Aviation Scribe Robert F. Dorr Soars Toward His Own Sunset
Prolific writer has cancer
Robert F. Dorr was a teenager when he became a military writer. Just 16 years old and a high-school student, he got an opinion piece into the November 1955 issue of Air Force Magazine.
The young pundit contended that the U.S. Air Force needed to pay more attention to fighters at a time when the flying branch was fixated on bombers. “Gen. [Curtis] Lemay, the head of Strategic Air Command, was not a big fan of fighters and really didn’t want any, and I wrote that he should have some,” Dorr recalls with a chuckle. “I wrote an opinion about something, they published it, and they paid me for it. So that makes me a magazine writer.”
He says, laughing, that he hopes nobody ever finds that article, as his writing at age 16 probably isn’t the best representation of his body of work. Today Dorr is 76 years old, and his body of work is vast.
Writing for many of the most prominent military aviation publications over a span of 60 years, Dorr is a big deal in his field of journalism. So it was an equally big deal to hundreds of colleagues and thousands of readers when Dorr announced recently that he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Between careers in the Air Force and State Department, Dorr wrote for publications including Air Forces Monthly, Aerospace America, World Air Power Journal and Air Force Times. He’s also an accomplished historian and the author of scores of books. Mission to Tokyo, Hell Hawks and Fighting Hitler’s Jets, among many others.
“I have a type of brain tumor that is always fatal,” Dorr explains over the phone. It’s called a Glioblastoma Multiforme. The writer underwent brain surgery in December and recently began radiation therapy. His speech is slowing and the cancer has impeded some motor functions, but his mind is intact.
Dorr said he’s using his remaining time to reflect and celebrating his blessings. “I’m trying to keep up my good spirits with help from family and friends and trying to stay positive by doing things I like and enjoy.”
“I’ve always had an interest in the Air Force ever since I was a small kid,” Dorr says. “I can’t explain why. Nobody in my family had any connection to it but I’ve always been interested.”
For years he dreamed of becoming one of “the Americans who fly and fight,” but any hope he had of soaring into battle went down in flames. Dorr was born with a hearing impairment that disqualified him from becoming a pilot. The Air Force Academy rejected his application. But Dorr was never one to be easily deterred. “I simply enlisted.”
The Air Force sent young Dorr to language school and stationed him in Korea, where he listened in on North Korean radio chatter. “When I joined the Air Force I had no clue that I might be interested in foreign languages or that I might have some aptitude for language.”
His experiences in Korea inspired his second career — in the State Department. His 24 years as a foreign service officer took him around the world from Madagascar, South Korea, Japan, Liberia and Sweden to England. In 1968 he married his wife, a South Korean national.
Along the way, he continued pursuing his other love, writing. “I never really stopped,” Dorr muses.
He wrote for magazines as an airman in Korea. In the roughly five-year span between getting out of the Air Force and joining the Foreign Service, he wrote for men’s adventure magazines, pulpy publications filled with outlandish and sometimes risqué stories. When he got to the State Department he felt no reason to put down his pen.
“I did writing on the side even though I had a government job,” he recalls. “People knew I was doing it and it was never a problem.”
His favorite topics remained aviation and the Air Force. In 1978, he received a non-fiction award from the Aviation/Space Writers Association. Leaving the Foreign Service in 1989, Dorr continued writing for a variety of magazines and newspapers covering aviation and the Air Force, a job that took him all over the world.
In the 2000s Dorr penned editorials for Air Force Times. “I wasn’t planning on spending that much time writing commentary, I was more interested in writing facts,” Dorr reflects. “But more or less by accident I had the opportunity to publish some opinion pieces and they grew into a weekly column.”
Dorr’s was an influential voice. “I was able to do it because I was spending a lot of time at Air Force bases and I writing about the Air Force, anyway, and it just fit in nicely with everything else I was doing.”
He embraced his new role and today considers it one of his most important contributions. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been to Air Force bases and I’ve talked to the real working-level people who are doing the real jobs out there in the back shops — the staff sergeants and the captains.”
