Air Force Bases

Wendover Air Force Base, Utah

In the late 1930s the Army Air Corps undertook an experiment to determine if their flight operations might be satisfactorily combined with private and commercial airport activities. Two airports in the country were chosen for the experiment, one of which was the Salt Lake City municipal airport. The airfield, established in early 1920, was chosen for its "strategic and topographical advantages" and because the required enlargements could be easily accommodated by the vacant land surrounding it.

Fort Douglas, in nearby Salt Lake City, also afforded potential housing and administrative facilities adaptable to Army Air Corps needs. Therefore, on August 2, 1940 Fort Douglas, which had been an infantry post since its establishment in 1862, was redesignated an Army Air Base by the Secretary of War, with Salt Lake City airport as its airfield.

The 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and 88th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 20th Bombardment Wing was soon reassigned from Hamilton Field, California, to Fort Douglas. They would operate their huge Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Douglas B-18 Bolos out of the new Salt Lake Army Air Base on the east side of the municipal airport.

The Army immediately began construction of new facilities on the airfield, including new hangars and shops, taxiways, and runways. The old facilities built in 1934 to support the Army's air mail operations were also remodeled to accommodate the new workload.

As construction continued at the airfield, negotiations between the Army Air Corps and the Department of the Interior were undertaken for the acquisition of a large tract of government land near Wendover, Utah, along the Utah-Nevada border. This desert expanse about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City would be used as a bombing and gunnery range for the aircrews of the 7th Bombardment Group to be stationed at Salt Lake Army Air Base.

On September 20, 1940 an agreement was reached on the 1,560,000 acre site as work commenced on the required personnel facilities at Wendover. The following month Utah stockmen, opposed to the removal of so much government land from the open range, presented their grievances to Utah Governor Henry Hooper Blood, saying that the new practice range should be located elsewhere because it would "wipe out 100 outfits" of livestock ranchers, thereby costing the state $1.5 million annually.

However, the War Department received jurisdiction over all but a few isolated tracts within the desired 1.5 million acres and began construction of the bombing range on November 4, 1940. The new Wendover facility would ultimately be the world's largest and finest bombing and gunnery range.

President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the expansion of the Wendover range in February 1941, increasing its size by 262,200 acres. That spring the War Department allotted $1 million for grading, drainage, paving, and night lighting projects at Wendover and in the summer a Bombing and Gunnery Range Detachment was activated as a sub-post of Fort Douglas.

By this time the field sported four 63-man barracks, a 250-man mess hall, officers' quarters, an administration building, a telephone exchange, two ordnance warehouses, a bombsight storage building, and dispensary. There were also three ammunition igloos and four powder magazines. A power system with its own generating plant was also under construction, as was a railroad spur and water and sewer systems.

With the entrance of the United States into World War II, Wendover Field began to take on greater importance. For much of the war the installation was the Army Air Forces' only bombing and gunnery range. Heavy bomber crews from all over the country converged on the burgeoning airfield for training before being assigned to overseas bases.

On March 1, 1942 the Army Air Force activated Wendover Air Base and also assigned the research and development of guided missiles, pilotless aircraft, and remotely-controlled bombs to the site. The new base was supplied and serviced by the Ogden Air Depot at Hill Field. In April the Air Corps activated the Wendover Sub-Depot for technical and administrative control of the field, under the immediate command of the Ogden Air Depot. The Wendover Sub-Depot was tasked to requisition, store, and issue all Army Air Forces property for organizations stationed at Wendover Field for training.

A mock enemy city was constructed near the mountains on the base using salt from the nearby Bonneville Salt Flats. This made a fine practice target for the many bomber crews, as did the life-sized enemy battleships and other targets elsewhere on the range. Many of the targets were even electrically illuminated for night practice.

Various machine gun ranges allowed gunners to either fire at moving targets from stationary gun emplacements or fire at stationary targets from three machine guns mounted on a railroad car moving along a section of track at up to 40 miles per hour (Wendover's famous "Tokyo Trolley"). Wendover's realistic challenges for aerial gunners and bombardiers caused them to become the best trained in the world.

By late 1943 there were approximately 2,000 civilian employees and 17,500 military personnel at Wendover. Construction at the base continued for most of the war, and by May 1945 the base consisted of 668 buildings, including a 300-bed hospital, gymnasium, swimming pool, library, chapel, cafeteria, bowling alley, two movie theatres, and 361 housing units for married officers and civilians.

Following the war, the Army Air Force activated a testing facility at Wendover Army Air Base to evaluate captured munitions and rocket systems, such as the German V-1 Buzz Bomb. Special teams also performed tests on newly developed weapon systems.

In the summer of 1946 the Ogden Air Technical Service Command assumed jurisdiction over all operations at Wendover Field except engineering and technical projects. Over the next few years jurisdiction of the facility passed back and forth between various commands of the Air Force.

In the early 1950s the 25th Air Depot Wing, stationed at Hill AFB, sent elements to Wendover to coordinate and arrange for aerial gunnery practice for several fighter squadrons based at Hill. Then on December 23, 1953 the 461st Bombardment Wing (Light) of the 9th Air Force, Tactical Air Command, was attached to Hill AFB. Equipped with B-26s and later B-57s, the Wing conducted training exercises at Wendover AFB in low-level support operations of ground units.

In April 1954 the 461st Bombardment Group (Light) of the 461st Bombardment Wing launched its first live practice bombing training missions at Wendover. The following month the Utah Air National Guard cooperated with the 461st Bombardment Wing in the completion of a bombing and gunnery range on the eastern edge of the northeastern Wendover Bombing and Gunnery Range. There the Utah and California Air National Guard conducted fighter-gunnery operations until June 2, 1954.

On July 14, 1954 "Operation Sandstorm" began at Wendover Air Force Base. Using B-26 aircraft, the 461st Bombardment Group conducted the six-week operation to practice operational techniques in rocketry, bombing, gunnery, armed reconnaissance, maximum-range and low-level navigation, transition flight training, and formation flying.

The Air Force transferred command jurisdiction of Wendover AFB to the Tactical Air Command on October 1, 1954. TAC's 9th Air Force used the Wendover range for gunnery practice and the base itself as a mobility staging area, while the Ogden Air Materiel Area at Hill AFB continued to provide administrative and logistical support. But on January 1, 1958 USAF transferred jurisdiction of Wendover back to OOAMA. Later that month Wendover Air Force Base was renamed Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field.

In the next few years some of the Wendover weapons ranges were reassigned to the Department of the Army, with the Air Force retaining control of the air space above the ranges. The Air Force and Army agreed to use the ranges and their air space jointly.

In August 1961 the Air Force inactivated Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field, with Hill AFB assigned "caretaker status" for the installation. Then in August 1977 Hill AFB turned over most of Wendover Air Force Auxiliary Field to the town of Wendover, Utah, retaining only a 164 acre radar site on the old base. The military career of this remote yet important airfield was at an end.