Hangar is gateway to another Epoch

20 Feb

The following article originally appeared in the February 19, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.


The south wall of the Enola Gay Hangar shows the decaying structure that housed the atomic mission that ended World War II. - photography / Clint Thomsen

by Clint Thomsen

The air inside the old maintenance hangar was musty and still — and much colder than I had expected. The sun shone through gaps in the roof and rows of broken windows, flooding the structure with a sort of inert light. I followed Jim Peterson across a sweeping concrete floor, past a hodgepodge of military and industrial relics, toward the hangar’s east end.

“Over here,” said the soft-spoken airport director, pointing toward the bare timbers of the north annex. “This was the prop shop.”

The old Wendover airbase has fascinated me since my grandpa took me there for an airshow in the ’80s. Since then, I’ve rarely passed through town without detouring through the decaying collection of World War II-era buildings. Finally seeing the interior of the famed “Enola Gay Hangar” was at once exciting and sad. As I gazed up at the rusty trusses, I wondered what this place looked like the better part of a century ago.

Tooele County’s vast open spaces set it apart from its metropolitan neighbor to the east. While Tooele Valley has seen exponential growth in recent years, most of the rest of the county remains blissfully undeveloped and underexplored. And even though time, weather and vandals have marred the region’s historical sites, the county is still a fusion of wilderness and visible history.

When snow chokes mountain trails and renders the canyons impassable, my mind focuses more on the desert floor and its vestiges of the past. Many of my road trips and camping adventures in Tooele County’s wilds have been paired with historical research. Defining this hobby is difficult, since the term that best describes it — “urban exploration” — has been tainted by the very culture that coined it.

Colloquial dictionaries define urban exploration, or “hacking,” as the examination of normally unseen places and other abandonments. But the term has become associated with secretive trespassing.

Many self-described “urbexers” do it less for historic curiosity and more for the thrill of “infiltrating” private property. They consider it a harmless activity, claiming to adhere to a strict destroy-nothing, take-nothing policy. Still, the moniker appropriately carries a negative connotation for property owners and those who explore history legally.

So since they’ve hijacked the term, I’ll take this opportunity to coin one of my own: “epoch hacking” — or the tapping into the essence of a historical era by legally visiting associated sites. That’s an overly technical definition, but fascination with the past and the appeal of visiting abandoned places is quite widespread. It’s why the ghost town articles on my Web site are the most highly trafficked pieces there. It’s also why so many visitors to the annual Wendover Air Show find themselves peering curiously at the row of vintage hangars lining the airfield’s apron.

Just under 100 of the 668 original buildings still stand at the old base — an impressive number given the time elapsed and the fact that many were built for temporary use. The base housed more than 20 bomber groups during World War II. At its apex, 17,000 soldiers and 2,500 civilians called it home. It’s personnel component was reduced to just a few thousand after Col. Paul Tibbets chose Wendover Airfield as the training point for “Project Silverplate,” the atomic mission that would end the war and change the course of history.

During the 509th Composite Group’s stay, the base housed up to 15 B-29 SuperFortresses, which were tweaked and modified for mission training. Construction on “Building 1841” began in late 1944 and was completed in early 1945. The hangar was large enough to park two B-29s inside at once. The two-story “side-buildings” housed various maintenance areas and office space.

In later years, the hangar became known locally as the “Enola Gay Hangar,” after the B-29 bomber commanded by Tibbets on the Hiroshima mission. The famed aircraft now resides at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force took over the base and used it sparsely until 1976. Writer and photographer Richard Menzies visited the base in 1971 while it was maintained by a skeleton crew, whose presence deterred vandalism.

“The various buildings were in excellent shape,” Menzies told me. “Frozen in time since the ’40s. You could still smell the oil and carb cleaner from heavy bombers that had once occupied the hangars.”

The Enola Gay Hangar was next occupied by engineer Robert Golka, who used the space to experiment with ball lightning. Menzies visited Golka on several occasions, later profiling him in his 2005 book “Passing Through: An Existential Journey Across America’s Outback.”

“He filled the place up with esoteric electrical machinery,” Menzies recalled. “Including what he dubbed ‘the world’s largest Tesla coil.’”

The hangar remained largely intact until the base was deeded to the City of Wendover in 1977. It was subsequently abandoned and stripped by looters. I realized what Jim Peterson was showing me was but a ghost of its former self, a fact punctuated by the tattered sheets of white cloth, which shrouded both of the annexes. Still, the profundity of gazing into the offices where Tibbets and crew planned their mission is difficult to describe.

We paused near the dusty fuselage of an old T-33 to look up at the original light fixtures and some leftover wires from Golka’s experiments. Peterson’s lament at the building’s state of disrepair was obvious.

Fortunately, the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation recently secured a $440,000 federal grant to begin an exterior restoration of the legendary hangar. Work on the roof and side walls will begin later this year.

What motivates Peterson’s work to preserve the airfield’s heritage?

“There’s no place like it,” he said. “Where else can you go that has six hangars right on the front line and so many original structures?”

Whatever your view on the atomic mission and its aftermath, the experience of exploring the base is poignant and arresting. “Hacking” this epoch is well worth the drive.

Until restoration is complete, the Enola Gay Hangar will remain off-limits to the public.  Paid tours of the base area by local guides are authorized to give visitors a close look at the hangar’s exterior and several other interesting parts of the base.  A map and guide to  a self-guided driving tour of the base are available at its operations building.  For more information, call 435-665-2308.

Stay tuned for more pics of the old hangar and base this weekend…


2 responses to “Hangar is gateway to another Epoch

  1. Kristine Shreve

    February 20, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Wow, that sounds like an amazing place to visit. I love walking through pieces of history like that.


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