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. Aired on Aug. 11, 2001, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
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.
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. At a secret facility outside of Wendover Airfield, a small team of scientists began experimenting with some of the same weapons that had terrorized Europe.
“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.
At one point 20,000 servicemen were based in Wendover. Heavy bomber groups used in Europe trained here. But everything stopped for the atomic bomb training missions that change the world.
It was at Wendover Airfield that the Enola Gay and her crew were trained and prepared for the most decisive military action in world history, when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.
And it all took place in absolute secrecy.
The airfield is far different today. The barracks are in disrepair. Crumbling buildings and rusty hangars are falling apart. The Enola Gay hangar remains but is in bad shape. Plans to turn this into a museum and memorial have foundered for years.