Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"The war is still there"

We archivists are always telling funders and other stakeholders that archival records are of interest not only to genealogists and academics but also to a wide array of other people and that the information contained in some of our records may be life-saving.

Case in point: photographs and other records held by the Air Force Historical Research Agency, which is part of Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. An article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal highlights how its holdings enable German construction forms to locate, remove, and safely detonate unexploded ordinance:
During World War II, American planes dropped 1.5 million tons of bombs on Europe. Perhaps nine out of 10 exploded on impact.

In a library in Alabama, Dietmar Staude hunts for the 10th.

Mr. Staude, a German consultant, has perfected the art of using World War II air-raid records and aerial photographs to find unexploded bombs. It's a lucrative business designed to help German construction companies comply with laws requiring them to clear live ordnance before breaking ground . . . .

Over the years, Mr. Staude's work has uncovered, among other explosives, 21 live bombs on the site of a planned industrial park, a 500-pound bomb just 50 yards from a new water park and another weapon that landed and then tunneled 45 feet without exploding . . . .

Several German states require builders to conduct unexploded-ordnance surveys. Failure to carefully do so can prove deadly. In 1993, a crew building a retaining wall in Berlin hit the nose fuse on a British bomb, killing three people.

Although Staude does a lot of research at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, his work has also taken him to many other repositories in the United States and Europe:

One of Mr. Staude's projects has been going on for 14 years. On Aug. 16, 1944, B-17 heavy bombers from the 8th Air Force raided an oil refinery at Rositz, in eastern Germany. Half a century later, the state government decided it wanted to turn the site into an industrial park for environmental-technology companies.

Searching through document collections in Germany, England, Alabama and the U.S. National Archives in College Park, Md., Mr. Staude pieced together a history of the raid.

He discovered photos, taken from a hot-air balloon in 1917 and printed on glass, that showed the refinery surrounded by farmland. He found an RAF reconnaissance photo taken in 1943, showing tar-storage tanks ill-concealed under camouflage netting. He found the briefing document used to guide the pilots to the most vital target buildings; on top it read, "Not to be taken into the air." He found photos showing 500-pound bombs tumbling through the air toward the complex that day in 1944, as well as pictures showing dark smoke, sprouting like a giant cauliflower from the burning factory . . . .

Five days after the raid, a Royal Air Force plane snapped clear pictures that showed the facility and nearby farms pocked by bomb craters. Most resembled moon craters, with a big hole in the middle surrounded by blast marks in the dirt.

One, in a field, showed a circular spray, but no large hole in the center. Mr. Staude concluded that the bomb had landed in soft dirt, splashing mud but failing to detonate.

Another showed a tiny mark alongside what appear to be bales of hay. He concluded that a bomb had punctured dry earth on that spot, but didn't explode. "This is a dud," [Mr. Staude] said, pointing to the spot on the photo.

Both bombs, he figured, were still buried on the site. Over the years, explosives experts have dug up 21 bombs, including one that penetrated about 20 feet into the soft ground, bounced off a subterranean gravel bed, traveled sideways 45 feet underground and finally came to rest six feet from the surface, pointed upward.

Staude cannot always travel to the Air Force Historical Research Agency to do research, so Archie DiFante, one of the archivists on staff, sends copies of photographs and maps to Germany upon request. Information supplied by DiFante helped Staude and his colleagues locate one of the two unexploded bombs at the Rositz site; it was buried adjacent to the site of a future water park, and the park's developers had already begun digging.

As DiFante, who has become a good friend of Staude's, points out: "We bombed the living daylights out of everything in Germany. The war is still there." However, thanks to archival records documenting the bombings and to the work of archivists such as DiFante, Mr. Staude and other researchers trying to track down unexploded bombs are helping to ensure that it doesn't claim any more lives.

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