Brig. Gen. Elliott R. Thorpe ’19, Hon. ’51, was present at some of the most historic military moments of World Wars I and II. And he sent a warning to Washington, D.C., in 1945 that, had it not been dismissed, might have changed the course of history.
Resting atop a cabinet in the Rare Books Room in the University Archives and Special Collections is a case containing a ceremonial sword and a book, East Wind, Rain, a memoir signed by the author, Brig. Gen. Elliott R. Thorpe ’19, Hon. ’51.
Thorpe was born in Pawcatuck, Conn., in 1897 and grew up in Westerly, R.I. He enrolled at Rhode Island State College in 1916 to study mechanical engineering. He left school before graduating to enlist in the Army during World War I, achieving the rank of second lieutenant by the war’s end. He had the distinction of being present as a guard in the Hall of Mirrors during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
“I suppose the most important thing I ever did as an intelligence officer was to notify Washington of the forthcoming attack on Pearl Harbor.”
Thorpe reenlisted in the 1930s and served in World War II as an intelligence officer under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He worked with the Dutch as an Allied official in charge of counterintelligence in the Pacific theater. He also led a battalion of American-Filipino servicemen looking for Japanese spies and insurgents embedded in the Pacific Rim island nations. When the war ended, he was charged with finding and arresting Japanese war criminals. By 1945, Thorpe was nominated for the rank of brigadier general by President Franklin Roosevelt.
“I suppose the most important thing I ever did as an intelligence officer,” said Thorpe in his memoir, “was to notify Washington [D.C.] of the forthcoming attack on Pearl Harbor.” Thorpe was stationed in the Dutch East Indies in 1941; his team intercepted coded Japanese military communications containing specifics about where and when the attack on Pearl Harbor would take place. Thorpe forwarded the communications to his command center in Washington, D.C. The War Department did not take the threats seriously and told Thorpe to “knock it off.” The gravity of this miscalculation would be realized within a week.
After serving in Australia as chief of counterintelligence of the U.S. forces in the Far East, Thorpe accompanied MacArthur on the USS Missouri to Tokyo Bay to manage the Japanese surrender in 1945. At the formal surrender, Thorpe accepted the ceremonial sword as a gift from his Japanese counterpart. He donated it to URI in 1947.
After his postwar service in Japan, Thorpe founded the Army Language School (now the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center) in Monterey, Calif. In 1949, after 32 years of service in the U.S. Army, Thorpe retired in Florida, where he wrote his memoir.
Thorpe regularly visited URI President Carl Woodward, and later President Francis Horn, on campus. On occasion, he would address the student body, exhibit his Southeast Asian art collection, and survey the school’s ROTC program. He received an honorary degree in humane letters from URI in 1951.
Thorpe’s most visible legacy at URI is the (War) Student Memorial Union. After WWII, with the passage of the GI Bill, URI’s enrollment skyrocketed. Quonset huts housed students and their families until new residence halls could be completed. Quonset huts—two of them, located on the Quad—also served as student gathering spaces. In 1950, seeing the need for a large, accessible space where students could gather, study, and socialize, Thorpe donated his veteran’s bonus check toward the cost of building such a space, and then began holding fundraising events. The Memorial Union was completed in 1954 and dedicated to the student soldiers who served in World Wars I and II.
Thorpe died in 1989 and was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.