The Half-Life of History

Visiting the ruined military base where the U.S. Air Force trained for the bombing of Hiroshima.

[Photos by Mark Klett, from The Half-Life of History, published by Radius Books.]

Wendover, May 2011

Mark Klett tucks his head under the dark cloth of the camera. His hands remain outside, tilting and adjusting the lens as he brings the far wall of the immense airplane hangar into focus. Pigeons trace parabolas 50 feet above us, while in a high corner of the metal cavern two ravens rag at us from their nest. Behind us stands a boxing ring where a local promoter has been staging fights between women boxers from Mexico. Sheets of asbestos hang from the ceiling and rodent droppings are everywhere underfoot. The corrugated metal sheets hanging from the curved steel trusses boom and rattle in the scorching wind.

The rolling doors of the hangar are so large that it takes Klett four photographs to capture them from end-to-end, eight segments on rails meant to accommodate a bomber with wings almost as wide as a football field and a tail standing three stories high. Even though the doors are pulled shut, and most of the hangar is in shadows, we can’t escape the light. It leaks in all around us, between the doors and through bullet holes in the galvanized siding. It’s as if we’re being x-rayed, assaulted by the glare of the adjacent salt flats.

When Klett’s finished making his panorama of the doors, we circle the floor looking for evidence left at the scene, a forensic search performed as much on history as on a place. The structure is 200 by 228 feet, by far the largest hangar on what during World War II was the largest bombing range in the world. Disks of light are scattered on the floor and the photographer puts his hand into one of the beams cast by a hole in the ceiling 52 feet above us. Sunlight from a nuclear furnace 93 million miles away is focused into pictures of the sun, a crude but perfect camera obscura. Klett splays his fingers, looks at the shadow on the floor, then goes to retrieve the tripod and camera.

I watch the sun pictures track slowly across the floor. As the day progresses and the sun declines, they will elongate and, no longer truly pictures of the sun, simply become puddles of light. I’m reminded of the heliographs — sun signals — used to communicate from nearby mountaintop to mountaintop in the 19th century by bouncing light off mirrors. But the word also means a photograph made by placing an object onto a sensitized paper and letting unmitigated sunlight create the exposure, transferring an image onto the surface. The first fixed photographic image was, in fact, a heliograph created during an eight-hour exposure made out a window by the Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, a dim message we can still decipher today.

Hanger 4-part image

Klett arranges the legs of the tripod around the disk, goes back under the black cloth, and leaves one hand free to cast a shadow. He’s using sunlight that’s several minutes old to photograph the present on a surface poured sixty years ago. He’s doing what he always does, complicating our sense of time and place by bringing forth a trace from the past, not a memory exactly, but more like a shadow from and of history. Photography is not a momentary stay against entropy. It doesn’t stop decay, but selects an image in which our perception of the process is arrested. And always the photographer is as much participant as observer.

The remains of the Wendover Army Air Field stand just east of the Nevada-Utah border and west of the largest salt flat in North America. Today more of this base is left standing than at any other American facility abandoned from that period. The hangar we’re in was used to maintain B-29 bombers, then the largest, most complicated and expensive weapon delivery system ever built. Each aircraft had 55,000 separately numbered parts and a million rivets holding together acres of aluminum skin.

In spring of 1945 the Boeing “Superfortress” bomber serial number B-29­45-MO-44-86292 rolled off the assembly line in Omaha, Nebraska. It was one of only fifteen of the bombers modified for atomic bomb missions and given a unique silver-plate finish. The plane was brought to Wendover on July 14th, where it was stationed for two weeks before being flown to Tinian Island in the Pacific Ocean. On August 5th Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets christened the airplane after his mother, Enola Gay. The following day he piloted it over Japan and dropped the world’s first atomic bomb.

The camera clicks. The sun draws lines of light across the hangar floor, headed west on its way to Hiroshima, taking with it all its small self-portraits. On the other side of the doors and to one side is a faded sign in the tumbleweeds that proclaims Icarus Aviation.

Figure and Window

Wendover, April 2007

It is, of course, a federal offense to be walking uninvited and unescorted out along the runaways of a functioning airport in these post-9/11 times, much less at night past functioning military gear. But it’s 10 o’clock on an Easter evening, a Sunday when everyone in this part of Wendover is asleep. The 737 MaxAire jetliner that daily flies “gambler specials” from various cities around the country sits unattended on the tarmac, its boarding stairs wheeled up to an open hatch.

