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Denver International Airport is finally open and doing business. Stapleton is as empty and silent as nearby Lowry Air Force Base.
I know quite a bit about abandoned airfields; a large number of the several hundred I’ve flown into are either forsaken or have been obliterated. Even Estes Park once had a tiny airfield, where the golf course is now. I’ve also seen a number of very big airfields, but nothing that really compares to DIA. At the moment it has five runways, three of them parallel, and their are plans for seven more. The five current runways are 12,000 feet long and the next one will be 16,000 feet. Within the 53 square miles of DIA’s boundaries you could fit Stapleton, Dallas/Ft. Worth, and JFK, all together, with room to spare. When all 12 runways are completed it will have more runways on more space than any other airport in the world, and may be the biggest that will ever be built.
Among many other unique features, it has a foot bridge between the terminal and Concourse A where you can watch planes taxi underneath, an odd and fascinating perspective and the only place in the world you can do it. Flying out of Denver has changed, in a very big way.
Airports have a way of defining some important parts of life in the 20th century. Seeing DIA the other day, I was reminded of another huge airfield, long since abandoned, I had the opportunity to visit in the early 70s. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs, it’s not surprising my thoughts drifted halfway around the world to North Field on the island of Tinian, in the Mariana Islands. It is still (perhaps not for long) the only airfield in the world with four parallel and equal length runways. It’s the place where the B-29 Enola Gay took off in the dark on August 6th, 1945 on its mission to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Tinian is an unusual island, the size and roughly the shape of Manhattan Island. When we took the island from the Japanese in 1944, the Navy builders named all its roads after streets in Manhattan, in roughly analogous positions. When the war was over, the island, which is just three miles south of Saipan, was abandoned and it quickly became overgrown, hiding roads, buildings and virtually every evidence of anything manmade, except for those four huge runways. Eventually natives from Saipan reoccupied the little village at the southern tip, where Battery Park would be, and they cleared a few roads, but most of the island remained buried in a sea of castor bean plants. They were sown from the air to replace the native vegetation destroyed by napalm.
In the early 70s a U.S. Air Force civil engineering team came to Tinian to clear the major roads and explore the possibility of reopening North Field. They discovered four lane divided highways, long buried buildings and equipment and even the ruins of ancient native building foundations.
We took an overnight trip by boat from Guam and spent two nights on Tinian. When we arrived we were greeted by most of the 100 or so people who lived there, many of them arriving in WW II Jeeps which had no keys and whose tires were filled with banana leaves since they no longer held air. We rented a newer car from one of the natives who owned the only small hotel in what had been General Curtis LeMay’s headquarters and with it we toured the island on the many newly opened roads and the runways. We were struck by the good condition of the roads. The engineers told us their preservation was because of the lack of temperature variation on the island; the temperature rarely exceeds 88° or drops below 67°. As a result, the asphalt and concrete contract and expand so little that such constructions last a very long time.
We visited the area at North Field where the atomic bomb was loaded on the Enola Gay. The bomb had been placed at the bottom of a large concrete pit. The plane was then centered over the pit and the bomb winched into the bomb bay. A small pedestal and plaque stands in front of the pit, which has been filled with dirt. A large persimmon tree grows in the dirt. I was reminded of Shelley’s poem: “My name is Ozymandias…”
We took the car to the end of the runway, and drove down it, feeling what it might have been like as the Enola Gay took off.
About a year later we went to Hiroshima, toured the museums, walked through the Peace Park, saw the mass graves and the memorial covered with paper cranes. We didn’t think much about the politics of it all but we felt it was important for us, and our children, to be there. It was both a sad and triumphal place, as the new Hiroshima, a modern and efficient city, had risen out of the radioactive ashes.
Last year we saw the Enola Gay itself in a dim warehouse in Silver Hill, Maryland and stood inside its bomb bay as it was being prepared for display this year at the Smithsonian. We had no idea at the time that its appearance would produce a second firestorm, 50 years after the first.
Tinian is still abandoned. The island and its old facilities, its four parallel runways bleached white and shimmering in the tropical sun, serve no purpose and are simply relics and monuments to a country’s will to win a war. Those who were there and who built those runways and bomb pits had no doubts about what they were doing and no doubts about the wisdom of using the most powerful weapon they could find to end the war.
Stapleton and Lowry will be different stories. Those valuable pieces of land will be swallowed up by Denver. The infamous I-70 tunnels will be torn down. Lowry’s gates and fences will be removed. In a few years it will be difficult to tell that airports ever existed there. That’s progress. Like many things in our own little valley, we live with change, with building new things and doing away with old. Sometimes we don’t like it, but we adjust. We will adjust to the loss of Stapleton and the fact of DIA. In a few years Stapleton and Lowry will be just remembered names and historic footnotes like Copeland Lake Lodge, the Pow Wow and the Clarabelle Mine.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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