When Col. Paul Tibbets flew over Wendover Field in September 1944 in search of a remote, secure place where he could train the B-29 crews he handpicked to drop the atomic bomb, he looked down from 30,000 feet and declared it “perfect.”
Others didn’t quite share his enthusiasm. The comedian Bob Hope came through on a USO tour and wisecrackingly dubbed the army air base “Leftover Field.” Hugging the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats 125 miles west of Salt Lake City, Wendover was as bleak and barren as a bleak and barren desert could be. A few stark brown hills offered the only relief from the mirage-laden salt plains that stretched out as far as the eye could see.
The town itself, boasting a population of 100 before the air force arrived in 1940, owed its existence to a small water tower that refilled steam locomotives of the Western Pacific Railroad, a few arsenic mines, and the State Line Hotel. The hotel spanned the Utah/Nevada border, luring travelers on two-lane U.S. Route 40 with a lone light atop a tall pole, a gas station, and the promise of hamburgers in the café on the Utah side of the building and gambling and liquor on the Nevada side.
Sixty-four years later, the desert—and Wendover—is as stark as ever. Several bizarrely glitzy high-rise casinos have arisen on the Nevada side of town in the last couple of decades, but the sense of isolation and remoteness still dominates. That isolation has a silver lining: today Wendover Field is the best-preserved bomber training base from World War II. Some 100 of its 668 original buildings are still standing. Many remnants of the ultrasecret mission for which Tibbets’s men trained are still here to be seen, touched, and experienced.
Interstate 80, with a 75 mph speed limit, has replaced old U.S. 40 and cut the drive from Salt Lake City in half from the three hours it took during World War II. But the bleak desert scenery is virtually unchanged from what it was then, or for that matter from what it was a century and a half ago, when a single emigrant wagon train decided to try this route to California, an act of folly never repeated.
They don’t call them salt flats for nothing. An information sheet I picked up at the West Wendover Welcome Center in Nevada informed me that they are so flat you can actually see the curvature of the earth if you stand at the right spot. Back in the ’80s, a slightly eccentric Iranian-born Swedish artist decided the drive was so boring that, to relieve the monotony, he erected at his own expense—reputed to be $1 million—a crazy sculpture in the empty stretch about 30 miles east of Wendover; the “Tree of Utah” looks like a Christmas tree made of steel I-beams and huge fuzzy baseballs. It somehow seems to fit.
From the Wendover strip, the short road to the airfield (on the much poorer Utah side, where many of the casino workers live) goes past a dreary row of shanties, a sign for “Painless Pete’s” dentist office, and the old airfield chapel, now converted into an apartment building.
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