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Wendover Field, Utah

By Stephen Budiansky
3/12/2009 • World War II Time Travel

That anything from the World War II era is left standing at Wendover Field is due to a combination of arid climate, benign neglect, dumb luck, and recent ardent efforts of preservationists. By 1943 the population of sleepy Wendover had exploded to 19,500 as the field trained more heavy bomber crews than any other base in the world. With 320 days a year of clear skies and 3.5 million acres of government land, the site offered perfect flying weather and ample room for bombing practice. But when the war ended, the field was effectively put in mothballs and Wendover’s population plummeted back to five hundred. The air force sold off hundreds of buildings for lumber or scrap.

Yet remarkably, all but one of the war-era hangars, the original steel-ladder control tower and wood-frame operations building, the cottage-like clapboard squadron briefing rooms, the officers’ club with its broad dance floor and balcony, even the secret huts and barbed wire fences of the “Technical Site” where the mockup atomic bombs were assembled and readied for the bomber crews, remain.
In 1977 the air force deeded the field to the city of Wendover, Utah; in 1998 it was handed over to the county of Tooele, Utah. That was when James Petersen, the county’s aviation director, found himself astonished at the neglected historic treasure that had fallen into his lap. “When I came, these hangars were just junk piles,” he told me as we walked along a war-era concrete ramp pocked with retaining rings for the scores of B-17s and B-24s that once crowded side by side. “Nobody cared anything about anything. We hauled off seventy-five or eighty huge dump-truck loads of trash.”

A few abortive attempts by the city to pull in revenue had left a more melancholy legacy: a local drag racing club occupied one of the World War II–era taxiways; a salt miner leased one of the hangars and left it in a miserably dilapidated state, with old sinks and a huge coal-fired boiler peering through a broken wall; a Hollywood crew filming the sci-fi thriller The Philadelphia Experiment back in the ’80s asked if they could burn down one of the hangars for a scene, and the town said sure.
Petersen founded a nonprofit group, Historic Wendover Airfield, to raise money to restore the historic structures and raise awareness of the momentous events that took place here. With help from the flush casinos, he has already restored one of the old squadron operations buildings to serve as a commercial air terminal, which currently brings in 50,000 visitors a year on casino charter flights. He installed black-and-white tile floors and light fixtures from the war era, and preserved odd reminders of the field’s history—such as a huge concrete safe, which sits in one corner of the passenger lounge.

Out in the middle of the field, a concrete pit built to load versions of the five-ton “Fat Man” bomb into B-29s was excavated by a Boy Scout troop a few years ago. (They found forty .50-caliber machine gun bullets in the layers of mud in the process.) In one building on the flight line, a row of massive steel doors with combination locks guards the vaults where the secret Norden bombsights were kept. A huge bunker, used to align the B-17s’ guns, stands in silent vigil at the end of the original field’s crisscrossing runways.

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