Walk Through History at Historic Wendover Airfield

All-Access Tours Let Visitors Step Inside the Manhattan Project’s Secret Assembly and Testing Base

By Dianna Troyer

From September 1944 until June 1945, a secret assembly and testing base for the Manhattan Project was done at Wendover.

Imagine a World War II bombing mission so secretive that even those who carried it out on the morning of August 6, 1945, did not know the extent of what they had done until later that evening.

“We learned an atomic bomb had been dropped when President Truman announced it on the radio,” Jack Widowsky said in a previous Ruralite interview about participating in atomic bomb missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

Although Jack passed away in 2018, his presence still lingers at the Historic Wendover Airfield in Utah through memorabilia he donated. From September 1944 until June 1945, he trained at Wendover, the secret assembly and testing base for the Manhattan Project.

“We had a job to do, trained intensely, and executed it thoroughly,” said Jack, a member of the Army Air Force’s 509th Composite Group. “I’m honored and proud to have been part of the mission.”

What was it like for Jack and others to train secretly at Wendover? They heeded Brigadier General Paul W. Tibbets Jr.’s dictum at the base entrance, “What you see here, what you hear here when you leave here, let it stay here.”

Jack and others share their oral history at nuclearmuseum.org about the mission and training at Wendover.

To retrace the footsteps of Jack and others who trained at Wendover, visitors can take a 5-hour all-access tour July 27 and September 14 at the airfield. The tour starts at 10 a.m. at the John T. Brinkman Service Club and is limited to 40 people.

“We had such a good response last year that we added a 4th tour this year,” says Jim Petersen, president of the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation.

The John T. Brinkman Service Club houses the museum and a 1:1 replica of Little Boy, a 9,700-pound uranium bomb detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, at an altitude of about 1,900 feet.

The all-access tour includes the atomic bomb loading pit, bomb storage bunkers, atomic bomb assembly area, Norden bombsight building, enlisted mess hall and barracks, fire station, enlisted mess hall, B-29 Enola Gay Hangar, and base hospital facilities.

“You really get a feel for what it was like here during the war,” says Jim, a private pilot, aviation history buff, and electrical engineer. “We still have a few veterans in their 90s like Norris Jernigan who come by.”

Last year, the airfield museum hosted more than 9,000 visitors, not including the August air show which had an estimated 4,000 visitors.

“Despite our somewhat distant location from major populations, we welcomed multiple grade school, high school, and trade school groups for tours, car clubs, and historical groups,” Jim says.

Visitors can learn about Jack’s missions. He was the navigator on a backup B-29 that accompanied the Enola Gay on the mission to Hiroshima and the navigator on a weather plane that accompanied the Bockscar to Nagasaki.

He believed the atomic bombs helped shorten the war by averting an invasion of Japan.

“If the Japanese or Germans had the atomic bomb technology, there’s no doubt they would have bombed us,” Jack said. As a symbol of the hope for peace, an origami paper crane about the size of an almond was donated to the museum in 2017. It was made by Sadako Sasaki, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing who died from leukemia in 1955.

Her family donated the crane during a ceremony “as neither an apology nor a condemnation for events during World War II between the 2 countries, but a moment of reconciliation.”

Jim says the foundation’s board and countless volunteers are restoring buildings on the base “in honor of all those who sacrificed their time and lives for our freedoms.”

In 2021, the foundation launched a 4-phase restoration plan called Save Where They Walked. Current projects focus on the B-29 hangar, the airmen’s dining hall, a barracks, a C-54 aircraft, a link trainer, the administration building, and a bomb truck.

Last year, a full-size replica of the Fat Man atomic bomb used at Nagasaki was donated and is exhibited at the partially completed Manhattan Project exhibit room.

“We’re very grateful to those who have contributed time, money, and expertise to the efforts at the airfield,” Jim says. “Support is needed and appreciated as we continue to develop this museum.”

More information about the base, restoration projects, volunteerism, and tours may be found at the Historic Wendover Airfield website or by calling (435) 665-7724.