I stroll past the wooden hangars, the old squadron administration building and the larger steel hangar that was erected as a temporary wartime structure. The buildings store everything from road salt to vintage jet fighters, and are left unlocked. Cumuli scud overhead, advance notice of a front moving in from Nevada. The lights from the hotel-casinos over the state line reflect off the low clouds and lend a faint glow to the concrete apron. The hangar line is squared off to the tarmac, a disciplined row of multi-paned windows that on this moonless night appears as stately as the Acropolis.

Klett and I initiated an empirical process of discovery here in May of 2001, just four months before the terrorist attacks radically altered the calculus of nuclear weapons. Most of the aging devices stockpiled in the United States and the remnants of the Soviet Union had previously been in the process of being dismantled under various treaties. By 2002 it was obvious that the current administration was seeking to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons for tactical and strategic deployment. The former was a bunker-buster bomb that could be used to scour out caves and facilities buried underground. The latter was a new warhead design for intercontinental ballistic missiles. A new arms race was imminent, and it seemed to us that the history in Wendover was relevant, but fading fast.

We work out of the single-wide prefab unit owned and operated by the Center for Land Use Inerpretation that’s located a couple hundred yards northwest of the Enola Gay hangar. The nonprofit organization in Los Angeles established this as their first field station in the American Land Museum they operate around the country, choosing Wendover precisely because it is a locus of intense anthropic intervention in a desert geomorphology where change is everywhere evident. CLUI favors military installations in part because they tend to preserve the adjacent lands for security reasons.

Clouds and Hangar

The Enola Gay hangar is a work of emblematic architecture that stands for what some historians call the most important event of the 20th century, the first deployment of an atomic bomb, which continues to shape the history of the world. Few people remember how controversial the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, a debate still being suppressed today. Some of the censorship is active, some passive. In the case of the Wendover Air Field and the hangar, it seems likely that they are not a historical monument and museum because few Americans today care to ponder these particular events that happened more than 60 years ago. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the consequent reengagement of the government with nuclear weapons lent urgency to our task. We needed to construct a body of work through which the past could manifest in the present and affect the future. Wendover itself was a place-as-­artifact and we sought to give it a voice through art-as-archaeology.

During our work, we’ve slowly uncovered not just evidence of Wendover’s past, but also our own motivations for conducting this search. We realize now that it’s not the Enola Gay itself in which we’re interested, nor even the larger issue of Wendover’s role in the prosecution of World War II and our bombing of Hiroshima. The still broader concern we have is with the erosion of history, a process so clearly made manifest here in everything from geomorphology to architecture. We looked at what was on the ground, what was discarded, burned out, half buried. We alternated looking at Wendover with thinking about Hiroshima, taking picture and notes with interviewing people and researching in libraries and online. And during every visit, we watched the playa, where one year a patch might be a blank slate, but the next a graveyard of military rust resurfacing, pushed to the surface by the action of salt and water.

And so, I find myself at the doors of that steel hangar in which we started photographing six years ago. They’re chained shut, but there’s a gap in between the two central panels, and I slip in between them. A fleet of oil tanker trucks from a bankrupt transportation company is being stored inside, the blocky grills of the semitrailer rigs catching glints of light leaking in through the roof. Oil is, of course, both a resource over which countries go to war, and a way of financing the building of new nuclear weapons. It’s a geological phenomenon created through entropy, through the decay of organic material, and connected to our work.

Nail on floor and shadow

The roof is gradually disintegrating along with the rest of the sheet metal wrapped around the girders. Sections are periodically replaced, but almost all the glass that was in the windows when we first started working is now broken out. The few pieces of furniture, even most of the interior walls in the office spaces flanking the central hangar space — all gone. Every year more of the building disappears through theft and deliberate neglect, even as security is tightened and visitors chased off by airport guards. We think the base is as important to American history as a Civil War battlefield, and cannot understand why, despite the efforts of local people to collect its history and display it as the airport building, why we as a country would let it go so easily.

Overhead the pigeons come and go as sheets of corrugated metal bang sonorously up and down in the wind, bells clanging in a flat voice, death and resurrection in an atonal key.

