islands. This trade returned profits to these entrepreneurs that earned them and their descendants places among Rhode Island's economic and social elite.

Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, a Newport native, visited Japan in 1853 and again in 1854 with his black-hulled fleet, He pressured that nation into accepting the Convention of Kanagawa, a consular treaty with the Empire of Japan, giving the United States access to the ports of Hakodata and Shimoda and opening that then-feudal nation to western influence. For the past thirty years the Newport chapter of the Japan-America Society has celebrated this achievement with a gala Black Ships Festival.

Brown University alumnus John Hay, as United States Secretary of State, proclaimed an "Open Door Policy' for China in 1899, an ex parte pronouncement (which annoyed the European imperial powers and Japan) stating that all nations have equal trading rights and commercial opportunities in China.

For decades before and after World War II, the Catholic Columban Fathers, many of whom have retired to a home in Bristol, brought the message of Christianity to numerous Far Eastern countries.

These Rhode Islanders, native and adopted, were motivated either by fame, fortune, or faith. Thanks to Ken Dooley, another Rhode Islander, this one who was motivated by fearless patriotism, receives the recognition due to Thorpe. Though buried unceremoniously in the sands of a remote New Guinea beach, the exploits and the memory of Lt. Robert Thorpe are no longer buried beneath the sands of time. His life and his heroism have been duly noted for his posterity to acknowledge and admire.

Rhode Island State Honors 2nd Lt. Robert Thorpe

Captain Lockhart was introduced and escorted to the dais. The audience was very moved that this 92 year old veteran, who had travelled from Tennessee, was able to make express his memories of Thorpe with a speech that was short and to the point.

"I think it is a great privilege for me to be here in order to honor Bob. I flew with Bob on many missions before the one where he went down. Although I was on a flight that same day, Bob was on another flight.

We didn't know what happened to him when he didn't return to the base the next day for the debriefing. Bob's closest friend and tent mate, Fred Tobi and I were on a search mission for him the next day. Of course we found no remains.

It was only many, many years later that we found out what happened to him through the efforts of Ken Dooley. I think it is only proper that Bob gets the recognition today that he deserves as a true American hero."

Author Ken Dooley spoke about his attempts over many years of researching what actually happened to Thorpe, the post-war trial of the five Japanese soldiers who were tried and found guilty of Thorpe's murder.

Franklin attorney Doug Hale, Lockhart's nephew by marriage who had accompanied him from Franklin, Tennessee, was introduced. Hale had been quoted in an article that appeared in their local newspaper, The Tennessean, two days earlier, as saying:

"That generation is tough as nails, the whole group of them. They didn't wait to get drafted. They are truly great Americans. People don't need to forget what they did. The people of Rhode Island sure didn't."

Alan Fung, the mayor from the Thorpe hometown of Cranston, read a citation honoring him.

The House reading clerk, Francis McCabe then read a resolution honoring Captain Lockhart.

Epilogue to Relentless Pursuit

"Leapfrogging" - the strategy of bypassing heavily fortified Japanese positions and concentrating on strategically important islands that were not well defended, was one of the keys to Japan's unconditional surrender on the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.

This strategy allowed United States forces to reach Japan more quickly without expending the time, manpower and supplies to capture every Japanese-held island on the way. The troops on islands that had been bypassed, such as major Japanese bases at Rabaul and Wewak, were left to wither on the vine.

The overall leapfrogging strategy involved two prongs: Admiral Chester Nimitz, with a smaller land force and larger fleet, advanced north and captured the Gilbert and Marshall Islands and the Marianas. The southern prong, led by General Douglas MacArthur, with larger land forces and pilots from the 5th Air Force, took the Solomons, New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago and the Philippines.

The best strategy is only as good as the men trained and motivated to implement it.

The 39th Fighter Squadron of the Fifth Air Force demonstrated this remarkable effort and achievement in microcosm. Many of its pilots were youngsters who had never been off the ground, much less flown an airplane, on December 7, 1941. Rushed through training and initially assigned airplanes seriously inferior to those they would meet in combat, they never faltered in their determination to win this war - or in their belief that, no matter how many setbacks they suffered, they would win it.

