The history of the Wendover Field began when the United States Army designated the area near the town of Wendover as an additional bombing range. Though isolated, the area was well suited to fit the needs: the Western Pacific Railroad served the area; the land for the airfield was located near virtually uninhabited areas of the Great Salt Lake Desert in western Utah and eastern Nevada; the generally excellent year-round flying weather allowed safe and frequent training flights for aircraft. The actual selection of the site and construction of runways and buildings began in 1940. In September 1940, the Department of the Interior transferred over 1.5 million acres of land to the Army Air Corps. Additional acquisitions brought the total land area to over 3 million acres, ultimately making the Wendover facility the world’s largest and finest bombing and gunnery range. The first military personnel arrived in August 1941. With the entrance of the United States into World War II, December 8, 1941, the installation became home to more than 20,000 personnel.
With the heaver bomber came the need to train the gunnery crews for needed aerial defense. An advanced training device was built north of the airfield to accommodate this necessity, which was nicknamed the “Tokio Trolley.” (Tokio is the correct spelling.) This facility was a main part of the gunnery range and included over 60 buildings for operation and storage. The facility was built with various machine gun ranges which allowed gunners to first train from the stationary emplacements at stationary targets; then from stationary emplacements at moving targets; and finally, the most difficult but the most realistic with regard to actual air combat, from a moving emplacement to a moving target. This final state was accomplished by firing the mounted .50 caliber guns on a moving rail car along a section of track at up to 40 miles per hour while at the same time trying to hit moving targets, which were mounted atop moving (yet unmanned) jeeps guided by paved and wooden tracks located on the inside of the target berms. General Douglas McArthur voiced his praise by saying, “Wendover gunners were the best trained in the Army.” After World War II, the facilities were removed, and all that remain today are the firing pits, berms, some concrete foundations, and stationary concrete firing platforms.
Twenty-two heavy bomber crews trained at Wendover ARmy Air Field Base before being assugned overseas. The crews for B-17 (Flying Fortress), B-24 (Liborators), and the B-29 (Superfortress) are listed:
For a short time in 1944, Wendover Field trained fighter groups with the P-47 long-range fighter-bombers developed specifically for use in the Pacific heater. However, the Wendover training was abruptly canceled in September of that same year. The fighters were transferred out to make room for a group of Boeing B-29 Superfortresses.
The 509th Composite Group
The 509th Composite Group began forming in Wendover in September of 1944 and was commanded by then, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets. The unit was completely self-contained, outfitted with the latest B-29 Heavy Bombers; its own logistics, including land and air transport; its own security and FBI details; and specific hand-picked crews and soldiers. Anything that was needed from men to materials simply required Colonel Tibbets to use the code name, “Silver Plate, ” which had been provided to him by General “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces. This code overrode any other military orders with regard to operations, men, materials, and equipment and was directly linked to the overall “Manhattan Project.” The 509th utilized the vast bombing and gunner ranges located around the Wendover Field to train for the dropping of the first atomic weapons. The facilities took on a new name, the “Technical Site.” The “Technical Site,” along with the specific men and equipment assigned by Colonel Tibbets, was given the code name, “Site W47.” This “site” was used to design, modify, and develop the aerial delivery technology and explosive components necessary for these first atomic weapons. This was done in conjunction and coordination with the atomic scientists working at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Today these facilities are abandoned, and some oven removed. After the end of World War II, in order to keep secrecy with regard to the atomic program, all related atomic activities were consolidated and moved to the Los Alamos area in New Mexico. Today we know this atomic program as the Sandia National Laboratories near Albuquerque. As a result of the abrupt consolidation of atomic programs, several of the “final” assembly buildings in the “Technical Site” were removed quickly, some being removed with blow torches by cutting the metal beams of the buildings off at ground level. As a result of the fast move, the floors and foundations of the final assembly building were left intact, including the copper-lined floors, which were grounded in order to prevent inadvertent detonation of the weapons during build-up and modifications by the crews.
Unlike other bomber units of World War II, the 509th Composite Group trained intensely to achieve the mission of dropping but one bomb with an extremely high degree of precision for the technology of the day. They of course succeeded, dropping two atomic weapons on Japan; Hiroshima (August 6, 1946 by the aircraft “Enola Gay”) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945: by the aircraft “Bockscar”). After the completion of the August 9, 1945, mission, Japan made an unconditional surrender, bringing to an end World War II, and ultimately saving tens of thousands of American and Japanese lives, which would have certainly been lost with the planned invasion of Japan scheduled to occur later in 1945 or early 1946.
Wendover Field Today
After the war, Wendover Field continued to be used for training exercises, gunnery range operations, and as a research facility. The Air Force closed Wendover Field in 1969, and the base was declared surplus. In 1972, it was turned over to the State of Utah for use as a municipal airport and then finally deeded to the City of Wendover in 1977, followed by Tooele County in 1998. A portion of the original bombing range is now called the Utah Test and Training Range and is used extensively by the U.S. Air Force.