Wendover's Ghosts

Ruby Hansen Murray

Wendover's Ghosts


We’re in the truck going 70 on Interstate 80 south of the Great Salt Lake. A narrow band of mountains reflects purple in the long shallow lake. Fence lines stretch past blinding alkali that people have marked with pentagrams and circles, arrangements of stones.  


Before us lie miles of pavement, emblematic of the new interstate highway system of the 1950s. Heavy steel cars, rounded fenders and fins, hubris, the wholesome self-satisfaction makes me hear John Trudell singing about Elvis, “You take Pat [Boone] and his white bucks singing love letters in the sand, Hell, man, what’s real here?”


I’m drawn to the desert, the feeling of nothingness. It’s so different from my home in the Pacific Northwest. I live on an island in Chinook lands, temperate rainforest with alluvial soil known for its fertility. There’s emotional resonance in the dry lands, something about not having enough, an uncertain emotional supply. I want to be challenged by the land, to find out how little I need to survive.


But where I want to gauge the distance to the horizon and gather the space inside, Karl Momen has placed a sculpture that reminds me of Niki de St. Phalle, a quasi-tree sprouting from the flats called “Metaphor: Tree of Life.” A few miles away a Middle Eastern fantasy, a white building with gold onion domes on each corner, sits near the lake like a casino without neon signage. Here, near Salt Lake it could be a temple, but Saltair is a concert venue, a World’s Fair inspired lake-side family resort built in 1893 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with the Salt Lake & Los Angeles Railway. 


Mormon settlers persecuted by other Euro-Americans came to the Salt Lake around 1847. They traveled farther into Ute lands, where thirteen inches of rain a year supported a fragile eco-system. The Mormons trespassed on Ute property and claimed it for their own. They brought cattle, built houses and fences. Here is the Euro-Americans’ cruelty, people in the desert fenced away from their own water.


In 2019, we are going to visit an abandoned air base on the border of Utah and Nevada, a relic of World War II. The impulse is complicated. I identify most as a Quaker, but I grew up as an Army dependent. Military bases feel like home.


On the knob of a hill by Grassy Mountain, named for an illusion, signs around an air-conditioned rest area warn of scorpions and rattlesnakes. Reddish rock on sandy ground reminds me of Fort Bliss near El Paso where my father retired.


Outside the rest area in the direct sunlight I need to avoid because of an immune illness, a Native man using a cell phone, greets me. An unmarked car stops, a prisoner in orange-and-white-striped coveralls, hands and legs chained, scuffs inside to use the toilet, a guard on either side.


My husband gestures across sixty miles of sagebrush toward Dugway Proving Ground. I don’t know how he manages all the facts he can recite. He’s a Viet Nam veteran who retired from the Navy (in undersea warfare) after a stint (in artillery) in the Washington Army National Guard, and he reads voluminously. On Ute land in Tooele County, the US Army researches chemical, biological, radiological, and explosive hazards. A recent visitor, photographer George Frey wrote, “Workers at this facility handle some of the most deadly and dangerous biological and chemical agents on Earth.”


Wherever the land is free of houses, men see emptiness and waste. Moreover, they see an opportunity for target practice, for bombardment. They indulge their fascination with ballistics, the science of projectiles and firearms. Across the salt plains near the Cimarron River in western Oklahoma where the Osage traveled to hunt the remnants of the bison herds in the late 1860s, miles of bright white sand nurtures thousands of shore birds. In the fall, sand hill cranes and critically endangered whooping cranes forage wheat fields and seek refuge from predators on the edges of the lake.


During World War II the Army Air Corps used the salt flats for bombing practice and a strafing range. In 2007, a boy digging for selenium crystals on the south side of the lake found a small amber vial with the residual sting of mustard gas, part of a chemical weapons identification kit that soldiers received through the 1960s. While the earth seeks to nourish life, men have practiced the most efficient ways to destroy us.


We drive into Wendover on Business 80 lined with fast food restaurants where casinos with green lawns mark the state border and drop south on an arterial. We pass parking lots with construction equipment, flat-roofed restaurants and then a sepia photograph on a billboard with four pilots walking to their planes. They look like hometown boys, vulnerable and competent at the same time.


