WENDOVER — Jim Petersen isn’t whining about it. That’s not his nature. Looking at it objectively, this COVID-19 situation has stopped much bigger projects and causes, to say nothing of livelihoods and lives, in their tracks.
Still, he does not disagree that it is indeed a crying shame that the historic Wendover Airfield he has spent the past 20 years resurrecting won’t get to have a big spotlight on it as the world remembers the events of 75 years ago that ended World II and ushered in the nuclear era.
The pilots, crews and B-29 “Superfortress” bombers named Enola Gay and Bockscar that dropped the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, ushering in the end of the war days later, started out here, on the Utah side of the Utah-Nevada line, at a military base commanding 1.8 million acres of Great Basin sagebrush.
In the pre-pandemic world, that would have meant live festivities this week, replete with air shows, period reenactments, salutes to the Greatest Generation, displays of vintage military equipment, patriotic speeches, probably some fireworks – a full-throated, rousing blast to the past.
In the pandemic world, there will be nothing of the sort.
Not only does that kill a big party, but it also takes away attention from all that is yet to be restored at a base that remains a work in progress.
There’s no telling how many charitable foundations and patriotic benefactors might have been moved and motivated by the 75-year celebration and stepped forward to help.
“It is a big disappointment for a lot of reasons,” Petersen allows, but that’s as far as he’ll go.
Giving the past its due, he’s learned from experience, might be important and necessary, but it’s never easy.
* * *
Explaining “Why?” is easy for Jim Petersen, a man who chokes up when he talks about the need to never forget those members of the Greatest Generation who manned the Wendover Airfield — it housed nearly 20,000 soldiers in its prime — and honor the sacrifices they made “in order for us not to be speaking Japanese or German.”
The “Why Him?” Is harder to explain.
For some reason, he just happened to be in the right place at the right time 20 years ago.
In the fall of 2000, Jim and his wife, Kathy, were part of a tour group hosted by the Oregon California Trails Association that was following the Pony Express Trail.
They stopped in Wendover for the night and the group was told about an optional side tour to see what remained of the old World War II airfield on the Utah side of the border.
Only half-a-dozen people showed up for the tour the next morning; Jim was one of them.
They drove across the runway of the Wendover airport to see a “bomb pit” — a cement hole that the B-29s would straddle so 9,000-pound atom bomb prototypes could be loaded into their bomb bays.
In the months prior to the atom bombs being dropped on Japan, hundreds of these non-explosive facsimiles destroyed a lot of sagebrush and an unknown number of unsuspecting rabbits on the 1.8 million acres outside Wendover the U.S. Army had set aside for bombing practice.
The bomb pit Petersen saw that day wasn’t much to look at. It was filled mostly with mud.
But in his mind’s eye he saw much more: a thriving base full of airmen determined to defend the United States of America.
He looked around at a handful of the old base’s buildings and hangars still standing — including the enormous hangar that housed the Enola Gay and Bockscar — and noted that most of them were one good wind storm from oblivion.
Someone ought to save this before it’s too late, is what went through his mind.
That was it. One man. One thought. One crusade.
Within six months he had established the nonprofit Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work.
Fortunately, he had earlier sold his engineering firm and was in a position where he could put his heart and soul into the cause; a year later, in 2002, it also helped when Tooele County needed a new manager for the Wendover Airport and Jim took the job. While he was watching over and upgrading the functioning airport (he retired as manager in 2016) he could also watch over and upgrade the old airport.
Twenty years later, the result is a testament to what one man who listens to the past and is properly motivated can accomplish.
Today, the officer’s club from the old WWII airfield is a showcase, displaying a prototype atomic bomb signed by dozens of fliers who once trained at Wendover, including Col. Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay (he named the plane for his mother; the Bockscar was named for its captain, Frederick Bock).
Other buildings have been restored, including the fire station, the bombsight storage vault, and, most importantly, the hangar that housed those massive B-29s. Now known as the Enola Gay Hangar, it was saved from destruction in 2009 when Petersen managed to get the National Trust for Historic Preservation to put the building on its list of the country’s most endangered historic places.
Thanks to grants and contributions that poured in, the hangar is now in solid working order, ready and waiting for a B-29 to park there permanently. (No easy task, since only about 20 B-29s remain in existence. One of them is the actual Enola Gay, but it is showcased at the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.)
Petersen, who just turned 73, plans to one day have many more hangars, barracks and vintage planes added to the lineup.
In the meantime, he and Landon Wilkey, the museum curator, conduct tours on demand Wednesday through Saturday (for schedules, see wendoverairbase.com), as they wait out the pandemic like everyone else.
This week, they’re thinking of adding a Facebook live event as a virtual tribute to 75 years ago.
But for the most part, it’s only the memories and the past that are keeping Jim company. And that’s not as lonely as you might think.
“If it’s sunset and the sun’s going down and there’s nothing going on and you stand out on the ramp,” says the man who resurrected a World War II airfield, “well, it’s quite a feeling.”