A U.S. Air Force officer hopes to soon release a database of bombs dropped from American military aircraft since World War I – a tool he says can be used to shed new light on old conflicts and perhaps even help locate unexploded ordnance.
Lt. Col. Jenns Robertson says he began working on THOR, or Theater History of Operations Reports, in his spare time in 2006. It combines information from numerous sources – thousands of paper reports, punch cards and magnetic tape records for older conflicts, and digital databases for others – across nearly 100 years.
The database, already being used by the Defense Department and other government agencies, for the first time allows users to search and find on a map nine decades of U.S. bombings. THOR was first reported on this week by The Boston Globe.
Robertson started the database when he was part of a briefing team for the Air Force’s chief of staff at the Pentagon.
“What drove the development of THOR was ... the data may have been out there, but it was a pain in the rear end to find it and make it useful,” Robertson said by phone Tuesday.
Robertson, a former operations director for a space launch squadron at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, took THOR as his primary project last year, when he was assigned to the Air Force Research Institute at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base.
THOR, which has bombing data from U.S. armed forces and U.S. allies across eight conflicts, is thorough but probably won’t ever be complete. Robertson still is trying to get certain World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam records, and he says he’ll never sure about the percentage he’s covered, because no one knows the total number of sorties.
Still, he said the database has numerous potential uses, including determining why certain bombings did or didn’t work. It also can add depth to historians’ understanding of battles, he said.
“If you’re an Army professional and you’re writing about (German Gen. Erwin) Rommel in the desert, you didn’t see (all of) the air power” miles ahead, Robertson said. “How are you supposed to know all of what’s going on?
“(With the database), we can look at it from multiple perspectives and see how air and land, and air and sea, worked together at the time.”
Certain government groups, such as the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, which helps other nations remove mines and unexploded munitions, already have used THOR for other purposes. Officials received early versions of THOR so they could easily determine what types of bombs were dropped in Vietnam, and where.
This information was previously available in two databases, but now it can be viewed at once, Robertson said. This helps weapons-removal experts know what precautions to take in areas where they’re already looking, and they might identify areas where they didn’t previously know to look, he said.
Maj. Gen. Walter Givhan, deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told The Boston Globe that “this type of information is critical to our efforts.”
“I was in Vietnam last week looking at old sites and talking with Vietnamese officials on how we can expedite this work,” Givhan told the newspaper for a story published Monday. “It will really help us to be able to refine what we know about where the strikes were made, where we might find unexploded ordnance, so we can focus our efforts there.”
Robertson said he anticipates THOR will be released publicly on the Internet but doesn’t know exactly when. When it is released, the more recent years – currently from 1991’s Desert Storm to today – still will be classified and therefore not searchable by the public.