Built to train bomber crews in World War II, the base was closed in 1969 and given to Wendover City in 1977. Now, the county runs a public airport. The base opens before us with no evidence of the guard shack that would have controlled entry. I’ve ridden with my father onto base as an MP salutes or with my spouse, when the guard says, “Morning, Chief,” but Wendover is a ghost base.


Empty lots and spare buildings parallel a Tarmac. Side streets form a maze of pavement around blocks of dry dirt, small stones, bits of broken glass. Utility poles clutter the horizon, and the rest is a sky washed with clouds.


Buildings are shells with windows empty of glass and doorframes boarded up. A brick chimney stands alone, while a maintenance building opens its bays to the weather like a dollhouse.


There’s money in this ghost town. Cyclone fences, power poles, yellow & orange striping on guy wires. An observation tower with tinted green glass over the airfield where one is safe between earth and sky. Beyond the fence, unmaintained houses mix with newer homes.


Time telescopes here. A remnant of the rows of one-story barracks that housed flight crews and mechanics and trained one thousand pilots kiln-dry in the sun. The barracks are one hundred feet long and hold precisely 24 cots and 24 shelves, but they remind me of the utilitarian housing at Manzanar. They have weathered to bare wood behind fences with a canted collar of barbed wire.


The only curves at the airport are the tail of a jet with engines like bombs under the wings. Otherwise, a ladder slices the outside of an enclosed stairwell beside the straight line of a cyclone fence. I feel as I did when I was a child and there was really no place for me, although we climbed the rounded bodies of old planes for playground equipment. I remember the unyielding metal, the lines of rivets.


My friend’s father was in the Army Air Corps in Utah. I ask if he flew bombers.


“No,” she says, “he was in chemical warfare.” There is no clean work in the military.


In addition to housing the pilots training to fly B-17 and B-24 bombers in Europe and the Pacific, this base trained and prepared the B-29 unit that carried out the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


The hangar for the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that delivered the atomic bomb to Hiroshima, is being restored. I learned to use the verb “delivered” in relation to the atomic bomb reading military documents in the museum the community has created to celebrate its history, to draw tourists like us.


The Historic Wendover Association rebuilt the Officer’s Service Club, replaced the ballroom floor and created a civic resource where the local high school held its senior prom. The court was arrayed across the glossy new floor, while classmates looked down from the balcony. 


Photographs of USO dances, young men and women with seamless skin, in crisp uniforms. These images represent World War II and the Greatest Generation.


In the snack bar, bright posters enjoin viewers to buy War Bonds, a row of soldiers carrying fixed bayonets advance above the words “Attack Attack Attack.”  


Laminated documents fill display boards: 


Fiscal and Audit Files, Auditor’s working papers... 1946, “Bomb Design and Testing, Dropping the Bomb, Internal Security: Prior to the activation of W-47 at Wendover, early drop tests of the weapon had been made at another secret installation called Muroc, conducted by civilian technical groups stationed at Project Y [Los Alamos]."


Outlines. Indentations. Verbs rendered, definitions, acronyms.


A mechanic lies in a pit under the bomb bay of the Enola Gay. The pilots flew from Tinian in the Mariana Islands to Japan to deliver the bombs.


Each photo is one moment during the war when these men stopped, the PR photographers after them, again. The 216th Special Ordnance Detachment, Atomic Bomb Test Unit Assembly Team posed in three rows. Each mechanic wore a service cap at a particular angle. Compliant, they smiled at the camera, except for one in front still wearing gloves, his dark eyes intense. This man, Coleman, is the only one identified solely by his last name and may have wanted to finish his task. I search the photos for the stories of these men.


Little Boy was the name of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Fat Man, Nagasaki. A full-size replica of Little Boy is displayed on the dance floor, and I wonder if they moved it for the prom.


Each word an indictment, so coded with meaning that it cannot be taken lightly: little boy fat man. The words come apart under the weight they carry.


A crew in the shadow of the UP an’ Atom on Tinian. Men in shorts sit on the Tarmac with legs folded; others crouch, the flight crew stands. They are lean, their clavicles fragile, bones visible beneath the skin. Some are deeply tanned. Most, but not all, are smiling.