Wendover and Hiroshima

Klett and I pile up charcoal and light the barbecue on the patio outside the single-wide CLUI Unit. Every now and then one of us peers over the chain link fence that separates us from the runways. History is everywhere exposed and visibly in motion. Fifty separate shorelines on the hills around town, beaches of the Pleistocene, continually erode into the salt flats. The wooden barracks, mess hall and infirmary across the street behind the trailer sag a little more toward the ground every year. Twenty-five centuries ago the site of Wendover was hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the ancient Lake Bonneville, one of two inland seas that covered what is now the Great Basin in Nevada and western Utah. When the lakes began to dry out 14,000 years ago, they left behind hundreds of playas, or dry lake beds. The largest relict lake in the Great Basin is the Great Salt Lake, and to its west is the 4,000-square-mile Great Salt Lake Desert with its immense salt flats. Today almost all of that land, as well as the air overhead, is controlled military space.

The Bonneville Salt Flats, the western lobe of the Great Salt Lake Desert, begin at the edge of town, the playa where land speed records were set during much of the 20th century. The playa is more than 3,000 feet deep, a tub filled with silts washed out of the mountains. The flats are coated with a layer of salt only a few inches thick, dry and hard in the summer and fall, but hosting a shallow lake in winter and spring. This turns the landscape into a tabula rasa upon which humans have inscribed their tracks each year for the last ten millennia, only to see them erased by wind and water, and that includes the traces of war. Entire strata of history here seem to decline into the earth, only to periodically resurface, a complex process of which our work is a part.

Storm over Playa

The nearest large city is Salt Lake City, 120 miles to the east. In 1914 the first transcontinental telephone line linking the two coasts was connected in Wendover, and ten years later Bill Smith opened the Cobblestone Service Station. Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931, and the next year Smith installed a roulette table, making his place the town’s first gambling establishment, soon to be called the Stateline Cafe.

Just as Japan was expanding its regional military efforts during the worldwide depression of the 1930s, so too was Germany, both countries seeking access to natural resources and food and room to grow. In January 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to increase funding for the Army Air Corps as a precaution in case of war. That summer Albert Einstein, then living in Princeton, wrote to the president to warn him that Germany was using its atomic research to develop a bomb.

Construction of Wendover Field began in September 1940, one of several bases created in the arid American West before we entered the war. The region offered good flying weather year round, the land was open for maneuvers, and the facilities far from any possible enemy attack. The first buildings on the base were constructed of wood and tarpaper, and meant to be only temporary. That year Wendover had a population of 103, and a single hotel, drugstore and grocery. The servicemen arriving in Wendover stepped off the train into a desert so hot, a sun so bright, that there seemed no shade anywhere. Even their own shadows seemed lost.

Klett and I pull up chairs next to the barbecue, the sun just setting behind the 9,000­-foot Goshute Mountains in Nevada. To the east and over the salt flats the terminator begins to rise, the Earth’s shadow a transparent band of blue-gray edging out the last tinge of sunset. There’s almost no humidity in the air to hold warmth, and the temperature drops steeply at sunset from the triple digits we suffered while inside the hangar. The radiant heat from the fire begins to feel good. It’s so flat to the east and south that the curvature of the planet obscures the feet of the faraway ranges. I think about the sunlight, which in Japan would now be falling in midmorning of the next day.

Rocks with graffiti, near base

The War

In early 1941 the first twelve men arrived at Wendover Field to lay out gunnery and bombing ranges, and gravel a rudimentary runway. That spring the base had four barracks, a mess hall, its own telephone exchange, two ordnance warehouses, three ammo igloos and a bombsight storage building. There was not a single tree on the base. By the end of the year the military reserve totaled 3.5 million acres and was the largest bomber training facility in the world. 2,261 personnel were stationed in the twelve bunkhouses on the base and wherever else in town they could find to sleep. The barracks were freezing cold at night, each heated by a single potbellied stove. A thick haze of smoke hung over town from the more than ten tons of coal being burned each week.

Klett prowls through the barracks, tripod over his shoulder, me trailing behind with notepad and pen. We sift through heaps of fallen insulation and asphalt roofing, broken glass and stained mattresses. On the outside the barracks are brown wood weathering to gray. On the inside they’re painted a light institutional green. All the buildings are oriented with doors on their western and eastern ends, the north and south walls lined with rows of multi-paned windows. Each of the rectilinear barracks held 63 men of which no traces remain. Now the floors heave up the debris of more recent beer busts, love trysts, squatters, and yet these temporary structures are still here long after the centuries-old buildings of Hiroshima were burned away in an instant.

