How B-29 Crews Trained to Drop the Bomb

Wendover’s atomic secret

During the war, Wendover Army Air Base was one of the country's most secretive locations. (Wendover AFB History Office)
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GENERAL LESLIE GROVES, the Army engineer commanding the Manhattan Project, wanted someone on the airplane who knew about the device and could monitor its arming and fusing systems en route to a target—a crewman he called a weaponeer. His ideal candidate would be a service academy graduate and regular officer, an ordnance expert, and a combat pilot. Groves found his man in Frederick Ashworth, a young Navy commander and Annapolis graduate with a strong ordnance background who had commanded a squadron of Grumman TBF Avengers at Guadalcanal. "I met Parsons in Washington," recalled Ashworth in a 2004 lecture to Los Alamos scientists, when he was a retired vice admiral. "He told me to pick up my orders to Wendover Army Air Base in Utah."

Ashworth had first visited Wendover in 1924 while driving cross-country with his parents. Twenty years later, the bleak, bleached community, population about 100, hadn’t changed much. It lay perched on the barren eastern rim of a salt-flat desert, with its slightly larger sister city, West Wendover, on the Nevada side. The towns linked two very different cultures. Within the walls of the State-Line Hotel, for example, you could eat dinner in sedate Utah, but drink and gamble in rowdy Nevada. Civilization, in the form of Salt Lake City, was 110 miles east.

Sprawled upon the salt crust just south of town, Wendover Army Air Base had been activated in 1942, and was on its way to becoming a little Army Air Forces city of white frame barracks, family bungalows, service clubs, and a 300-bed hospital. Seven large hangars sprang up on the field, and three 8,100-foot paved runways were laid. The natural silence of the place was now shattered by the roar of B-17s and B-24s training for Europe, and later P-47s. Now it would be the B-29s’ turn, for the field had been selected as the home of Tibbets’ command, formalized in December 1944 as the 509th Composite Group.

The 509th was a veritable air force unto itself. Its combat arm was the 393rd Bombardment Squadron (Very Heavy), then training B-29 crews at Fairmont, Nebraska. Twenty Silverplate B-29s came to Wendover—15 used to train crews and five dedicated to a drop-test program for Los Alamos. The 320th Troop Carrier Squadron, known as the Green Hornet Line for the verdant livery on its C-54s, became the group’s private airline. The field was also home to the 216th Army Air Force Base Unit (Special), which included a flight-test section with an ordnance unit that made the test bombs for the drops.

Ashworth was met at Wendover by Norman Ramsey and driven into the desert, where Ramsey told him they were developing an atomic bomb. Ashworth liked the work, but said he didn’t want to bring his wife and two young children to Wendover. Ramsey managed to move him to Los Alamos. Over the next six months, Ashworth and others on his team would shuttle to the Utah field from Kirtland Army Air Base, near Albuquerque.

But the 509th and the 216th stayed at Wendover. The diverse community of airmen and -women, physicists and technicians, wives and children was an imitation of small-town America. Because everyone was young and the country was at war, most of the newcomers took the Wendover experience in stride. They accepted the rudimentary base housing, knowing they were lucky to find anything at all; many rented rooms and trailers in town. Families hiked, picnicked, and skied in the nearby pine-covered hills. Men living in the barracks played poker; some raced their cars, two abreast, down the arrow-straight two-lane highway between Wendover and Salt Lake City, sometimes passing a bottle back and forth between them. Pilots often announced their return from a training flight by buzzing their homes.

But the community was also suffocated by a pall of secrecy. Concentrating families in one remote location provided cover for the clandestine program unfolding at Wendover, and it also made dependents easier to control. The FBI and Wendover military police monitored interactions between people, and even between work areas. Airplane people were barred from talking shop with ordnance people, and never saw one of the test bomb units being assembled or loaded. Husbands could not discuss their work with wives. Telephones were tapped, letters opened. The place crawled with undercover FBI agents, trolling for leaks. People who asked or answered too many questions wound up in the Aleutians. The discernible future was a blank to everyone but Paul Tibbets and a few Los Alamos scientists.

"I’ve never been to a place that was so secret," B-29 commander James Price recalled in an interview in 2009. He had arrived at Wendover after flying B-17s on Guadalcanal and training B-17 crews in Louisiana. Like everyone at Wendover, Price had no sense of where the job would take him. Then, one evening over drinks at the officers’ club, Norman Ray, another aircraft commander, pointed out a man standing at the bar. "Ray asked if I knew who that was," said Price. "It was Dr. Ernest Lawrence," the famed physicist for whom the Livermore, California lab is named. "He was from the University of California at Berkeley. I’d read about his work before I got in the Air Force. When Ray told me that, I knew exactly what we were going to do. I wouldn’t talk in the car, afraid it was bugged. But later I told Ray, ‘We’re going to drop an atomic bomb.’"

Morris "Dick" Jeppson, who as an Army lieutenant would monitor Little Boy’s pulse en route to Japan in Tibbets’ B-29, had dropped out of the California Institute of Technology for lack of funds, and wound up at the communications school at Harvard and the radar engineering school at MIT.

Leon Smith, whose career in nuclear weaponry would span decades, was a classmate. "We were trained to go anywhere and run and troubleshoot any radar," Smith explained in a 2005 Los Alamos lecture. That included the radar altimeters aboard Little Boy and Fat Man, which, with barometric switches, would trigger the bombs about 1,500 feet above the ground.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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