The neglected history that began in the Utah desert


Last year we observed the 70th anniversary of our atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back then, we were told that the A-bomb shortened the war and saved lives. Americans are still told that, though the truth of this is questionable. 

What most of us don’t remember – or more likely never knew – is that we had already developed a weapon that was just as deadly as the A-bomb. In one night that weapon killed more people than were killed at Nagasaki and perhaps as many as were killed in Hiroshima. I found out about this event after a chance encounter in a Western desert. 

It was late afternoon in June 2008 when I pulled into Wendover, Utah, population 1,500, on the border of Nevada. Wendover sits on the western edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert, an area almost as big as Connecticut, and one of the most desolate regions in the planet’s temperate zone. Near the southeastern corner of town, I came upon an abandoned airfield, with a huge airplane hangar sitting on it. A commemorative sign said it was the hangar for the “Enola Gay,” the name of the B-29 that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima.

The encounter brought back vivid childhood memories. I grew up with the bomb, heard about underground bomb shelters that people had built in their backyards, and I had crouched under my desk in grade school in preparation for the bomb itself. In the U.S. Navy, I’d undergone atomic, biological and chemical-warfare training.

And now, in the desert in front of me, was where men underwent training in how to drop this monstrous weapon. Both the Enola Gay and Boch’s Car, the name of the B-29 that bombed Nagasaki, flew from Wendover directly to the western Pacific in June 1945.

I later learned about the development of another weapon in this desert, one as horrific as the A-bomb and only 60 miles from Wendover. In 1943, the War Department, now the Department of Defense, began testing an incendiary device at its chemical weapon facility at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. The device was napalm, and its deliberate target was civilians in large cities.

A U.S. Marine Corps McDonnell Douglas F-4N Phantom II drops a napalm canister, in 1982.

To test its effectiveness when dropped over residential areas of Germany and Japan, mock villages were constructed at Dugway. Buildings in the test villages were fabricated from the same materials typically used in Germany and Japan, right down to chopsticks on the tables in the Japanese “homes.” The behavior of napalm was then observed as it burned through these structures. By early 1945, we were dropping napalm in Europe and in the western Pacific. Napalm also fueled half of the incendiary bombs that created the Dresden firestorm on the night of February 13, 1945. That firestorm killed an estimated 25,000 people.

But napalm’s biggest night was March 9, 1945, when 334 B-29s dropped 1,700 tons of napalm on Tokyo. The official death toll was placed at nearly 88,000, but many historians estimate the toll was closer to 100,000. The toll was greater than that produced by the atomic blast at Nagasaki, and may have approached or even exceeded that of Hiroshima. It is possible that no single-day event in the history of warfare was as deadly as that napalm night in Tokyo. B-29 crews flying in the latter part of the raid said they could smell the odor of burnt flesh in the atmosphere.

Stewart Udall, in The Myths of August, relates that Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary in June 1945, that the U.S. was “outdoing Hitler” in atrocities. The diary entry was written after the Tokyo firebombing but before the A-bombs were dropped. Mass killing of civilians in cities had become routine in modern warfare.

The argument that the A-bomb was necessary to shorten the war is undermined by napalm’s equal capability. Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been firebombed with similar fatal results nearly half a year before our atomic weapons were dropped. 

Unlike nuclear weapons, however, napalm has continued to be used in warfare, though the United Nations banned its use against civilians in 1980. This country finally ratified that ban in 2009. I hope we never forget the horror that napalm can create. This March 9, let’s remember Tokyo.

Richard LeBlond is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. 

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