Gunners practiced skeet shooting in the valleys north of town to learn first how to follow and lead a moving target. Then they were seated on a railway flatcar mounted with .50 caliber machine guns and driven around a circular track while shooting at targets on a separate motorized course. The gunners learned relative motion, tracking and shooting objects as they came closer and then moved farther away at up to 40 miles per hour. It was a dogfight compressed into two dimensions, the steel-jacketed rounds blasting through the targets, and filling the high dirt berms behind them with spent projectiles the size of a child’s finger. Rounds that missed flew overhead to strike and scar the limestone cliffs. The smell of cordite drifted down the hill and was so thick it made people in town want to vomit.

Composite of hangar from above, bed springs in salt, and bullet on concrete.

In the mornings before it gets too hot we take the truck into the hills north of town and walk the gunnery ranges. We finger the scars left on the limestone and collect hundreds of brass shell casings that range in size from petite .22 caliber civilian rounds up to flattened slugs from the .50 caliber guns. Some of the latter projectiles are intact, but most have burst open to splay like Klett’s fingers in the hangar, salt and water having worked their way inside the copper jackets to rust the steel interior, an explosion in slow motion. We drop most back on the ground, but take the more bizarre ones back to the trailer where we line them up in graduated sizes like so many regiments of little bombs.

The bombardiers and pilots flew missions at all hours, the shadows of airplanes criss-crossing a target city made of salt and life-sized replicas of enemy battleships con­structed of tar. The city and replicas were outlined in electric lights for night runs. Their most secret piece of equipment was the Norden bombsight. The bombardier fed in the speed of the aircraft, estimated wind direction and speed, the altitude of the plane, and the bombsight calculated the trajectory of the bomb. The bombardier, sitting in a plane moving 300 feet per second, couldn’t react fast enough to drop the bomb on time, so the planes were put on autopilot and the bombs dropped by the bombsight. There was never a finger on the trigger. The bombsights were removed from the planes and locked up in a secure and guarded building after each flight.

In autumn of 1942 a boy’s school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, was converted by J. Robert Oppenheimer into a facility for making atomic bombs. At the University of Chicago on December 2 a group of scientists gathered in a squash court to watch as three rods were pulled out of a spherical pile of graphite and uranium blocks. The scientists were unsure if they could contain the atomic reaction and wondered if it would spread to devour the entire planet — but they pressed ahead. The final rod was pulled and the first manmade, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction began. Twenty-eight minutes later the rods were pushed back in. The world was still with us. Now all Los Alamos had to do was turn a heap of bricks that weighed just over a million pounds into a bomb that an airplane could carry.

The next month a young officer in the Army Air Corps was transferred back to the U.S. from Europe, where he had been leading bombing raids in a B-17 over the English Channel. That April he reported to Wichita, Kansas, to test the combat abilities of Boeing’s newest plane, the B-29 Superfortress, the world’s first intercontinental bomber. It stood 30 feet high, had a wingspan of more than 141 feet, carried ten machine guns, was armor-plated and weighed 105,000 pounds when empty. It was a huge and ungainly aircraft, and the company had just lost its chief pilot and ten leading technicians in the crash of a test flight. Boeing was beginning production of 2,722 of the planes, to be used primarily in the Pacific Theater; Paul Tibbets would now spend a year learning how to fly the B-29s and how to improve their performance. The first thing he did was toss overboard most of the machine guns to be used by the crews for self-defense.

The Military Policy Committee of the Manhattan Project decided that it would be better to drop an atomic bomb on Japan rather than Germany. The committee was worried, given Germany’s research efforts, that should the bomb fail to explode upon delivery, the scientists of the Third Reich could learn enough from the wreckage to construct their own atomic device. And not only were the Japanese farther behind technologically; there was a chance the bomb would fall into the sea nearby if it missed its target.

In Wendover the enlisted men, not allowed to attend the Officer’s Club, paved the floor of a limestone cavity just outside town and named it Juke Box Cave. It offered shade at all hours of the day, and it was the first time the cave had been that extensively used since Neolithic hunters occupied it thousands of years earlier. In town a beauty parlor and a bakery opened.

Seventy miles away, at the Dugway Proving Ground, the Army was testing a new incendiary bomb. Two mock villages were constructed, accurate models of German and Japanese settlements. Jellied petroleum, which had been used in flame-throwers during World War I, had recently been reformulated into a more powerful mixture called napalm. During that summer the villages were firebombed repeatedly to test their flammability.

