World War II officially ended 70 years ago on Sept. 2
Seventy years ago aboard the battleship USS Missouri that was anchored in Tokyo Bay, Japanese officials officially signed a written agreement formally ending World War II. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander in the southwest Pacific and supreme commander for the Allies, signed on behalf of the Allied powers.
Although the surrender occurred thousands of miles from Nevada, the initial training to end the war in the Pacific began in 1942 at the Wendover Field, 125 miles west of Salt Lake City.
Begun as a remote installation on the western fringes of the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1940, the installation became a sub-post of Fort Douglas (which is located in Salt Lake City) almost one year later.
The Wendover Army Air Base, though, was activated in March 1942 — three months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor — for training B-17 and B-24 bomber crews for missions in both Europe and the Pacific. In late 1944, the federal government activated the 509th Composite Group to train B-29 bomber crews to test ordnance, electronics, high-altitude and long-range flying in preparation to conducting bombing missions over Japan. Eventually, two B-29s designated to drop two bombs over Japan were sent to Tinian, an island in the Pacific, a round trip to Japan of 3,000 miles.
While the United States and its allies pressured the Japanese government to surrender in July 1945, it took the dropping of two 20,000-pound atomic bombs — Aug. 6 over Hiroshima and Aug. 9 over Nagasaki — to force Emperor Hirohito to end the war on Aug. 15.
“It was one of the world’s best secrets,” Kerri Supanich of the Wendover Tourism and Convention Bureau said about the WWII-era airfield.
Because of its remoteness on the Utah-Nevada border, government officials kept silent on the Wendover Field training missions and the project that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs.
Now, with the 70th anniversary of the official surrender, Supanich said more people are interested in both the war’s history and the airfield’s mission.
“We’re going to have the 70th anniversary for the 509th on Sept. 26,” she added.
Local veterans who served during the second world war — many of them in Europe — were relieved to see the fighting in the Pacific end.
Fallon’s Cecil Quinley, a B-17 co-pilot, flew on 13 missions over Germany before being shot down in enemy territory in 1943. The Germans took the crewmen who safely parachuted out of the Flying Fortress and kept them as prisoners of war until the Allies liberated Germany during the spring of 1945.
Between V-E Day (Victory Europe) and the time the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Quinley spent some time on leave. Quinley, though, never flew another wartime mission. He said other pilots, though, volunteered to train on other types of bombers.
“The Japanese gave up before my leave ended,” said Quinley, who turned 100 years old this summer. “I had received a telegram to take more leave.”
Because of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Quinley said the American servicemen did not know much about the effects of the raids except they felt the United States would not do anymore bombing over Tokyo.
Quinley said the B-29 was a state-of-the-art bomber during the latter stages of the war. He knew of one fellow aviator who served as a flight engineer on one of the planes.
Like Quinley, Ray Gawronski, 92, of Carson City served aboard a bomber as a flight engineer and completed 25 missions over Germany.
After returning to the U.S., Gawronkski was placed from the B-25 to the B-29 program, but because of the August raids against Japan, he never flew in combat again.
“I never trained at Wendover and never had the opportunity,” he said.
Although the war ended 70 years ago, Gawronski said it’s important for students to know about the action in Europe and the Pacific and of the sacrifices the military and civilian communities made for four years.
“The younger generation needs to know the history of World War II, not only for what I did but for the others who sacrificed,” he said.
Valerie Bamford of Fallon said she was very happy to learn of the Japanese surrender. Bamford, 91, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in late 1940 and stayed for almost six years, served most of the war at Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base — now Travis Air Force Base — outside of Fairfield, Calif. She was an administrative clerk who primarily processed awards.
At the time, both Army Air Force and Navy aviators trained there.
“I enjoyed serving, but it was sad to see the planes fall from the sky,” she said of the aerial dogfights in the Pacific.
As for the end of the war, she said everybody was relieved. Bamford enlisted in the military at the age of 16 after talking to her father about joining the Army.
“It was the thing to do,” she said.
Infantryman John Martin “Marty” Wilson grew up in Scotland, enlisted in the British army and fought in Europe, seeing action in France, Belgium and Germany.
With the fighting over in Europe in May 1945, the 89-year-old Fallon resident said his unit was being trained to fight against Japan until Japan surrendered after the dropping of the second atomic bomb.
“I never heard much about them,” Wilson said of the atomic bombs and the devastation they caused.
While Europe had parades after Germany surrendered, he doesn’t remember the same amount of fanfare leading up to the formal surrender.
While historians and scholars have questioned the dropping of the two bombs, retired Marine Corps First Sgt. Chuck Harton of Reno said the two B-29 runs saved the lives of more than one million Americans and Japanese — possibly more.
Harton and his fellow marines were training at Maui, Hawaii, in preparation of invading Japan when the bombs fell.
“I do envision a million dead Americans if we had to invade Japan,” the 90-year-old veteran said, adding that as many Japanese may have lost their lives from conventional bombing attacks over their major cities.
For those who landed on Japan after the war to become part of the occupation force, former marine Harold “Gus” Forbus of Fallon, who died in 2012, explained the eeriness of post-war Japan in a manuscript written by him and his son.
Forbus said after almost four years of war — during which it was kill or be killed — he didn’t have to fire a shot to protect himself or anyone else on the Japanese mainland.
“With the reality of the surrender and our victory, it was a different world,” he wrote. “All anxiety was gone and the troops could really relax.”