Colonel Clifford Heflin served 31 years in the United States Air Force. As a decorated member of the Armed Forces, Colonel Heflin’s career involved flying bomber planes into enemy territory and commanding the Wendover military base in Utah. However, Colonel Heflin rarely ever disclosed the details of his military service to his family. The Atomic Heritage Foundation interviewed Colonel Heflin’s daughter and son-in-law to learn more about his role at Wendover.
Cathy Dvorak, one of Heflin’s four daughters, recalls one of the rare moments when her father spoke about his military career. After watching a film about the atomic bomb, the reserved colonel spoke to his daughters about his role in the Manhattan Project. Mrs. Dvorak quotes her father as stating, “It had to be done, it was done, end of story.”
The details regarding his military career and his involvement with the Manhattan Project have remained relatively clandestine. That is until his son-in-law, Darrell Dvorak, became motivated to document Heflin’s life. Dvorak cites his children as his motivation to provide a record of Colonel Heflin’s career. “What started out as, ‘I am simply going to record a few things for my kids,’ turned into a major project.”
Three years after retiring from a business career, Dvorak began his research. To his surprise, he could find very little published information about Colonel Heflin and his work at Wendover. “I was going to be a mere assembler of information about his career. And I discovered I had to become a historian and researcher.” Bits and pieces of Colonel Heflin’s life started to come together as Dvorak accessed documents from places like the Library of Congress, private archives and the internet. Finally, Dvorak’s tireless efforts unveiled a fascinating military career.
Colonel Clifford Heflin began his military career in the Air Cadets in 1938 at the age of 21. In just three years, his technical and leadership skills garnered him the rank of Major. At the start of World War II, Colonel Heflin had a succession of roles flying bomber planes involving anti-submarine missions. He was then given an assignment to work with the Office of Strategic Services in England, and became commander of a secret unit known as the “Carpetbaggers.”
The Carpetbaggers dropped supplies to the Allies and armed resistance movements in enemy territory. Colonel Heflin’s bravery and superior skills in commanding the Carpetbaggers garnered him the Legion of Merit, awarded to him by Eisenhower. He was also given the French Cross of War and the Legion of Honor, the highest French award.
His work with the Carpetbaggers brought him to the attention of the Manhattan Project’s top military commanders, who assigned Colonel Heflin to be commander of the 216th Army Air Force's Base Unit Special Airfield. As Dvorak explains, Col. Heflin’s units were in charge of “weaponizing the science and engineering” of the bomb: flying the test missions for the bomb drops, and developing dummy bombs for test drops.
Because the military wanted to keep the ordnance work classified, it was not published in the 1945 Smyth Report, which discussed much of the work done on the Manhattan Project. Colonel Paul Tibbets, who commanded the 509th Composite Group which dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is most closely associated with the Manhattan Project at Wendover. However, Dvorak’s work shows that Tibbets and Heflin had parallel chains of command, and both were essential to the work done at Wendover.
Many of the records of Heflin’s work at Wendover have not been recovered. Dvorak states, “Unless and until someone finds those missing records that just evaporated—I mean, they had to exist. The military can't get by without recording everything. Until that happens, his story won't be fully known, which is unfortunate.”
After the war’s end, Colonel Heflin was transferred to Stead Air Force Base outside of Reno, Nevada as commander. He went on to become the base commander of Lowry Air Force Base in Denver. In 1968 Colonel Heflin retired from the Air Force and moved to Reno, where gave his only public interview about his work. Darrell Dvorak continues his efforts to bring the critical work that Col. Heflin did at Wendover to light.