We pick up the camera gear and move to the next window. Through the ground glass plate on the back of the camera Klett focuses this time on the almost dead tree outside. At the previous window he had zeroed in on the window screen. At the next one he’ll dial in on the glass itself, or maybe the living quarters across the dusty lane. When he made the panorama inside the hangar, he took each photo from the same spot. This time he’s moving along the entire length of a barrack to assemble a panorama of the building across the way. In between each shot the camera and sun and shadows all move relative to one another. We feel as if we’re being pulled in and out of time.

Five images of the barracks through broken windowsOpen book on the ground

When the crews in Utah weren’t flying or shooting on the gunnery range, they learned navigation and how to identify German and Japanese warships and aircraft. They practiced camouflage, chemical warfare and survival in the field. The officer’s swimming pool was commandeered to teach crewmen how to live in a raft, should they be downed over water. In the autumn some of the men hiked up into the Goshutes to hunt deer. Each day passed quickly, but the months went by slowly. They had to read the newspaper to tell the difference between spring and fall.

At first the main source of entertainment in Wendover was playing cards, either in the barracks or at Bill Smith’s Stateline Hotel and Casino, which flourished. Then the base added a bowling alley and two theaters, and began offering first-run movies and the occasional touring show from the USO. Girls from Salt Lake City and Elko were brought in for dances, and even Bob Hope appeared, promptly christening the town “Leftover.” The former heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Dempsey, came to town and gave shadow boxing lessons.

Flying into Wendover had its challenges. When it was cloudy, the pilots had to drop below the clouds and look for the town. Water on the salt flats scattered the daylight and made the horizon indistinct. At night the wet playa could be so still that the stars reflected below as brightly as they shone above. The pilots felt as if they were flying upside down.

There were crashes, many fatal. The worst one was when a B-24 had to swerve while landing to miss a private plane. Its wing nicked the ground, cartwheeling the bomber across the field and onto the railroad tracks, a collision that spread the rails completely apart. An oncoming freight train couldn’t stop in time, hit the splayed tracks, and derailed. The base personnel looted the demolished cars and carried away cases of beer bound for the Pacific. Juke Box Cave was well stocked that month.

Beer bottles. Everywhere we go there’s broken amber glass. All over the old gunnery ranges and the floors of the limestone caves north of town, on top of ammo bunkers at South Base, along the salt flats clear to Salt Lake City, in between railroad ties, in the barracks, under ashes of the burned-out theater. The desert is carpeted in shattered bottles.

In August 1944, Paul Tibbets reported to Colorado Springs and received a briefing on the Manhattan Project. He was handed command of the 393rd Bombardment Squadron with its B-29s, and told to select a site where he could test the airplanes with utmost secrecy in support of whatever Los Alamos sent him. He chose Wendover for its isolation, but also for its proximity to a rail line and the supply centers of the West Coast. He arrived in town almost unnoticed on September 8th and set up his headquarters on the base. Six days later the first B-29s arrived, as did 400 FBI agents. The unsmiling men infiltrated the chow lines, the casino, even the bars in Salt Lake City. They shadowed everyone, attempting to trip personnel into discussing Wendover. Five airmen ended up being summarily reassigned to the Aleutian Islands, their presence on the base erased.

View of Wendover through strings of lights

Late one afternoon we drive up one of the two hills closest to town, the summit rocks of which host cellphone and television gear fastened to several telecommunications masts. On the edge of the cliff overlooking Wendover is an old iron upright; Christmas tree lights are permanently strung from it in the shape of a fir tree. The bulbs look like tiny bombs on trajectories plotted downward into the town and the base, one of them poised directly above the hangar. On the other side of the X formed by the two 8,000-foot-long runways sits South Base with its double row of munition igloos, the rest of the base to the north shielded from accidental explosions by concrete and dirt blast shields.

Tibbets’s squadron started training flights over the American desert in October, practice runs that ran as far as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and the Salton Sea in Southern California. The crews dropped two models of dummy bombs filled with concrete to get the right weights. One design had a ten-foot-long blunt bullet-shaped casing and was known as Little Boy; the other featured a rotund shape and was called Fat Man. Los Alamos had gotten the weight down for the former to 9,700 pounds.

