On March 8, the New York Times published an article, “Pastorals of the Atomic Age,” about two recent photograph books highlighting the history of the nuclear age and government-induced amnesia. The NYT article profiles The Half-Life of History: The Atomic Bomb and Wendover Air Base by photographer Mark Klett and writer William L. Fox, and Chernobyl Zone (I) by Russian photographer Andrej Krementschouk. Both books highlight the tension between a government’s indifference to preservation and the public’s drive to remember and preserve tangible elements of the past.
The Half-Life of History captures the deterioration of Wendover Airfield, located in Wendover, Utah. Wendover Airfield was a training base for the Army Air Corps during World War II. As the home of the 509th Composite Group, the air base played a key role in the Manhattan Project. The 509th, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul W. Tibbetts, was assigned the mission of training for and dropping atomic bombs. Given the weight of an atomic bomb, and the complexity in accurately targeting and dropping such a bomb, this was no simple task. The repeated testing that took place at Wendover with more than 155 prototype weapons was essential to the success of the entire project.
In early 2009, the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) nominated the collective Manhattan Project sites for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. With its colorful hanger and significant local support, the National Trust selected Wendover Airfield as the “poster child” for the Manhattan Project sites in danger of being lost. On April 28, 2009, AHF’s Cindy Kelly participated in an event highlighting the award with several Manhattan Project veterans and Jim Petersen, director of the Wendover Airfield and president and founder of the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation. Petersen has led the effort to preserve the hangar and other properties at the historic airfield. Thanks to a National Park Service Save America’s Treasures Grant, the hangar is now being restored.
The Half-Life of History focuses on the government’s neglect of Wendover over the past half-century. In part because of the controversy over the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, the government has allowed the World War II properties Wendover to decay. Klett and Fox don’t want to rehash the debate over the decision to drop the bombs; rather, Klett stated, “The broader concern we have is the erosion of history.” Fox explains, “[The Enola Gay hangar] stands for what some historians call the most important event of the 20th century, the first deployment of an atomic bomb, an event that continues to shape the history of the world.” The Wendover Airfield, with its rich story, does not deserve to be condemned to the ashes of history. Such is the point of Fox and Klett’s beautifully crafted book (which can be purchased on Amazon here).
The 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl released radioactive clouds of smoke and debris that were carried thousands of miles away. This crisis led to a government-ordered evacuation of eighteen miles surrounding the reactor—an order that remains in effect today, to ensure the public’s safety. While the immediate zone around the reactor remains a ghost town, some people in the area beyond have refused to leave their homes. Chernobyl Zone (I) provides a wordless view of life in the shadows of Chernobyl. Krementschouk’s pictures may show children at play and people at work, but something eerie lurks in the photographs—images of a place the government abandoned and hoped would be forgotten. Chernobyl Zone (I) can be purchased on Amazon here.