Wendover Air Field
Wendover Air Force Range
Wendover Air Field, along the Utah-Nevada border about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, was the training site for the 509th Group prior to their mission over Japan to drop the atomic bombs in 1945. On 01 January 1979 the Hill and Wendover Ranges, and part of the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, were consolidated into the Utah Test and Training Range and placed under the management of the Air Force Flight Test Center (AFFTC) at Edwards Air Force Base.
By late 1943 Manhattan Project scientists were confident enough to tell the Army Air Forces (AAF) to begin preparing for the atomic bomb's use. At that time, the AAF decided that the B-29 Superfortress aircraft would be the delivery vehicle. It also selected one of its most able aviators, Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., to form and train a group devoted solely to dropping the device. He selected the remote Wendover Army Air Field (AAFld), Utah, as the training site. The 509th's training was to be completely shrouded in the deepest secrecy, therefore the desert isolation of Wendover Field was ideal. In September 1944, Colonel Tibbets moved the squadron to Wendover. From November 1944 to June 1945 they trained continually for the first atomic bomb drop. In April 1945, Colonel Tibbets declared the group ready and moved to its new home, North Field, Tinian, the Marianas. By June 1945, the entire group had arrived and once again, it entered a period of intense training. Not until well after the war did the United States Air Force officially admit that the 509th had trained at Wendover Field.
In the late 1930s the Army Air Corps undertook an experiment to determine if their flight operations might be satisfactorily combined with private and commercial airport activities. Two airports in the country were chosen for the experiment, one of which was the Salt Lake City municipal airport. The airfield, established in early 1920, was chosen for its "strategic and topographical advantages" and because the required enlargements could be easily accommodated by the vacant land surrounding it. Fort Douglas, in nearby Salt Lake City, also afforded potential housing and administrative facilities adaptable to Army Air Corps needs. Therefore, on 2 August 1940 Fort Douglas, which had been an infantry post since its establishment in 1862, was redesignated an Army Air Base by the Secretary of War, with Salt Lake City airport as its airfield.
The 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and 88th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 20th Bombardment Wing was soon reassigned from Hamilton Field, California, to Fort Douglas. They would operate their huge Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Douglas B-18 Bolos out of the new Salt Lake Army Air Base on the east side of the municipal airport. The Army immediately began construction of new facilities on the airfield, including new hangars and shops, taxiways, and runways. The old facilities built in 1934 to support the Army's air mail operations were also remodeled to accommodate the new workload.
As construction continued at the airfield, negotiations between the Army Air Corps and the Department of the Interior were undertaken for the acquisition of a large tract of government land near Wendover, Utah, along the Utah-Nevada border. This desert expanse about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City would be used as a bombing and gunnery range for the aircrews of the 7th Bombardment Group to be stationed at Salt Lake Army Air Base. On 20 September 1940 an agreement was reached on the 1,560,000 acre site as work commenced on the required personnel facilities at Wendover. The following month Utah stockmen, opposed to the removal of so much government land from the open range, presented their grievances to Utah Governor Henry Hooper Blood, saying that the new practice range should be located elsewhere because it would "wipe out 100 outfits" of livestock ranchers, thereby costing the state $1.5 million annually. However, the War Department received jurisdiction over all but a few isolated tracts within the desired 1.5 million acres and began construction of the bombing range on 4 November 1940. The new Wendover facility would ultimately be the world's largest and finest bombing and gunnery range.
President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the expansion of the Wendover range in February 1941, increasing its size by 262,200 acres. That spring the War Department allotted $1 million for grading, drainage, paving, and night lighting projects at Wendover and in the summer a Bombing and Gunnery Range Detachment was activated as a sub-post of Fort Douglas. By this time the field sported four 63- man barracks, a 250-man mess hall, officers' quarters, an administration building, a telephone exchange, two ordnance warehouses, a bombsight storage building, and dispensary. There were also three ammunition igloos and four powder magazines. A power system with its own generating plant was also under construction, as was a railroad spur and water and sewer systems.
With the entrance of the United States into World War II, Wendover Field began to take on greater importance. For much of the war the installation was the Army Air Forces' only bombing and gunnery range. Heavy bomber crews from all over the country converged on the burgeoning airfield for training before being assigned to overseas bases. On 1 March 1942 the Army Air Force activated Wendover Air Base and also assigned the research and development of guided missiles, pilotless aircraft, and remotely-controlled bombs to the site. The new base was supplied and serviced by the Ogden Air Depot at Hill Field. In April the Air Corps activated the Wendover Sub-Depot for technical and administrative control of the field, under the immediate command of the Ogden Air Depot. The Wendover Sub-Depot was tasked to requisition, store, and issue all Army Air Forces property for organizations stationed at Wendover Field for training.
A mock enemy city was constructed near the mountains on the base using salt from the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats. This made a fine practice target for the many bomber crews, as did the life-sized enemy battleships and other targets elsewhere on the range. Many of the targets were even electrically illuminated for night practice. Various machine gun ranges allowed gunners to either fire at moving targets from stationary gun emplacements or fire at stationary targets from three machine guns mounted on a railroad car moving along a section of track at up to 40 miles per hour (Wendover's famous "Tokyo Trolley"). Wendover's realistic challenges for aerial gunners and bombardiers caused them to become the best trained in the world.
By late 1943 there were approximately 2,000 civilian employees and 17,500 military personnel at Wendover. Construction at the base continued for most of the war, and by May 1945 the base consisted of 668 buildings, including a 300-bed hospital, gymnasium, swimming pool, library, chapel, cafeteria, bowling alley, two movie theatres, and 361 housing units for married officers and civilians.
Following the war, the Army Air Force activated a testing facility at Wendover Army Air Base to evaluate captured munitions and rocket systems, such as the German V-1 Buzz Bomb. Special teams also performed tests on newly developed weapon systems. In the summer of 1946 the Ogden Air Technical Service Command assumed jurisdiction over all operations at Wendover Field except engineering and technical projects. In March 1947, 1,200 personnel from Wendover Field in Utah were relocated to Alamogordo to conduct guided missile research projects. Three ongoing projects were transferred: Ground-to-Air Pilotless Aircraft (GAPA), Jet Bomb-2 (JB-2), and TARZON. Over the next few years jurisdiction of the facility passed back and forth between various commands of the Air Force.
In August 1961 the Air Force inactivated Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field, with Hill AFB assigned "caretaker status" for the installation. Then in August 1977 Hill AFB turned over most of Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field to the town of Wendover, Utah, retaining only a 164 acre radar site on the old base. The military career of this remote yet important airfield was at an end.
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