By mid morning on Monday, September 17, 2018, Reno NV was in our rearview mirror as we pointed Ark IV east toward Colorado. The throbbing echoes of the aircraft engines were fading away as the participants and spectators alike turned their eyes to the next page in their book. Our page said head east on Interstate 80 until you get to Laramie WY and then head south on 287 to Interstate 25, then get off of I 25 at the Erie-Dacono exit and do some left turns and some right turns. Okay, it doesn’t sound like a real page turner, but – as with many seemingly ordinary stories – there was a surprise hidden between the lines that we didn’t know was coming (well, if we knew it was coming, it wouldn’t be a surprise ).’
So here we are, motoring-motoring-motoring east across Nevada in the Ark. At some point in time, we began to look for a place to stop for the night. Pulled out our trusty ipad and looked thru our various apps to see what options we might have for overnighting that would offer electricity, water, and a place to dump. After all, we were coming off of a week parked in a parking lot with none of those amenities, so it was important that we be able to plug in, dump, and put on some fresh water. Ah Ha!! There !! Let me call them!! They have a campground with full hookups !! [think plug in-dump-fresh water] And so we set our GPS for the Nugget Casino in West Wendover, UT. We arrived before dark and got set up and plugged in.
Because we were adjacent to a casino, we had our choice of places to eat (besides our kitchen in Ark), so we hiked up the rise (to the right from where the picture was taken) and found ourselves a restaurant. As we were hiking to the restaurant, David looked out over the vista. Here’s what we saw————
So? you’re thinking. Buncha trucks in a parking lot. How exciting is this? Look beyond and a little to the left of the trucks. You’ll see a water tower and a cluster of buildings. That looks like an old military base, says David. Let’s see what we can find out about it. Soooooooooo – here is what we found out. And what became that surprise hidden between the lines of this page in our book.
That night, I poked around on the internet and found that what David had seen was, in fact, an old military air base. And it had been the home of some very significant activities, particularly during WW II. So the next morning, we delayed our departure for a couple of hours to do a bit of exploring at what was once Wendover Field. If you’ve never heard of Wendover Field, join the club. Neither had we. But unknown to us, we knew very well about one of the biggest things that had part of its evolution right here.
Planning for this base began in the 1930’s, and funding was secured to acquire the property and construct the buildings. This location was chosen because it was near the Salt Flats and thousands of additional acres of unpopulated open space. The base was going to be the home of a gunnery and bombing practice range, so isolation was very important. By 1941, additional land acquisitions brought the total size to 1,822,000 acres. Construction began in late 1940 and continued throughout the duration of WWII, although most of the construction was completed by 1943. The base was activated in March 1942 as a base for B-17 and B-24 heavy bombardment training. Later the same year, the 306th bombardment group comprised of 4 squadrons of B-17’s arrived at Wendover. By April of 1944, 21 bombardment groups and over 1000 crews had gone thru their training at Wendover. At that time, the training shifted from bombardment training to fighter training. P-47’s arrived on the base, and the 72nd Fighter Wing took over the base and brought 60 pilot trainees in. By September 1944, 3 groups of 60 trainees had entered their fighter training at Wendover. Then, inexplicably and almost without warning, the 72nd Fighter Wing left the base after only 6 months in residence.
The reason for the sudden departure of the fighter wing actually began back in 1942. President Franklin Roosevelt had approved a project dubbed the Manhattan Engineer District, and the work that this group had been doing had moved into its testing phase by 1944 and needed a secure location to proceed. The people in charge of the testing phase of this project had chosen Wendover as the best location because of its isolation from large population clusters and its wide open spaces. So the needed equipment and personnel were moved into place at Wendover. Because of the sensitive nature of this project, a Composite Group was created that would contain all of the support groups needed to continue thru the testing phase of the project. The 509th Composite Group was created in December of 1944, and some of the squadrons and detachments within the 509th were the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, the 390th Air Service Group, the 603rd Air Engineering Squadron, the 1027th Air Materiel Squadron, the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron, the 1395th Military Police Company, and the 1st Ordnance Squadron. The 509th Composite Group was led by a man chosen by General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold (Commander Army Air Forces). Colonel Paul W. Tibbets Jr, a veteran of B-29 bombing missions in Germany, was tapped by General Arnold to lead the 509th.
If you haven’t figured out what the mission was that brought this large array of men and equipment to the tiny and isolated base in Wendover, Utah, I’ll give you a hint.
Yes, the training for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place at Wendover Air Field in Utah, near the border of Utah and Wyoming.
And we stumbled upon this small, quiet spot that was once a giant player in our military history simply because we wanted to spend the night somewhere that we could have full hookups for Ark IV.
So on Tuesday morning, we spent a quick hour or so looking around the base, which is now a civilian air field. There are museums (one was not open yet, the other one was). Here are a few pictures.
The Enola Gay hangar is in the process of renovation as funds become available.
After WWII, the base became a center for testing and evaluating captured and experimental rocket systems. The three types of missiles tested were the power driven bombs (German buzz bomb), glide bombs with wings and gyros (sometimes radio controlled), and conventional bombs that were controlled by the launching aircraft. The ground to air pilotless aircraft project by Boeing that brought about the first supersonic flight of a USAF vehicle in August 1946 had its beginnings at Wendover Airfield prior to being moved to White Sands, NM. In 1947, Wendover was transferred to the Strategic Air Command and was once again used for bombardment exercises and training. In 1947, the base was renamed Wendover Air Force Base. In 1949, the base was de-activated and transferred to the Ogden Air Material Area. The bombing range continued to be utilized for bombing and gunnery practice. The base was reactivated in 1954 and tactical units were sent there for training exercises. This went on for about 4 years, and in 1958, the base was transferred to the Ogden Air Material Area again and renamed Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field. In 1960 the base was renamed Hill Air Force Range, and it was de-activated again in January 1969. In 1973, an air to ground range was constructed, and in 1985 an Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation System
was installed (this is an instrumentation tracking system for training aircrews in simulated weapons engagements by fighter bombers). In 1976, Wendover AAF was deemed surplus, and most of the field was turned over to the city of Wendover UT as a municipal airport. There was a brief period of time in the early to mid 1980’s when the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group from Nellis AFB Nevada used Wendover as part of their training exercises. In the late 1990’s, ownership of the base was transferred to Tooele County.
Wendover Field – in its many identifiers over the years –played a vital role in the defense of our country at a critical point in our history. There is so very much information available about what took place at this out-of-the-way location. We were there only a short time, but we want to return to Wendover and learn more about the history that was written at this out of the way, unassuming, ordinary looking place that was anything but ordinary.
Here is a timeline of the life of Wendover Air Base.
There are some interesting websites that have a wealth of information on Wendover. If you are a history buff, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Here are a few that I found.