Two special bomb pits were dug and lined with concrete, and trucks with winches practiced lowering the dummy devices into them. The bombs were too large to be rolled under the B-29s, which is how conventional munitions were loaded, so the bombers rolled over the pits and the dummies were lifted into the bay doors. The crews made practice bombing runs at 30,000 feet above the desert, the dummy bombs so heavy that they buried themselves 35 feet deep when they hit the desert floor. All of the pieces were dug up and carried back to the base for both scientific forensics and security. The salt city had already melted back into the playa.

Covering a long worktable are all the Polaroid prints from several days’ work. Klett stands over the black-and-white images, shuffling them around into various configurations. I take notes from a collection of reminiscences by airmen stationed in Wendover during the war. They write about how cold it was during winter when walking outside to use the latrines at night, how hot it was while working on assembling munitions, how the glimpse of a girl brought in from a dance hall in Nevada would make them smile.

I take a midnight walk alone on an Easter Sunday down the flight line of the airfield. The truncated fuselage of a C-123 Provider troop carrier from the Vietnam era sits out on the tarmac, a stand-in for a plane flown in an action movie, part of which was filmed here. In one of the small wooden hangars now rented out to private parties sits a two-seater training jet from 1949. It’s so small it looks like a toy. At the Enola Gay hangar I pause, spooked by its creaking beams, but slip through the crack in between the massive doors. Wind has opened a new tear in the roof and faint starlight falls on the floor. Unseen wings flap slowly overhead. The fleet of tanker trucks inside are slowly corroding.

The photographs on the work table overflow. I copy down the flight logs from August 6, 1945, and firsthand accounts by people on the ground in Hiroshima. I take breaks to sit outside the trailer and stare out over the salt flats, not really seeing anything.

View through hangar doorway

August 6th

12:01 a.m.
Colonel Tibbets gives a final briefing to the crews of Special Bombing Mission No. 13, which includes three weather observation planes, two planes carrying cameras and scientific equipment (Great Artiste and Necessary Evil), and the Enola Gay.

The three weather observation planes take off, one each to check conditions over Hiroshima, Kokura and Nagasaki.

The Enola Gay lifts slowly into the night sky, the overloaded plane using all of the more than two miles of runway. The other two planes follow at two-minute intervals.

The planes rendezvous over Iwo Jima, climb to 9,300 feet, and head toward Japan.

Tibbets announces to the crew: “We are carrying the world’s first atomic bomb.” He pressurizes the plane and begins his ascent to 32,700 feet. The crew puts on parachutes and flak suits.

The weather planes fly over the target, and Radio Hiroshima signals an air-raid alert.

The pilot of the Straight Flush observation plane sends Tibbets a message: “Hiroshima is clear.” Tibbets then radios Iwo Jima: “Primary.”

The weather planes depart and in Hiroshima the all-clear is sounded.

The Enola Gay is at 31,060 feet and making 200 miles an hour when Hiroshima comes into view. It is a high tide in the Sea of Japan, so the seven branches of the Ota River are full and still. Male students are on their way to the munitions factory.

The bomb run begins and control of the plane is put into the hands of the bombardier, Thomas Ferebee.

A Radio Hiroshima operator notes that three planes have been spotted.

Ferebee’s aiming point, the T-shaped Aioi Bridge, is in clear range and the 60-second sequence to automatic release is engaged with the Norden bombsight. Luis Alvarez, a scientist aboard the Great Artiste, releases two pressure gauges on parachutes in order to measure yield. People on the ground looking up at the single bomber six miles above them notice a small white object in the sky and stare at it as it floats down.

Ferebee announces “Bomb Away.” The nose of the Enola Gay rises ten feet as the 9,700 pounds are released and Tibbets pulls into a sharp 155-degree turn to the right. Ferebee watches the bomb wobble, then it picks up speed and drops away. On the ground the radio announcer reaches for his microphone to call out a second air-raid alert.

A woman sits on the steps of a bank, seeking shadow while she waits for the branch to open. It is already 80º F with eighty percent humidity, and the forecast is for a hot day. Everyone on the streets is lightly dressed.

Ichiro Moritaki, teaching at the Hiroshima Higher Normal School two-and-a-half miles from the Shima Hospital, writes in his daily journal: “A beautiful sunrise. Made 500 bamboo spears.”