What is astonishing about their determination and performance are the challenges they faced daily. Weather was frequently a greater peril than the enemy, as the pilots faced a solid front of fog and clouds hovering over the eastern coast of New Guinea. This front might be 1,000 miles long and 100 miles deep and our planes had difficulty getting under it, over it, through it or around it.

War and danger are synonymous. But each time these men climbed into the cockpits of their fighter planes, they had to be keenly aware that death - and particularly grisly death - might well await them. Beyond the high probability of crashing on take off, being lost in weather or exploding in aerial combat, they knew that capture by the enemy would almost certainly result in torture and execution.

It was a particularly ghastly aspect of their peril that they would be beheaded, not only by out-of-control Japanese soldiers, but also under Japanese Imperial policy. It was one of the travesties of the war that execution by beheading would be imposed on captured pilots by this supposedly civilized government as some kind of sick system of honor.

When the war ended, these beheadings and other atrocities were discovered and investigated, and the perpetrators were tried and, when convicted, punished. It is one of the great strengths of this book that these crucial post-war events are recounted in detail. More than an epilogue, it is a detailed exploration of the minds and motivations of the men on both sides of this terrible conflict.

I arrived in the Pacific as a young naval officer on a landing craft in late 1945. While I was too late to see action, I was able to view, first hand, the results of their heroism.

The course of history in World War II would have been altered greatly if it had not been for the determination and sacrifice of the men of the 39th Fighter Squadron, who, together with other members of the 5th Air Force, stopped the Japanese onslaught dead in its tracks.

Author Ken Dooley takes us on a crusade, island by island, as men of the 39th Fighter Squadron meet and defeat a determined and brutal enemy. His writing is well paced, and you can feel his enthusiasm as he recounts the stories of remarkable young men who gave so much under the most difficult circumstances. He does an excellent job of weaving the stories – ranging from a future Ace apologizing to a housewife for buzzing her clothesline to ferocious air battles during while some pilots of the 39th paid the ultimate price.

The photography and maps are well captioned and help immeasurably in understanding the brilliant island-hopping strategy of General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz.

When young men go to war, their families are with them in love, spirit and often wrenching anxiety. When a warrior fails to return, the loss is suffered by his loved one for years to come. What are the obligations of the officials, both civilian and military, to these young men?

In the popular imagination, they are depicted in elaborate funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. But the reality can be far different. The bodies of battle casualties often stay where they fell - the harsh realities of warfare preventing their recovery. Even when physical recovery is not possible, however, there is a solemn obligation for responsible officials to treat the families both compassionately and truthfully.

Ken Dooley describes a different kind of treatment given to the family of Robert Thorpe. This fallen hero's family was victimized by a deliberate pattern of official deceit stretching over a period of more than 60 years.

Although the exact location of Thorpe's remains were documented in a map drawn in 1948 during the war crime trials in Yokohama, the Thorpe family was told his remains were "unrecoverable".

The records of the court martial were also listed as “secret” until Ken Dooley got copies of them in 2007 under the Freedom of Information Act. While his heroism remains a secret to most of the nation, Thorpe's home State of Rhode Island has not forgotten.

When Representative Peter Martin, a member of the Rhode Island House Committee on Veterans Affairs, learned about the sacrifice of Lt. Robert Thorpe from Dooley, he initiated the steps which lead to posthumous recognition to the Thorpe family.

Martin introduced resolutions honoring 2nd Lt. Robert E. Thorpe, as well as, Captain Lewis Lockhart, Thorpe's wingman on his last flight.

A ceremony was held in the RI House Chamber on May 17, 2013.

Thanks to the efforts of Martin and Sgt. Major Edward Kane, the Thorpe family is now able to visit the monument honoring Robert E. Thorpe at the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter, RI.

Japanese War Crimes

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.

Relentless Pursuit explores 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.


