A little background on Wendover Airbase, during the Second World War this was one of the primary locations for training heavy bomber crews that served in the war. Thousands of personnel came through the base to train in B-17’s, B-24’s and finally, the B-29’s of the 509th Composite Group; who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan to ultimately end the war. Wendover is unique in that having been so far away from a major population center, after the war ended it was more or less abandoned in place. It wasn’t converted into a municipal airport, and it wasn’t seen as a logical place to maintain a large, peacetime airbase. So it sat.
Over the decades the weather has eaten away at its buildings. Its been used on and off by the military for various training exercises and experiments. Movies such as Con Air and Independence Day had parts shot here, but by in large, it was ignored and forgotten. This may sound sad, but it now provides us with a rare opportunity to see the most intact example of a WWII era airbase anywhere in the world. A group of dedicated individuals called the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation headed by the father and son team of Jim and Tom Petersen have been working diligently at piecing together the history of the base and restoring many of the buildings that are left.
Expedition Utah’s tour of the Wendover Historic Airfield on June 2nd started with what anyone planning on spending several hours out in the desert hopes for: mild weather! The sky was mostly clear and the temperature was perfect for being outdoors. We had about 30 people show up for this very unique opportunity to tour all of this historic base.
We began with a short movie giving an overview of the bases history in the museum before we headed into the under restoration Officers Club just across the parking lot. Tom acted as our tour guide for the whole day and was quite passionate about the base and the work going on. The Officers Club is going to get a full restoration and will have a café in it and will be rented out for events. It’s quite an impressive building, and the work that is happening is top notch.
From here we loaded up into what many people said was the coolest part of the tour, a fully restored 1942 Ford GPW and a GMC CCKW, or Deuce and a Half… and a Ford tour van… but lets focus on the first two!
From the Officers Club we bounced around until we made a tailgate jump at one of the enlisted mess halls. During the height of the war there were four of these to serve the 20,000 or so enlisted personnel on the base, this is the last surviving one. It was abandoned at the end of the war, but then renovated slightly in the 1980’s to be used by the US Air Force’s Aggressor Squadron. All along the walls are the painted insignia’s of the various detachments that were based here during that period.
We remounted our rigs and headed over to what is left of the base hospital and got to look around at what had been the surgical ward, and then wandered around looking at what is stored there now.
After the hospital we made for what was one of the more interesting buildings on the base, the bombsight storage building. During the war one of the most closely guarded secrets was the Norden bombsight. So before and after each training flight the bombsights were checked out and into this building, which had large concrete reinforced safes, air conditioning and heaters to keeps the bombsights in perfect condition. And a nifty 7up vending machine!
From here we stopped off at a hanger on the flight line to see a F-86 Super Saber that the base recently acquired and is slowly working on restoring. And you know how in most museums they tell you to not touch anything? Well here Jim and Tom encouraged us to hop on the wings for a group photo! Awesome!
After the hanger we went back to the museum for lunch and then took off for the most exciting part of the tour. The south side of the base where all the munitions were stored, and the secret components were for the 509th. To get there we had to cross the active runways and traverse several miles of dirt roads. As you approach you get the feeling of how desolate this part of the base really is now. Nothing appears to really have been touched in more than half a century. The observation tower still stands stoically over the compound, watching; making sure nothing that isn’t supposed to get in does.
Inside the barbed wire fence behind Tom is where the prototype atomic bombs were constructed. These were inert bombs designed to test the ballistics of the actual atomic weapons, but their design was so secret that the crews building them and the flight crews dropping them never interacted. After the war all the buildings associated with the 509th, including the ones here, we broken down to the foundations and shipped to Los Alamos.
Down the road from where the prototype bombs were constructed are the munitions bunkers. Large concrete vaults covered in tons of dirt. Impressive, imposing structure to say the least. And very cool inside, both temperature and otherwise.
From the bunkers we headed out to part of the bases more modern history. During the Apollo program in the 1960’s, NASA used Wendover to test the capsules for resistance to direct lightning strikes. They did this by mounting a capsule nose piece packed with electronics on a dolly and suspending a large wire grid above it. They then electrified the grid and simulated a lightning strike. Very fascinating and the dolly and one of the nose cones are still sitting out there. Ironically, this was the only part of the trip that it rained!
Not far from the Apollo test site sits what looks like an unassuming hole in the ground. In fact, this hole has significant historical value. This is a bomb pit. Since the atomic bombs of the day were so heavy, and so large, they couldn’t be loaded the way conventional bombs were. So this special pit was dug and the bombs we first loaded into the pit with a hoist, then a B-29 was backed over the pit and a hydraulic lift moved to bomb into the bomb bay. There are only two such pits uncovered in the world. This one in Wendover, and the one in Tinian that actually loaded the bombs for the attacks on Japan.
After reflecting on the importance that that hole in the ground represented, the tour found us at what is referred to as the “Enola Gay” hanger, the hanger built specifically to house the larger B-29’s, such as the famous Enola Gay. It was a impressive building. Large enough to fit two B-29’s if need be. But rather than those old warbirds, it had a beautiful T-33 done up in Blue Angel livery and a prototype de Havilland jet.
After poking around the hanger for a bit, we completed out loop back at the museum and up in the beautifully restored control tower.
It was an amazing tour. Such history to behold, and we are so lucky that so much of it is still around and that there are people like the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation working to preserve it. Wendover Airbase truly is a national treasure.
Thanks to all who made it out! We look forward to seeing you at the next summit!
All photos courtesy of Stephen Nielson and Jason Goates
Friday started off by meeting up with Joseph at about 10:30am and making the journey to Moab where we stopped for lunch at Pasta Jay’s. After topping off our tanks at the edge of town we continued on until we hit dirt off UT 211 at the beginning of the Cottonwood Canyon Road around three in the afternoon. Here we aired down and took one last look at pavement for the next few days. Always an enjoyable thing!
