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WHERE B-29S ONCE `SLEPT,' HISTORY MAY COME ALIVE

The main hangar at the Wendover Army Air Field burned down just prior to the 509th Composite Group's arrival in 1944. The hangar rebuilt in its place was about twice the size of the old one, containing about 56,000 square feet of floor space.

Conveniently, the larger hangar served to house the new B-29 superfortresses that arrived with the 509th, including the famed Enola Gay that dropped the first atomic bomb in Japan.Fifty years later, the hangar is still standing, and the city, backed by a group of World War II enthusiasts, has decided to turn it into a museum.

In March, the City Council signed an agreement with the First Composite Group Association - a nonprofit organization based in Victorville, Calif., that collects WWII memorabilia - to restore the now decaying building at the old air base.

"Our goal is to establish a hands-on, interactive World War II base," said Paul Kiener, First Composite Group co-director, who thinks Wendover is the ideal place to create a "living history" attraction. "This will be a cross between Universal Studios and Williamsburg, Va."

Kiener, a documentary-film producer, is currently completing a project titled "Wendover: The Super Secret Atomic Base" that will air on the Discovery Channel and will help raise money for the museum through video sales.

Last spring, the First Composite Group established a similar "living museum" in Victorville and work is under way for a naval history attraction in San Diego. Prior to choosing Wendover, the group toured air bases in New York, Georgia, Florida, Texas and California, Kiener said.

The Wendover air base is one of the few where a great number of its original buildings are still standing (about 60 of the original 300). And it is located near a main highway, which makes access feasible, Kiener said.

Kiener envisions workers dressed in period uniforms and a variety of WWII aircrafts and memorabilia from all over the world on display.

Chris Melville, director of Wendover's Historic Property Management, said the long-term plan for the museum includes remodeling the old hangar to include a movie theater, a gift shop, an art gallery, a restaurant, office space, and a bay area for the display of aircraft artifacts and memorabilia. The rest of the project will include restoring some barracks adjacent to the hangar, the bombing and gunnery range, bomb assembly areas, and the bomb pits where weapons were loaded onto aircrafts.

"People visiting the base will be able to take a step back into history," Melville said.

When Kiener approached Melville in February with the possibility of working together on a WWII museum, the Wendover Historic Property Management had already received a $150,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to establish a museum at the old air base. The city has run the air base since 1977, when it received ownership through a quitclaim deed.

But what both Kiener and Melville really have their hearts set on is having the Enola Gay return to its home base as a final resting place.

"The Smithsonian has neither room nor funding for it," Kiener said, referring to the current exhibit that features 60 of the total 90 feet of the Enola Gay's fuselage. The original exhibit received massive criticism because it attempeted to interpret the end of the war from the Japanese perspective.

"If the Smithsonian is willing to lend the Enola Gay, it should loan it to us," he said.

After spending 10 years and more than $1 million on the Enola Gay's restoration, the Smithsonian has made it clear that it has no intentions of getting rid of the aircraft. However, it is always willing to discuss the possibility of lending one of its objects to a reputable organization, said David Umansky, director of communication for the Smithsonian Institution.

"The best answer is not no," Umansky said. "But it's important for the borrowing organization to recognize that we would have very stringent requirements for the exhibit's maintenance and how it's displayed. They should also assume that they would be responsible for all the costs involved."

Costs for the Wendover living history-type attraction could run as high as $12 million, Kiener said. Completion of the project could extend beyond five years. Fund-raising is under way, however.

This week, the final paperwork needed to create the Wendover Field Foundation, a nonprofit entity, is being finalized. The foundation, whose board members will include Kiener and Melville, will have charge over the museum's future and fund raising. As a nonprofit organization, it will accept donated money or memorabilia, Kiener said.

Memorial Day weekend will start the project's official fund raising, Kiener said. An open house at the base will allow visitors to walk through the facility, see WWII memorabilia on display, and meet veterans who worked at the air base and flew actual missions during the war.

Later, Kiener said the group is planning to make an official request - hopefully endorsed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah - for the Enola Gay from the Smithsonian through Gov. Mike Leavitt's office. It's hoped going through political channels will ease the task, he said.

"Hatch was one of the senators who criticized the proposed WWII display at the Smithsonian," Kiener said. "With his position in the Senate, I think it's a win-win situation to bring the Enola Gay back to his home state. I think that's the kicker that will get the Smithsonian to say OK."

For his part, Melville thinks it's too soon to get excited about getting the Enola Gay.

"I try not to lead anybody with the false hope that we will have the Enola Gay," he said. "We have a very good chance of getting it from the Smithsonian, but I don't think it's appropriate to make people think we're going to get it regardless."

Meanwhile, the Smithsonian won't even consider lending the aircraft until the foundation has a place to display it, Kiener said. In all, it may be a year before all the paperwork goes through, which is how long it may take to replace the hangar's roof and perform other necessary restorations, he said.

But even if the Enola Gay never comes home, Kiener said the First Composite Group has about 20 aircraft that will eventually be on display at Wendover. Recently, the group added the last complete B-29 to its collection, which had been sitting in China Lake, Calif., since 1956, he said.

The group hopes to have the aircraft in flying condition by next summer.