Wendover Airfield is a shadow of the busy base where 20,000 servicemen worked during World War II, pushing boundaries in technology that Nazi Germany pioneered. George Knapp reports on the secrecy surrounding what went on there and the difference it made in the war. This story originally aired on Aug. 11, 2001, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
MYSTERY WIRE — Adolf Hitler’s twisted dreams of world conquest were buried in Berlin in 1945. But not before German scientists unleashed on the world advanced weapons of mass destruction, weapons that kept the Third Reich in the war. Weapons that both the East and West wanted for the Cold War that would follow.
It was Wendover Airfield along the northeastern Nevada-Utah border where the crew of the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress were trained and where the Enola Gay was hangared as the U.S. prepared for the most decisive military action in world history, when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan 75 years ago.
The hangar that housed the Enola Gay remains standing today as a reminder of the world-changing events that took place here. It has stood silent for decades, being weathered by hot, dry summers and cold and windy winters. It’s only recently, after years of trying, that the hangar is being restored to its former glory.
Las Vegas physicist Harry Fechter was a young MIT trained radar specialist when he was sent by Boeing in 1946 to a desolate corner of desert on the Nevada-Utah border. The town was Wendover. It had a casino or two, an airbase, and little else.
Below you can watch the unedited interview with Dr. Fechter
At a secret facility outside of Wendover Airfield, a small team of scientists began experimenting with some of the same weapons that Hitler used to terrorize Britain.
“One knew that eventually there would be control of what’s up there,” Fechter said, gesturing to the sky.
In other words, the earliest version of Star Wars, the U.S. government’s Strategic Defense Initiative that developed under President Ronald Reagan.
“We had a special hangar. Within the hangar were all sorts of magic German captured equipment. The IR stuff, stuff with names like Wasserfall, and Peenemünde, and all kinds of documents — it was highly classified at the time. The mission was to develop something to kill V-2s.”
The German V-2 was the world’s first long-range ballistic missile.
Fechter figures the Germans were about five years ahead of everyone else. By launching their own buzz bombs, rockets, even telephone poles and locking on, the Wendover scientists caught up, although few knew what they did, even to this day.
“I’ll tell you how secret it was,” Fechter said. “We shot a pretty nice shot in 1947, early ’47. And it took 10 years before the picture of it appeared on Newsweek magazine.”
Very little remains of the site where the Nazi weapons were mastered, and the area is still off limits.
Wendover Army Air Base was activated on March 28, 1942 as a B-17 and B-24 heavy bombardment training base, and the first unit, the 306th bombardment Group of four squadrons of B-17 aircraft arrived in April of 1942. At one point 20,000 servicemen were based in Wendover.
The airfield is far different today. Many of the barracks are gone, others are in disrepair. The Enola Gay hangar, however, is beginning to look like it did 75 years ago. After years of trying to get funding to restore the hangar, the state of Utah gave the restoration organization a grant to help with costs.