We blasted down the Cottonwood Canyon Road and the beginnings of the Beef Basin Loop as we worked our ways to the Beef Basin wash and our first campsite. Both my copilot Scott and I reflected that the Pathfinder was pure luxury on these rutted/washboard roads in comparison to the Samurai. I knew it would be so, but wow. Getting out of the car after a while on these roads didn’t feel like hitting solid ground after a bombing run over Berlin!
Anyway, the wash road was fine until we hit the first creek crossing. Here the heavy rains we’ve been having had made for an interesting crossing. All the tracks stopped here and there was no evidence of traffic on the other side. Well, since we were “gangsta expo” as Joseph noted, we didn’t view this as much of a hinderance. So I popped the Pathfinder in 4-low for the first time in anger and headed down the relatively steep, very soft sandy hill into the creek bed and up the other side with no issue. Joseph followed with the Ultimate KJ idling like a turbo diesel should and we headed off into the overgrown trail to find camp.
The trail had a few other sections that had been washed out a bit by the rains, but nothing too bad. It was fun to finally have the Pathfinder in 4-low and using it for what it was designed to do. We eventually made camp at about six or so and set about making ourselves comfortable. For Joseph this entailed setting up his slick ARB awning. For a rugged Australian this takes but 30 seconds. For Americans, two people and a bit longer.
After setting up camp we just relaxed, took in the scenery and enjoyed a campfire under the clear night sky.
Morning broke bright and warm and we lounged in the sun for a bit before getting underway around 10.
We worked our way back out through the wash to the first creek crossing and I dipped into it like it was no big deal. Well I quickly found that the sandy hill was much softer than I had expected and the boulders at the bottom prevented me from first getting the downhill momentum I needed and second from backing up. This is one of those moments when you think about those parts you have sitting at home that could have made this a non-issue. Like the Limited Slip left uninstalled that would have aided greatly in getting back over the boulder…
After a few attempts to get out on my own, it was time to throw the recovery strap back to Joseph and the diesel beast of his. With a little tug and some tire spin the Pathfinder was free, moved the offending boulder out of the way and we were in business again.
We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Beef Basin Loop, some spurs off it and looking at ruins.
The second camp was planned to be at a location in the Butler Wash area that was a short hike to a spectacular overlook of the Needles District of Canyonlands. We spent several hours going up and down every spur road in the Ruin Park area looking for the right one to get us there. We could see the spot we wanted to be from the main road, but the only road that seemed to head to it was also the only one with a “Road Closed” sign. According to my BLM map of the area, that road skirts the edge of the Butler Wash WSA and I guess since the last time I was there in 2009 the BLM has decided that the road is now in the WSA. I was disappointed, but the camp we chose did have some nice ruins up in the cliff surrounding it.
We spent another pleasant night around the campfire and had a lively discussion regarding how “expo ready” our gear was. Personally, I think our hot dog sticks are just as good as any titanium and leather handled ones on the market today! ;)
I awoke Sunday morning excited about getting to the “hard” part of our trip through Canyonlands via Bobby’s Hole and out Elephant Hill. So after tea and breakfast we broke camp and bid farewell to Ruin Park. Bobby’s Hole is a moderately steep hill made up of some ledges, boulders and loose dirt. Nothing too technical, but certainly entertaining to crawl down. I was throughly impressed with the Pathfinders gearing as it idled down with no issues.
From Bobby’s Hole we continued on to the Canyonlands boarder and into the always stunning Needles District. Along the way we stopped for some “expo ready” poser shots and to check out some petroglyphs.
After our stop at the petroglyphs we quickly came upon SOB Hill. Now SOB Hill has been in various states over the years. Way back in 1994 with my dad it was considered an optional obstacle on the Elephant Hill trail during the Easter Jeep Safari. Now being in a stock Samurai at the time my dad wanted to show off. But of course, had no issues getting over the ledges, boulders and making the very tight turn. The second time a few years ago the Park Service had filled in most of the hill and the only difficult part was tight turn. This time around the hill had returned to presenting a bit of a challenge with a climb up loose dirt and rocks to the sharp turn through the cut in the rocks. I had a few points where I again regretted no installing the LSD before I left, but nothing that couldn’t be over come with backing up and changing my line. Again, I was very happy with the Pathfinders stock gears and grateful for the OME suspension.
Joseph, demonstrating that true players only drive diesels, idled over the whole thing without an issue.
From this point we were on the Elephant Hill loop and with moseyed along over small ledges and creek crossings.
When we finally reached Elephant Hill I forgot, for some reason, how extreme the switchbacks are. Practically parallel in some spots. My mind always remembers the first time in my dads Samurai and how it wasn’t even an issue to make the turns. Now in a Pathfinder what had been a three point turn in the Samurai turned into a five or six pointer at some spots. Nothing hard, just a few more forwards and backs. The hill is a fairly steep climb heading up a few hundred feet over ledges and a bit of slick rock at the top. Since you need to keep your momentum up, it pays not to stop for photo ops I only have one picture of Joseph at the very top. But hey, what a way to close out the photos! The Ultimate KJ rumbling up the famous Elephant Hill:
And that was it. We dropped down the other side into the parking lot, aired up and headed back into Moab where we stopped at the Moab Brewery for the obligatory bread bowl of beer cheese soup (don’t ask Joseph about the service though). It was a great trip and a great way to break the Pathfinder in as my new expedtion/overlanding/camping vehicle. I can’t wait to get out again.
Photos courtesy of Stephen Nielson and Scott Curtis