By most standards, Robert F. Dorr lived the most all-American, patriotic life anyone possibly could. He served in the Air Force, he was a diplomat with the State Department from the 1960s to the 1980s, and he went on to be a successful author and TV pundit about military affairs. But as a teenager, Dorr was investigated by the FBI for potential espionage. His crime? He kept writing to Boeing asking for photos of their planes.
Dorr died in June from a brain tumor at the age of 76, and will be remembered for his writings on military history. But his newly released FBI file, obtained by Gizmodo through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, is actually quite humorous in retrospect, given his interests. Back in the 1950s, when he was still just a kid, the Pentagon and the FBI were concerned that he might be a spy.
When he was 14 years old, Dorr wrote multiple letters to companies like Boeing, asking for 8x10 glossy photos of their latest planes. His devotion was like that of a fan enamored with his favorite singer. But the FBI was alerted to this unusual activity and opened an investigation.
In one of the pages from the FBI file you can see a 1953 letter from the teenage Dorr asking for photos of the KB-47, an experimental plane that was intended to refuel B-47s while in the air. But this made the authorities nervous.
The first page of the newly released file was a referral from a tipster at the Pentagon dated January 1954. It explains that someone from Washington, D.C. who goes by the name Robert F. Dorr keeps writing to Boeing asking for photos of planes, information that they regarded as classified. Letters from the same address under the name F.B. Newman were reportedly coming to Boeing as well.
The saddest part? The teenage boy was denied his glossy photos. According to the file, Boeing’s images of the aircraft were considered classified at the time, and they couldn’t be released. But at this point in 1954 the FBI still had no idea who this Dorr person was.
Could it be a secret Soviet spy sending hamfisted messages to Boeing openly asking for photos? No one knew.
By January 13, 1954 the FBI had figured out that Dorr was just a kid and that his requests were “innocuous,” as they described them. And the FBI had also determined that Newman was actually Dorr by looking at the similar misspellings of Wichita and the fact that the letters came from the same typewriter. It’s unclear, however, why he was using a second name, F.B. Newman, to ask for photos.
But the investigation didn’t end there. According to the FBI file, another investigation was opened in June of 1954 because Dorr was still asking for information from the Air Force about its bases. Dorr had written to Bergstrom Air Force base in Texas asking for photos of the F-84F turbojet bomber. So the Air Force even sent local agents to investigate the kid.
Their conclusion? He was a “loyal American boy” who just wanted aerial photos of US Air Force bases because that kind of thing was his hobby.
Yet again, the investigation didn’t end there. Dorr’s July 15, 1954 letter asking for photos of the the Navy’s Vought F7U-3 Cutlass is also included in the file. It seems every branch of the military was on high alert about this schoolboy’s curiosity.
In his letter about the F7U-3, Dorr even specified that the photos wouldn’t be reproduced, but perhaps he should’ve explained that he was just a hobbyist—and a 15-year-old one at that.
But the report on Dorr from Septmber 1, 1954 is perhaps the funniest. The Air Force sent investigators to talk to his former teacher. The teacher called Dorr a “loyal and an average American boy” but also said he was “lazy in school work.”
The last page of the file is dated April 14, 1955 and concerns letters that Dorr wrote to the Air Force the previous February asking about the Northrop F-89D Scorpion Jet. The FBI file notes that the Air Force sent the teenager a letter in reply to say that they couldn’t disclose any information about the F-89D because it was classified.
After that, it would appear that the military and the FBI realized that this kid wasn’t a threat. You can read the entire 23-page file on Robert F. Dorr, which I’ve uploaded to Scribd.
I guess we all do dumb things when we’re kids. Some of us turn to vandalism or drugs. Dorr got an FBI file because he wanted photos of planes so that he could nerd out in his bedroom.