For 44.4 seconds the bomber flies north, the bomb whistles through the air, the woman waits. Then Little Boy explodes. The Enola Gay is already eleven-and-a-half miles away. Tibbets, his back to the explosion, sees a silver blue flash and tastes some­thing like electrolysis, as if he had touched the lead-and-silver fillings in his mouth with a fork. Robert Caron, the tailgunner and the only person in the plane facing Hiroshima, sees a shimmer in the atmosphere come toward them. Caron doesn’t know what it is, so says nothing. The first of three shockwaves hits and the fuselage sounds as if aluminum foil is crinkling.

Watch face in pool of light

The bomb explodes 1,968 feet above the Shima Hospital and only 800 feet to one side of the Aioi Bridge. Nuclear fission begins in one fifteenth-hundred of a microsecond and creates temperatures of several mil­lion degrees, hotter than the surface of the sun. It is at the peak of the rush hour in Hiroshima. The fireball is the size of a baseball, then a volleyball.

The fireball is one hundred feet in diameter with a temperature of a half-million degrees. Neutrons and gamma rays reach the ground, doing most of the radiological damage to living organisms.

The air above the ground is superheated and glows. The woman sitting on the steps of the bank a half- mile away vaporizes.

0.2 – 0.3
Infrared energy is released and burns exposed skin for miles in every direction. Roof tiles fuse together; granite stones and a bronze Buddha melt. Wooden telephone poles carbonize and the viscera of schoolgirls, horses and pets evaporate. The blast wave propagates outward at two miles per second.

The fireball reaches its maximum, about 900 feet in diameter, and the blast wave slows to the speed of sound. The temperature at the hypocenter, the ground directly beneath the blast, is 7,000 degrees. The mushroom cloud begins to build.

The blast wave spreads fire outward at 984 miles per hour and blows the clothes off everyone in its path. A glass splinter pierces Ichiro Moritaki’s eye, blinding him. Then the shockwave hits the mountains surrounding the city and rebounds. 60,000 of the city’s 90,000 buildings are demolished by wind and the fire that follows.

525 feet southeast from the hypocenter, the copper cladding on the dome of the Industrial Products Display Hall disappears, but most of the brick and ­stone building remains standing.

The hypocenter cools to 5400 degrees. The cloud reaches a half-mile high. Window shards have been blown into concrete walls like so many darts. The fireball dims, but from five-and-a-half miles away it still has a luminosity 10 times that of the sun.

Shadows reappear; some of them, like that of the woman sitting at the bank, are of objects that no longer exist. The shadow of japonica leaves is imprinted on an electrical pole, as is on an asphalt road the shadow of a man pulling a cart along the street.

Russell Gackenbach, 15 miles away aboard the Necessary Evil, is illuminated with a light so bright that, even with his special goggles on, he “could have read the fine print of a pocket bible.”

Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer for the newspaper Chugoku Shimbun, is in his house a mile-and-a-half from the hypocenter. He’s getting ready to go to work when there is a twinkling light, a blinding white flash, and then the blast wave, which throws him against a wall. When he recovers, everything is covered with gray dust. He grabs his 6×6 Mamiya viewfinder camera, two rolls of black-and-white film, and starts walking toward the center of the city.

Around 11 am, he takes two pictures, people being treated with cooking oil for burns. The scene is so terrible it takes him 20 minutes before he can stop crying so hard that he doesn’t fog the viewfinder. He is only able to take the two pictures. He next tries to walk to his office, but there is so much rubble he can’t find a street. He passes a swimming pool into which people had jumped, trying to escape the fire. They boiled to death. When he reaches his office he can’t get inside, it’s still so hot from the fire. Outside is a streetcar jammed with 20 people or so still in their riding positions — sitting or standing and holding straps — all leaning away from blast, stiff, burned instantly with eyes open. He can’t bring himself to take a picture.

Matsushige manages to take only five more photographs during the 10 hours he wandered the city, the last one from his window at home. It was too overwhelming for him to take any more. He develops the negatives out in the open at night, washing them in a nearby radiated stream and hanging the strips on a burned branch to dry.

Enola Gay Tail

History Restarts

Inside the offices of the Wendover airport there’s a scale-model of the base during WW II. We photograph it. Old flight jackets, miniature bombers, insignia from the 509th. In one room there’s a life-sized replica of Little Boy. We take pictures of all of it. Nowhere is there a picture of a bomb victim.

