The 509th Composite Group at Wendover Air Force Base

In the words of historian Roger D. Launius, “America in the early 1940s was a nation on the move as never before. The exigencies of war reoriented virtually every aspect of the culture, economy, demographics, and politics of aviation in the United States.” The 509th Composite Group at Wendover Air Force Base played an integral role in this transformation by training new pilots, testing new aviation technologies, and successfully executing the Manhattan Project, bringing an end to the bloodiest war the world has ever seen.

One of Utah’s most significant contributions to the American effort during WWII was the creation and training of the 509th Composite Group, “the only unit ever to drop an atomic bomb in combat.” Originally the 393rd Bombardment Squadron, the 509th was created by General Henry “Hap” Arnold, who selected Lt. Colonel Paul W. Tibbets to head the group. Lt. Col Tibbets was given the options of Mountain Home, ID; Fairmont, NE; and Wendover, UT to host his group, as “all three had acceptable facilities and runways for B-29 operations.” Lt. Col Tibbets ultimately chose the site in Utah based on its extensive bombing and gunnery range facilities, as well as the history of heavy bomber training in Utah. The required facilities were already in place in Wendover. The Utah site was also desirable because of its relative proximity to Los Alamos, NM; the site responsible for developing the nuclear payload Tibbets’ team would be delivering. Additionally, since Wendover was so isolated, the project could be kept secret from prying eyes, both foreign and domestic.  

The 509th Composite Group trained from 1944-1945, dropping 5,000 to 10,000 pound dummy bombs, conducting rapid turns to avoid the nuclear blowback (though the crews weren’t told the reason for these maneuvers), and increasing accuracy to within 200 meters of their targets. On May 29, 1945 the group was relocated to Tinian in the Mariana Island chain. Afew months later they dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, effectively ending the world’s largest and bloodiest conflict. From the “History of the 509th Composite Group” written in 1945, there was an interview with Lt. Colonel Tibbets where he was asked about the success and contributions of the 509th Composite Group. When asked whether the group “measured up to expectations” regarding its contributions and fulfillment of the Manhattan Project, Lt. Colonel Tibbets replied:  

The mission of the 509th was accomplished. Its success is now a matter of world history. In all probability this success surpasses the expectations of those intimately connected with the early phases of the project. It is safe to say that the 509th never held up the work of the project. Many times the 509th caused the project to speed up their efforts because the unit shaped up faster than expected and was committed to the theater ahead of schedule. The success of this organization is due to teamwork by all people in the outfit and the willingness with which they cooperated with the project people to accomplish our assigned mission.

Following the successful conclusion of World War II, thanks in large part to the efforts of the 509th Composite Group, Wendover Air Force Base continued to train new generations of pilots, develop new technologies, and build the fledgling Army Air Corps into the most dominant Air Force the world has ever seen.  

Images

Untitled Creator: Photo taken by Joshua W. Sturgill at the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum in 2023
Untitled Creator: Photo taken by Joshua W. Sturgill at the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum in 2023
Untitled Creator: Photo taken by Joshua W. Sturgill at the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum in 2023
Untitled Creator: Photo taken by Joshua W. Sturgill at the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum in 2023

Location

Metadata

Joshua W. Sturgill, Brigham Young University, “The 509th Composite Group at Wendover Air Force Base,” Intermountain Histories, accessed June 14, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/794.