Ken Beaton: Standing on their shoulders | NevadaAppeal.com

Ken Beaton: Standing on their shoulders

Historic Wendover Airfield’s B-29 Enola Gay hangar restoration project sign in front of the hangar.
Courtesy |

Because Nevada has 300 sunny days a year and the U.S. government owns 87 percent of our state’s sparsely populated kitty litter, in the late 30s and early 40s a number of airfields were constructed by the Nevada Department of Transportation for the U.S. Army Air Corps. By early 1942 five airfields began training pilots and crews. Reno Air Force Base (Stead AFB) and Las Vegas Army Air Base (Nellis AFB) trained fighter pilots and gunners. The USN built the Fallon Naval Air Station to be safe from the threat of Japanese carrier planes. Tonopah Army Air Base trained most B-24 pilots, squadrons and bomber groups. Wendover Army Air Base with three 8,100-foot runways trained B-17 and B-24 bomber groups until Colonel Paul Tibbets and the 509th Composite Group arrived in December 1944 to train for a mission “that could end the War.”

The 509th was self-contained. The 390th Air Service Group, 603rd Air Engineering Squadron, 1027th Material Squadron, the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron, the 1395th Military Police Company, the 1st Ordnance Squadron, and the 1st Technical Detachment, a Manhattan Project unit, made up the 509th.

Four-hundred FBI agents and the 1395th Military Police Company, nobody in the 509th could share their responsibilities with a fellow crew member. A loose lip Louie was immediately assigned to a frozen hell at the edge of the earth. Colonel Tibbets was the only person who knew the entire mission.

The Manhattan Project began in 1939 and grew to 130,000 people. Only a handful knew about the project. The others thought they were paid for turning dials and “doing nothing.” The entire project cost $2 billion, about $26 billion in 2015 dollars. Ninety percent was spent on buildings and 10 percent on development and production of the nuclear weapons.

Production and research for the project took place at 30 sites across the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. The more famous sites were Oak Ridge, Tenn., Hanford Engineering Works in Richland, Wash., Los Alamos Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., and Wendover AF Base.

If a person violated the secrecy code, in less than two hours that person was fired and escorted immediately off the premises. If prosecuted and found guilty, the penalty was 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, $131,000 in today’s dollars.

On Monday, Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay took off about 02:00 hours. “Little Boy” was armed while flying to Hiroshima. At 08:15 hours the bomb was released. Colonel Tibbets had practice the 180-degree turn hundreds of times over Wendover’s bombing range. Forty-four seconds later the Atomic Age began with a blinding light followed by the bomb’s shock wave which buffeted the Enola Gay. Hiroshima experienced “Little Boy’s” 7,050 degree temperature, more than 600 mph shock wave winds and one square mile of total destruction.

Hiroshima was one of several targeted cities. The Manhattan Project scientists wanted the cities untouched so they could measure the entire destructive power of the first A-bomb, “Little Boy.”

On Thursday, Aug. 9, 1945, the B-29, “Boxcar,” dropped “Fat Man” on Nagasaki, Japan. The same day Russia declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria with almost 2 million troops in tanks and armored vehicles. The Emperor of Japan announced Japan’s unconditional surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.

If you have ever said, “I’m bored,” get out of your chair, drive along Route 80 to Historic Wendover Airfield in Wendover, Utah. Visit the museum and make sure you take a picture of the exact replica of “Little Boy” painted black and signed by Colonel Paul Tibbets with a gray sharpie. If you were born after 1945, that may be the reason why your dad returned to marry your mother and you were born between 1946 and 1964. Never forget, you stand on their shoulders.

Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.