Veteran reflects on Wendover’s role in the end of World War II
WENDOVER, Utah — It brought about the end of World War II and forever changed the modern world.
Dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was something never seen before and has never been seen since.
Today, in a small Utah town on the Nevada border, the Historic Wendover Airfield holds a lesser-told story of those fateful missions.
In 1944, Norris Jernigan was a young intelligence clerk in the 393rd Bomb Squadron that was assigned to the Wendover Army Air Field as part of the 509th Composite Group and was just beginning to take part in the secretive training exercises there.
“We had been selected to be the bomb squadron of the new group that would be handling a new secret weapon that, if successful, should shorten the war by at least two years,” Jernigan recalled in a recent interview with KSL TV. “(Col. Paul W. Tibbets) said, ‘this is a top-secret project, you’re not to talk to anybody about anything, if you’re off-base you’re not to even mention that you’re stationed at Wendover, Utah — you just don’t talk to anybody about anything.’”
Jernigan said the group was designed to be self-reliant because of the secrecy of the mission and after extensive training, it began moving overseas to Tinian Island in April 1945.
“The flight crews began arriving around the middle of June and by July they were flying practice missions to Japan,” Jernigan recalled. “(They were) flying a single, 10,000-lb. TNT bomb that was the same configuration as the plutonium bomb that was used later.”
Jernigan said around Aug. 1, 1945, service members attached to the 509th began to notice changes.
“There were secret meetings, secret briefings and all of a sudden higher-ranking military personnel started showing up,” Jernigan said. “There were others that started showing up wearing khaki clothing but no military insignia or anything, so obviously they were not military and those, of course, were scientists from Los Alamos, the laboratory for the atomic bomb.”
The training missions, Jernigan said, continued through Aug. 5 with loading pits built with a hydraulic lift to hoist the bombs into the B-29 Superfortress aircraft.
“All of a sudden there was activity there, too, and what we had referred to in the past as Aircraft No. 82 was pulled over the loading pit and now it had a name on it — Enola Gay,” Jernigan recalled, noting the plane was named after Tibbets’ mother.
Tibbets would pilot the Enola Gay on the mission to Hiroshima.
“At 2:45 a.m. on Aug. 6, the Enola Gay took off from Titian with a 9,700-lb. bomb in its bomb bay headed for Hiroshima,” Jernigan said. “(The bombardier) zeroed in on it and released the bomb and 46 seconds later the thing exploded, the world changed.”
It’s a time that still weighs heavily on the old vet.
“I give talks about my experience and I touch on the attitude of the people after World War II was over that we should not have dropped that horrible bomb on those people,” Jernigan said. “Why? The thing was designed to end a horrible war and it did. What more do you want?”
What Jernigan wanted was never to forget those events, nor the context for them. He’s one of the few to carry that context with him into present day.
“I’m glad that those bombs were dropped, I’m glad that they’ve never been used again, I hope that they never will be,” the veteran said.
Earlier this month, he was one of just two members of the 509th that organizers were able to locate and bring out to Wendover to reflect.
“The 509th — we had almost 1,800 men in it,” Jernigan said. “It’s emotional thinking how many friends are gone.”
In marking the 509th‘s contributions to the war, Jernigan was able to take part in a flight aboard “Doc,” a B-29 Superfortress that was recovered from the Mojave Desert in California, fully restored and is now based out of Wichita, Kansas. The aircraft itself is a traveling history lesson that annually makes tour stops across the country.
“When they crank those engines up, I love to hear the sound of it,” Jernigan said nostalgically. “It’s just a great thrill. That’s all I can say.”
Jernigan said he hoped the history would continue to be passed on and he was glad to see attention brought to Wendover for the important role it played in ending World War II.
“This is a historic place,” Jernigan said. “It’s just great to come back and remember.”
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