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A visit to Wendover Field, where the Enola Gay trained before its secret atomic mission to Japan

By Chuck Woodbury
editor, Out West
This is the hanger that the Enola Gay occupied. Note the cutout above the entrance to accommodate the B-29's tail.

I’m in the Utah/Nevada border town of Wendover, 50 feet from the control tower of Wendover Field, where, in 1945, a B-29 bomber named after pilot Paul Tibbet’s mother Enola Gay departed on its way to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

Wendover was established in the 1920s by a fellow named Bill Smith, who built a gas station along the then-two-lane road. High atop a tall pole, he installed a single light bulb. Motorists approaching from the east across Bonneville Salt Flats could see the tiny beacon of light for miles.

Ever since I started taking road trips back in my college years, Wendover has been a welcome sight. It’s not much of a town — never has been — but for the last few decades it’s been a good place to escape the summer heat in a casino, gas up, or grab a hot turkey sandwich. Today, it’s growing like asparagus with a golf course, tract homes, and a half-dozen king-sized casinos. If you’re looking for a fancy hotel at a price cheaper than Motel Six, this is the place.

It's sort of a strange feeling to be at Wendover Feld. In the summer of 1946, Colonel Paul Tibbets and his crew lifted off from here in a B-29 named the Enola Gay on their way to Tinian Island. From there, they went on to Hiroshima, Japan. At 8:15 a.m., August 6, bombadier Thomas Ferebee released an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy,” destroying the city and marking the beginning of the end of World War II.

Tibbets and his crew trained in Wendover. So did a lot of other World War II bomber crews in their B-19s, B-24s
The barracks where World War II bomber crews stayed are still intact, but fading fast.
and later in the king-sized B-29 Super Fortresses.

Early on, Tibbets didn’t know the specifics of his important mission. His crew never knew. In their first meeting, Tibbets told his men:

“You have been brought here to work on a very special mission. Those who stay long enough will be going overseas. You are here to take part in an effort which could end the war. Don’t ask what the job is. That’s a sure fire way to get transferred out. Do exactly what you are told, when you are told, and you will get along fine. . . .Never mention this base to anybody. This means your wives, girls, sisters, family.”

To make sure the crewman obeyed their leader, their phone calls were tapped and their mail censored.

Tibbets and his crew trained in Wendover for much of a year. In the surrounding desert, they dropped “orange pumpkins” shaped like A-bombs.

After four months of training, they flew to Cuba which they used as a base tofly overwater missions to practice targets near Bangor, Maine.

Wendover was chosen for the top secret mission (and for training other airman of the 8th Air Force) because it was so remote. By 1944, a total of 668 buildings were erected, and the base population was nearly 20,000. Twenty-one heavy bombardment groups were trained in Wendover. The 509th, Tibbet’s group, was formed December 14, 1944, and had as many as 1,700 members.

Today, you can visit Wendover Field, where many of the now-historic buildings are still intact, including the Enola Gay’s hanger. The plane, as I said, was named for Colonel Tibbet’s mother. I wonder how she felt about having her name attached to a plane associated with such a massive weapon of death.

The old Flight Operations Building contains scale models of the war years’ field, and is still in use for civil aviation.

If you want to explore the airfield, stop by the Visitor’s Center in Wendover, Nevada, for a free self-guided tour brochure. While you’re there, check out the display about the Enola Gay and the airfield, which is about a mile away across the border in Utah.

From Out West #44, Fall, 1998

©2002 by Out West Newspaper


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