Wendover: Utah’s Ghostly Abandoned Air Base


Someone in the Southwest Lit class I was taking at the University of Utah had a wife who taught for an elementary school that used a bio-diesel school bus. So one day we loaded our class into the bus and, after filling up with some used french fry grease, we headed west on I-80 toward the town of Wendover, which straddles the Nevada/Utah state line.

The most common reason folks from Salt Lake City make the drive to Wendover (unless they’re passing through to Reno or Lake Tahoe) is because it’s the closest place where gambling is legal. Occasionally someone will make a run at the land speed record on the nearby Bonneville salt flats, but that’s not generally a spectator event – although I don’t know why…

We weren’t headed to Wendover to gamble though, and there was little chance we would threaten the land speed record in the bio-diesel bus. Our destination was the decommissioned and historic Wendover Air Force base, now simply called Wendover Air Field, since private aircraft still operate there.

The base opened in 1943 after three years of construction, shortly following the Army Air Corps’ acquisition of almost two million acres in Utah’s West Desert. The purpose of the remote base was to conduct bombing training exercises, and about a year before construction was finished, B-17 and B-24 pilots began honing their skills. Heavy aerial bombing practice went on until April 1944, when about sixty P-47 fighter pilots showed up for training. By that fall, the school had graduated 180 men, but it wouldn’t be until almost a year later that Wendover Air Base would play a larger role in world history.

In the summer of 1945, the military was testing on the atomic bomb at California’s Salton Sea Naval Air Station Range, and tests using unarmed “dummy bombs” as well as those using non-radioactive high explosives continued at Wendover. After the “Fat Man” bomb was successfully tested at Alamogordo Army Air Field in New Mexico, on July 16, a final warning to the Japanese was made by President Harry S. Truman.

On August 6, 1945 a B-29 named “Enola Gay,” which had been housed in a Wendover Hangar, dropped “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, killing thousands almost instantly. “Fat Man” was dropped three days later on Nagasaki, forcing the Japanese to surrender in a week’s time. If you look closely you can still read the words “ENOLA GAY” on the side of the hangar at Wendover. But it’s hard to tell if the name was removed on purpose, or if it’s been slowly erased by the searing sunshine of Utah’s west desert.

Our guide for the day walked us through some old, empty barracks and showed us some munitions storage facilities. Then he took us to a couple of the quonset huts that had been riddled with small arms fire, some holes patched, others not. They appeared to be lived-in, but no one was home. The huts had been leased to a small contingent of artists, some of whom had created installations in other buildings that we got to see, mostly photography and some interesting “found-object” arrangements.

Essentially off the grid, the artists get by with the help of a hundred or so car batteries linked together and clustered in a giant, black rectangle in the center of the concrete floor. Their water supply is outside, elevated within a plastic vessel resembling those you see on the backs of farm trucks. It is weird and ironic that the government gives them the OK to occupy the property and to have access to the very subject matter about which they might potentially compose accusatory commentaries. I personally loved it.

Over the years, the clear weather and wide open vistas combined with the ghost-town quality of Wendover field have attracted many Hollywood location scouts. Here’s a list of movies that feature scenes shot at the old air base:

Birds of Prey (1973 TV movie)
Mulholland Falls (1996)
Independence Day (1996)
Con Air (1997)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Wendover Air Base Timeline

1940-43 — Built, and named Wendover Army Air Base.
1947 — Renamed Wendover Air Force Base.
1949 — Base was inactivated, but still used for bombing and gunnery.
1954 — Reactivated for Tactical Air Command training.
1958 — Transferred to Ogden Air Material and renamed Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field (AAF).
1964 — Construction of airmunitions facility was completed. This was for testing “smart bombs” such as the Minuteman ICBM, as well as determining storage methods and shelf-life.
1973 — Air-to-ground gunnery range was constructed.
1976 — Renamed Decker Field.
Jan 1979 — Renamed Utah Test and Training Range.
1980-86 — Tactical Fighter Training Group out of Nellis AFB, Nevada, used the field for exercises. Testing for Air and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles was also conducted.
1985 — Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) System was built.

Much of this information in this post was found in an article by Charles Hibbard, which you can read here.