Total Flights




War Criminals



Watch the Memorial Service For 2nd Lt. Robert Thorpe

Memorial Service Honors Robert Thorpe's Courage, Sacrifice, and Heroism

In June 2015, 2nd Lt. Robert Thorpe was memorialized at Exeter Veterans Cemetery. Rhode Island leaders including state representatives Samuel Azzinaro, Thomas Winfield, Peter Martin, and Marvin Abney participated in a long overdue memorial service honoring Robert Thorpe.

The event was the culmination of years of committed efforts by Bob Thorpe's younger brother, Gil Thorpe, along with Ken Dooley.

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A Love Story in the Middle of War...

Captain George Morgan met Mary Scott, an American nurse working in Australia while he was on leave.  The two fell in love and after 147 missions Captain Morgan returned to the United States where they married.  He was recalled for the Battle of the Philippines and was killed when he had to bail out of his P-51 and was struck by the plane.

At the time, Mary Morgan was three months pregnant with their daughter, also named Mary.  Young Mary turned over pages of her parents' love letters, and although she never met her father, she became active with the 39th Fighter Squadron compiling photographs and records that are included in Relentless Pursuit.

Ken Dooley
J William Middendorf

Praise for Relentless Pursuit

About the Author

Ken Dooley grew up in the same neighborhood as Bob Thorpe in Edgewood, RI. He and Bob's brother, Gill, became close friends as they shared stories about their brothers during World War II. Under the Freedom of Information Act, Dooley, an author and playwright, recovered records classified as secret for more than 60 years. Testimony, squadron reports, emails, telephone and in-person interviews led Dooley on an eight-year journey resulting in Relentless Pursuit.

An entrepreneur and philanthropist, Piyush J. Patel has spent a lifetime developing greater public understanding of history. In 2010, he produced The Murder Trial of John Gordon, a stage play written by Ken Dooley that depicts the 1843 hanging of an innocent Irish immigrant - the last exeution ever carried out in Rhode Island. A review of the facts of this case in 2011 resulted in the 2011 exoneration of the last man to be executed in the Rhode Island.

When Pi Patel later learned of the brutal death of Cranston native, Robert Thorpe, and the heroism of men of the 39th Fighter Squadron, he put his resources behind the publication of this book. Piyush Patel has a well-deserved reputation for supporting good causes, whether they emanate from his native India or his adopted country, the United States.

Ken Dooley
Piyush Patel

Other Works By Ken Dooley

Ken Dooley Author

Rhode Island native Ken Dooley's passion for writing began before he could read. Spanning over six decades of professional writing, Ken has done it all: Air Force Times reporter, publisher, biographer, speech writer (for CT Gov. Ella Grasso), filmaker, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentarian, storyteller and toastmaster.

Murder Trial Of John Gordon

A trial where Irish Catholics were banned from the jury and the judge instructed that the testimony of Irishmen not be taken over that of native born Americans? That was justice in 1843 when an immigrant Irishman was found guilty of murder and ultimately hanged. John Gordon became the last person to be executed in the state of Rhode Island. His story is dramatized in a new play written and directed by former Cranston resident Ken Dooley. The play establishes John Gordon's innocence and also identifies the actual murderer.

A trial where Irish Catholics were banned from the jury and the judge instructed that the testimony of Irishmen not be taken over that of native born Americans? That was justice in 1843 when an immigrant Irishman was found guilty of murder and ultimately hanged. John Gordon became the last person to be executed in the state of Rhode Island. His story is dramatized in a new play written and directed by former Cranston resident Ken Dooley. The play establishes John Gordon's innocence and also identifies the actual murderer.

A trial where Irish Catholics were banned from the jury and the judge instructed that the testimony of Irishmen not be taken over that of native born Americans? That was justice in 1843 when an immigrant Irishman was found guilty of murder and ultimately hanged. John Gordon became the last person to be executed in the state of Rhode Island. His story is dramatized in a new play written and directed by former Cranston resident Ken Dooley. The play establishes John Gordon's innocence and also identifies the actual murderer.