Don’t Pass the Historic Wendover Airfield By

By Scott Spangler on July 11th, 2022

During World War II the US military carved thousands of airfields into the American landscape. Of the hundreds that still serve our aerial infrastructure, few maintain a general connection to their original mission. An exception might be Utah’s Wendover Army Airfield, a heavy bomber training base, established in 1940 because it was surrounded by desolate desert, perfect for needed bombing ranges. Many people, not just aviation history geeks, might know of it because it is frequently mentioned in the history of America’s use of nuclear weapons. Wendover is where the 509th Composite Squadron came together and trained for its missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Situated just across the Nevada border, about 400 miles down Interstate 80 from Reno, it is 120 miles west of Salt Lake City. On a 1974 motorcycle trip home to Chicagoland, I passed the exit for this small city (with the 2010 census counting 1,400 residents) because of Above and Beyond, the 1952 film about Paul Tibbets, the commander of the 509th. His wife accompanied him to Wendover, and the bleakness of these scenes led me to believe the base was miles distant in the surrounding desert, so I kept riding east. (It turns out that Davis-Monthan AFB stood in for Wendover.) Yesterday, when I learned about the relatively new Historic Wendover Airfield Museum, Google maps added another line item to my life list of missed opportunities.

Given its remote location, the airfield has served various military units off and on since VJ Day. Declared surplus for the final time in 1976, the government deeded most of the base, including runways, taxiways, hangars, hospital complex, and several warehouses to the City of Wendover for a civil airport (ENV).

The airfield made the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the year after I passed by. Then, just a few more than 100 of its 668 World War II structures remained. Exploring them would have been more than worth the time I would have spent off the road. But the good news is that today, there are almost 90 surviving buildings, including the now-restored “B-29 Hangar” named for its most famous occupant, the Enola Gay, and the museum has a multiphase plan to restore them. Supporting this effort is the “Save Where They Walked” capital campaign.

No one knows whether I’ll pass that way again, but until then, I’ve already made a number of virtual visits on the first-class Historic Wendover Airfield Museum website, and once I’ve gotten this story scheduled for its JetWhine debut tomorrow morning, I’m spending the rest of the afternoon on the museum’s virtual tour. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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