Remembering our American heroes

Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets IV, far left, 509th Bomb Wing commander, stands with World War II veterans at the 509th Composite Group monument Sept. 25, 2015, at Wendover, Utah. The remaining survivors of the 509th CG gathered at Wendover Air Field for their final reunion and the 70th commemoration of WWII. 509th CG veterans pictured, from left, Vern Rowley, 393rd Bombardment Squadron B-29 aircraft radio operator; William Miller, 320th Troop Carrier Squadron C-54 Skymaster radio operator; Russell Gackenbach, 393rd BS B-29 navigator; Robert Gilman, 603rd Aviation Engineering Squadron technician during Operation Crossroads; and Norris Jerrnigan, 393rd BS intelligence analyst. (Courtesy Photo)

Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets IV, far left, 509th Bomb Wing commander, stands with World War II veterans at the 509th Composite Group monument Sept. 25, 2015, at Wendover, Utah. The remaining survivors of the 509th CG gathered at Wendover Air Field for their final reunion and the 70th commemoration of WWII. 509th CG veterans pictured, from left, Vern Rowley, 393rd Bombardment Squadron B-29 aircraft radio operator; William Miller, 320th Troop Carrier Squadron C-54 Skymaster radio operator; Russell Gackenbach, 393rd BS B-29 navigator; Robert Gilman, 603rd Aviation Engineering Squadron technician during Operation Crossroads; and Norris Jerrnigan, 393rd BS intelligence analyst. (Courtesy Photo)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Over 70 years ago, Airmen were chosen for a highly secretive assignment that would be remembered long after the end of World War II (WWII).

Commanded by Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets Jr., they were known as the 509th Composite Group (CG) and were to be based in Wendover Army Air Field, Utah to conduct the majority of their training. Their mission was to plan for and execute the dropping of the first atomic bombs.

All the preparation spent stateside and abroad would eventually lead to the successful detonation of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which effectively ended the war in August 1945.

Although the mission would transfer to other locations over the course of five decades, the heritage of the 509th CG never faded. Veterans reunited with the grandson of the 509th CG commander, Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets IV, 509th Bomb Wing (BW) commander, during a historical weekend and were able to see how the 509th BW continues to carry their tradition of excellence today.

The remaining survivors of the 509th CG returned to where it all began for their final reunion September 24-27, 2015, at Wendover, Utah.

The veterans were welcomed 'home' to Wendover Field where they were able to see the restoration of many of the base's facilities and displays.

After remarks from retired General Bruce Carlson, former 8th Air Force commander, on the capabilities and achievements of the B-29 Superfortress aircraft, a 12-piece swing band provided WWII era 'big band' music for the veterans, families and guests.

The following day, veterans and guest gathered for the 70th commemoration of the end of WWII.

"With more than eight World War II era aircraft on hand, along with several re-enactors, the crowd got a strong representation of what life at a World War II training base was really like," said Thomas Peterson, Wendover Air Field Museum historian.

"Base tours allowed veterans and guests to view many parts of the base including the barracks, enlisted mess hall, B-29 hangar and the atomic bomb loading pit. As part of the reunion events, several people were able to try their hand at firing a period M-1 Garand rifle."

The overall atmosphere was very much like a homecoming event; many people said it was quite moving to be in the exact place where more than 70 years ago their grandfathers had been, added Peterson.

As the event's keynote speaker, Tibbets IV was able to provide a glimpse into his command and what the heritage of the 509th means to him. He also had the opportunity to meet with many of the families of veterans who served under his grandfather and shared recollections and stories of their 509th heritage.

"It was a truly remarkable experience to spend time with some of the Airmen who laid the foundation of excellence for 509ers today," said Tibbets IV. "As they shared their stories with me throughout the weekend, I was humbly reminded of the character of the people that my grandfather so affectionately spoke. Those very Airmen set the bar high for us, and we must continue to carry that torch, solidifying the framework on which future 509ers will continue our mission."

"I am impressed mostly by the determination of these veterans," said Peterson. "They were from all walks of life and had so many levels of training. The important thing was that they were then and still are dedicated to the freedoms that we all hold dear. They were asked to do a job, a very special job, and they did it with excellence.

"As we give tours of the base we often tell how the course of history was changed and that change started here. As the poem 'Flanders Fields' says, they 'took the torch and held it high'. Coming to Wendover 71 years later was a fitting bookend for these 509th veterans."

Attendees included:

Larry Decuir - 1st Ordnance Group nuclear ordnance barometric and altimeter fuzing systems technician
Robert Gilman - 603rd Aviation Engineering Squadron technician during Operation Crossroads
Russell Gackenbach - 393rd Bombardment Squadron (BS) B-29 navigator
Norris Jerrnigan - 393rd BS intelligence analyst
William Miller - 320th Troop Carrier Squadron C-54 Skymaster radio operator
Vern Rowley - 393rd BS B-29 aircraft radio operator