We have fashioned a narrative in the glow of hindsight. Courage would mean a deeper look.


The pride and nostalgia attached to the pictures is obvious. The elderly veterans look back toward their younger selves, remembering their friends’ names, telling their children.


I’m studying a roster of the atomic missions, when I realize the men who participated in what many consider crimes against humanity are named.


August 6, 1945 Target Hiroshima Little Boy L-11 bomb Mission 13, Tibbets, Marquardt, Sweeney, Eatherly, Wilson, Taylor, McKnight.


August 9th, 1945 Target Nagasaki Mission 16, Bockscar V-77, with Sweeney, Hopkins, Bock, Marquardt, McKnight and Taylor delivered Fat Man F31 Bomb with Crew C-15.


Six planes for Nagasaki, seven for Hiroshima, and two planes intended to return to the US for a third Fat Man bomb.


There’s so much to say about the magnitude of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki compared to the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, the blitz in London. “Dutch” Van Kirk, the navigator on the Enola Gay, said, “It was one more bomb.”


The Wendover Air Field’s museum is a trove of memorabilia presented with little historical context. Posters promote War Bonds, while rippling red, white and blue American flags are blessed by an amputated white hand from the heavens.


I went to Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, the site of a notorious internment camp for the Dakota people, later the site of a mass hanging. The fort had been restored. Freshly painted buildings surround a grass quadrangle. Costumed docents explained blacksmithing and medical care; they played lawn games with children on a sunny day. While there were signs acknowledging indigenous people, written in indigenous languages, the nature of the fort’s history was largely invisible. Only the maps in one room marked the shrinking Dakota homelands, in a pattern so familiar as to escape notice.


My brother was born in Japan in 1956; my first memories are in Japan. We lived in a house near fields off base. My father was a quartermaster, a quiet Osage man. I don’t remember him ever talking about the bombs. But my mother was adamant, “We had to do it.”


Bombs are wrapped in words, the victims’ flesh melted. We lived in San Antonio near Fort Sam Houston during the Viet Nam war. My mother and I argued. She visited the burn unit at the world-famous medical hospital and came back shaken, still holding, in my memory at least, the Valentines and letters our class had written to the patients.


I came to Wendover to visit a military relic and sample 1940s nostalgia like a set from the “Twilight Zone,” but I stumbled into America’s unholy history.


Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk was the navigator on the Enola Gay’s atomic mission to Hiroshima. He gave an interview in 2012, the flesh on his face melting into little puddles like it does on some people. The film is cut with archival footage of the bombing. Van Kirk said when he looked down on Hiroshima, “It looked like a pot of boiling oil covering the city.”


Van Kirk recalled being in Nagasaki after the war. “All the Japanese commander wanted to do was present his sword. He wanted to surrender and go home,” he said. “We were standing around just chatting at a bus stop there in Nagasaki. The city was destroyed, leveled out, and the bus came in and stopped, and this Japanese soldier got off the bus looking for his home. ‘What do you say to that man?’” Van Kirk asked.


Recent studies show that most Americans support killing millions of civilians to prevent the loss of American lives. In 2017, a Stanford University study found that 60% of Americans supported killing two million Iranians civilians to save twenty thousand American military lives.


Neither Van Kirk, nor other crewmembers, ever expressed remorse. Each one said that’s what everyone asks us. By sticking to the “We saved a lot of lives” rationale, they held us blameless, but we wanted them to open a new way to live in the world.


When we were leaving the base, two slim black German shepherds ran across what looked like the parade ground between the barracks. They seemed beautiful and innocent, but I imagined them descendants of guard dogs who patrolled the base long ago.

Ruby Hansen Murray is an award-winning columnist for the Osage News and offers writing workshops in settings such as the Port Townsend Writers Conference, the Osage Museum, and the Chicago American Indian Center. She’s a winner of the Montana Nonfiction Prize and Oregon Writers Colony Contest in Nonfiction, awarded fellowships at Ragdale, Hedgebrook, and Fishtrap. See her work in Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, Native: Voices, Indigenous American Poetry, World Literature Today, CutBank, and The Rumpus. A citizen of the Osage Nation with West Indian roots, she received an MFA from The Institute of American Indian Arts. www.rubyhansenmurray.com

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