At South Base, in a building behind the ammo igloos, we find a maze of black plastic tarps nailed up to represent walls. Grimy furniture sketches show a living room, bedroom, kitchen. Life-sized paper targets of people with guns are suspended here and there. While Klett photographs the set-up that’s used by SWAT teams for practice in hostage rescue scenarios, I go outside to write up notes. The head of airport security drives up in his white SUV. He climbs out of the cab, a jacked-up guy wearing a tight shirt, a Glock holstered on his belt. He wants to know what I’m doing. Just looking around, I reply, stalling and not mentioning Klett. “That’s good,” he says, tugging at his belt, “because you can’t go in that building.” He stares at me to make sure I get the point, then climbs back in his vehicle and roars off in a cloud of dust.

Wendover mounts a brief campaign to bring the Enola Gay back to the base as a permanent installation and tourist attraction, but the Smithsonian expressed no interest in the plan. The silver-plated B-29 is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in Virginia, where it receives few visitations. The context for its display is that of a triumphant technology. The collective memory of the American veterans had defeated protests by scholars and the Japanese survivors of the bombing, the hibakusha. During the last decade, approximately 5,000 of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors were dying every year, and an average of 15,600 American veterans of WW II were passing away.

At the end of the Enola Gay hangar stands a tall chimney, the roof and windows all around it disintegrating in the frigid winter winds and warm summer rains, and from rocks thrown by kids and random gunshots fired during weekend nights, and from the neglect of history. Klett photographs it one afternoon under the gathering clouds of an afternoon thunderstorm.

The stories of the Enola Gay, Wendover and Hiroshima form a collective narrative that erodes and flattens over time as surely as the mountains around Wendover settle down onto the great playa in layers that are rewritten every year. The film holder slides in, a stiff plastic sheet is pulled out, the shutter tripped, the sheet reinserted, the film holder pulled out. It’s a case of opening and closing a view from one moment to the next, of making a sequence, of trying to make sense out of how individual memories coalesce into what we call history.

Editors' Note

This feature is excerpted from Wendover: The Half-Life of History, with photographs by Mark Klett and text by William L. Fox, to be published in November by Radius Books; it appears here courtesy of the authors and publisher. The book interweaves the history of the bombing of Hiroshima with a visual and textual portrait of the Wendover Army Air Field, where the Enola Gay was staged in June 1945.

Author's Note

The Half-Life of History is not about whether or not we should have used the atomic bomb in World War II, nor is it an attempt to redress any perceived imbalance of history. The reason we created this project was our dismay and bafflement over the discontinuity between past, present and future.

We have photographed and written about ruins across the American West for decades, and accept entropy as a natural process, but the preservation of the Wendover Air Field and the Enola Gay hangar as emblematic of nuclear warfare seemed to us an historical imperative. Despite the efforts of a few local people, however, the base and most of its buildings continue to decay. In April 2009 the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the hangar as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in America, the primary cause being simple deterioration.

We had several residencies in Wendover between 2001 and 2006, all hosted by the Center for Land Use Interpretation, the Los Angeles nonprofit “dedicated to the increase of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived.” CLUI maintains several facilities on the former air base, and we owe Matt Coolidge of the Center our profound gratitude for the opportunity to live and work there throughout such an extended period. We would also like to thank Jim Peterson, who, while manager of the Wendover Airport, made a determined effort to have the base — and the Enola Gay hangar — preserved.

In addition, Mark would like to thank the John Simon Memorial Guggenheim Foundation for supporting some of the time used for fieldwork, and the Arizona State University Art Museum for first showing the Wendover photographs. He continued to research historical photographs for this book through 2010.

Bill would also like to acknowledge several institutions and individuals for their support while working on the book. The Getty Research Institute, the Lannan Foundation, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute provided writing time and research materials. Discussions with David Abel, Robert Beckmann, and Michael Light, artists who have worked with atomic and nuclear issues and images, were of inestimable value.

William L. Fox and Mark Klett, “The Half-Life of History,” Places Journal, September 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 04.02.2012 at 16:36

    At the end of July 1944 into early August I trained at Wendover as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot. It was an excellent base with a first-rate CO. Flying conditions, day and night, were perfect. I had a broken fuel line and used all and a bit more of the long runway. Our stay was cut short to make way for the Composite Group and I completed training at Abilene under the super ace, Robert S. Johnson. Eventually, I was posted to the 506th Fighter Squadron, 404th Fighter Group, 9th AF and completed 36 sorties, far less then I would have had had my training at Wendover not been aborted.

    Robert Huddleston
    Chapel Hill, NC