Airmen brought him their gripes and concerns — they knew he would listen to them. “I felt like I was able to communicate with them and that I was able to understand their situation, and sometimes I was able to write something that their bosses would listen to. The bosses haven’t always done a very good job of understanding what the troops want.”
Dorr follows Air Force pilot Stan Hong on their way to a flight in an F-15B Eagle in Hawaii on June 24, 1996
Dorr has never been reluctant to challenge authority. At times, his column took overtly oppositional viewpoints. In particular, he was vocal in his condemnation of torture and the U.S. government’s controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I believe Guantanamo Bay is a national disgrace and I tried at every opportunity I could to make that opinion known,” he says. “I was pretty unhappy with many of the policies of the George W. Bush administration and anything having to do with departure from the law of armed conflict … I don’t approve of torture, I don’t approve of secret CIA prisons and I don’t approve of Guantanamo Bay prison.”
Dorr was also a vocal opponent of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for homosexual service members. Congress repealed the law in December 2010, finally allowing gay and lesbian troops to be open about their sexuality.
“I feel that it’s not the business of your employer — whether it’s the Air Force or a private company or whatever. It’s not their business what you’re doing in the bedroom. If it’s consensual and it’s among adults and it’s in private, it shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.”
“I felt that discrimination against gays in the armed forces was centrally unnecessary and unfair,” Dorr explains. “I wanted the situation that we got today — which is that nobody cares now.”
Dorr has also expressed frustration with old-guard veterans’ organizations, in particular the VFW and American Legion. He says they haven’t done enough to engage veterans of recent conflicts and to welcome the next generation of vets.
“There are exceptions to this, of course — there are a lot of great individuals and different posts — but many of them have become taxpayer-subsidized bars for old men to gather to drink and smoke. These are veterans’ organizations that back in the past were created by angry young men who wanted better treatment of veterans. But they’ve fallen totally out of touch.”
“What happens if you go to an American Legion meeting?” Dorr asks rhetorically. “They show the flag, maybe have a prayer. Do we really need a prayer? Then we have the members reciting a creed that is recited in every post that nobody understands. All of this formality and all this emphasis on ritual is a turnoff to younger veterans. To say nothing of the unbelievable sexism of these organizations.”
And in falling out of touch, Dorr argues the groups risk falling out of relevance. “I could take you to the VFW up the street from me and the people who were there 20 years ago are just 20 years older. There aren’t any new members.”
Dorr says he’s concerned at what he sees as the schism between many older and younger veterans. But he seems more alarmed by the schism between veterans and the nation they defend. “The present-day veteran is a veteran of a professional military force that we have essentially hired to maintain a political and economic system that requires constant war, it doesn’t matter where.”
“It’s a total departure from a citizen soldier veteran of, let’s say, World War II. I think we’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake by emphasizing the warrior ethos and the professional nature of the military at a time when most of the American population doesn’t know anything about the military at all.”
Dorr claims Americans are uninterested in learning about or debating the pros and cons of military action. “I think the remarkable thing about this election is that there’s almost no discussion about military issues. Those conversations are not a big part of speechmaking by the candidates because it’s not what the American people are interested in.”
And that makes it easier for the government to go to war. “I want to go back to a country that goes to war reluctantly, unwillingly — not wanting to but having to sometimes, when it’s really necessary.”
Glioblastoma Multiforme is typically fatal after 15 months. Dorr’s time is probably short. “I’ve essentially drawn a line and said that I’ve concluded now my career of writing about aviation and the Air Force. I’ve donated all my archives and I’ve concluded that phase of my life,” Dorr says.
“I’ve got limited time available to me in the future, and I’ve decided that in that limited time I’m going to do something completely different — I’m going to write murder mysteries. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to try, so I’m gonna try it and see how it goes. I’m basically looking for something to keep me positive and have some purpose.”
He’s donating all the proceeds from Crime Scene: Fairfax County to the Commemorative Air Force, which maintains old warplanes. “I can say I feel I’ve been very fortunate to be able to put words on paper about the Air Force and about aviation and it’s been a real privilege to be able to do that.”