World War II ended with arguably one of the most significant events in the history of the 20th century, the dropping of two nuclear weapons. An exact replica of the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima —“Little Boy” — sits in Rancho Santa Fe resident Clay Perkins’ backyard.
Perkins’ home in Fairbanks Ranch is a mini-museum, filled with his collections of rare books and artifacts, over 700 firearms, two dozen cannons, a hydrogen bomb and five atomic bombs, three of them real although, of course, not active.
Recently, Perkins shared Little Boy and the rest of his WWII memorabilia with a group of visitors from Ritsumeikan University in Japan. Ritsumeikan professor Kinue Tokudome, a friend of Perkins’, worked for years to get permission from the university for students to come to America to learn more about the war. While in San Diego, students visited with 96-year-old Dr. Lester Tenney, a survivor of the Bataan Death March who now lives at La Costa Glen retirement community in Carlsbad.
Perkins has several artifacts from his friend Tenney’s three and a half years as a prisoner of war in his collection that he was able to show to the Japanese students. At his home, Perkins led the students in a discussion about the bomb and why it exists, how it worked in a nuclear sense, and then they sat for over an hour raising complicated, interesting ethical and tactical questions — before a luncheon with Tenney in Carlsbad.
“A good time was had by all, as they say,” Perkins said.
The trip, sponsored by Mitsubishi Materials, will also include visits to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Museum in West Virginia, and the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Missouri.
Perkins, 82, was fascinated by the Manhattan Project and nuclear physics as a young boy. A retired physicist, Perkins is an actual rocket scientist. He helped build the Atlas Missile, the first intercontinental ballistic missile at San Diego’s Convair Division at General Dynamics, as well as the Centaur space rocket.
Perkins got into real estate development which he said has allowed him to purchase many of his rare artifacts when they became available — like one of the world’s earliest maps and a sword once owned by George Washington that dates back to 1776. His wife, Dorothy, is a fellow history buff, having written 11 books, including an exhaustive one on Texas history — her ancestors’ Texas roots reach back to the early 19th century and she owns a teapot once owned by Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
Perkins’ success in real estate also allowed him to build his home in Rancho Santa Fe — he has lived in Fairbanks Ranch for 19 years and one of his proudest accomplishments is the library he designed, a book-lover’s dream with two stories of shelves filled with treasured tomes, such as his worn copy of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes, filled with notes and post-it note bookmarks.
“Science and history are very different. But they both satisfy curiosity,” Perkins said.
As his Japanese visitors would discover, his World War II collection is museum-quality.
In one hallway, Perkins has the story of World War II in relics — beginning with a “Remember Pearl Harbor” wall hanging that hung in many American homes after the December 1941 bombing.
On the wall are remnants of Tenney’s life as a POW (prisoner of war) — he was captured by the Japanese in April 1942 and, along with some 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers, was a part of the 65-mile Bataan Death March, five days with no food or water. As many as 11,000 soldiers died on the way to the Philippine prison camp.
In a frame, Perkins has Tenney’s few possessions he owned while he was a prisoner —a kit of steel, quartz rock and cotton to start a fire or smoke the rare, occasional cigarette. There is a rock from the Bataan Death March, a hunk of coal from the coal mine in Japan he was forced to work in, and the lucky rabbit’s foot Tenney carried for those three long years where he and fellow prisoners were beaten, tortured and some killed.
“When he gave that to me, I was deeply touched,” Perkins said. Tenney gave the items to Perkins for his 80th birthday.
Tenney has been a longtime crusader for justice — he has said history books don’t paint an accurate picture about Japan’s treatment of POWs. On his wall, Perkins has a photo of when Tenney received an apology from the Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada in 2010 — “A staggering step,” Perkins said, and another from 2015 when he met Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for another official apology.
Also along the wall are Japanese surrender leaflets, an art piece made by Japanese children out of the rubble of Hiroshima, ticker tape that announced the end of the war, as well as a copy of the surrender document signed on the Battleship Missouri — one of only seven copies made.
A few steps from the hallway, on the patio of his backyard, sits the Little Boy replica.
Dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 out of the Enola Gay, the bomb killed 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more died from after-effects.
Perkins said that the atomic bomb is different from fire bombs as it is one airplane, one bomb, one city.
“It is so dramatic that people see it as worse, but more people were killed by samurai swords in World War II than atomic bombs,” Perkins said, noting an estimated 500,000 were killed by Japanese swords, wincing when he related how he saw an interview once with a soldier talking about how much his shoulders ached after battle, using his weapon to cut down so many men. “The conclusion is, war is hell.”
Perkins’ Little Boy is an “extremely accurate” replica — made with electrical parts left over from the Manhattan Project.
“This is a cannon-type bomb,” Perkins said, explaining that there is a piece of uranium in the nose and in the tail. “When the bomb goes off, the uranium pieces slice together and together they exceed the critical limit and explode.”
The arming plugs on the exterior allow internal batteries to hook up to computers that activate the bomb. On the Enola Gay, Dick Jeppson was the 23-year-old in charge of climbing into the bomb bay and removing the green plug and installing the red one. Green for safety and red for armed.
Perkins purchased one of the green plugs taken out of Little Boy in an auction as well as one of the extra red-arming plugs that was aboard the plane. He keeps the plugs in a safe place but will pull them out for special visitors — the plugs sit in a box with an autographed photo of Jeppson on the plane, as well as a yellowed card signed by Jeppson on Aug. 7, 1945 on Tinian Island confirming the plug had been on “the first atomic bomb ever used in the history of the world.”
As a scientist, Perkins can explain how the bomb works — how wires at the top detach from the plane and start an internal clock, internal barometers sense pressure and altitude and radars detect when to detonate.
“It’s a very intricate, complicated thing. It was a marvel of scientific work,” Perkins said.
As a historian, he can appreciate what the difficult decision to use the bomb meant —“The result was the war ended early.”
More troops were scheduled to invade Japan that fall and the Hiroshima bombing meant 500,000 to 700,000 lives were saved, he said. The bombing allowed the emperor to say that Japan must surrender because the enemy had an “overwhelming weapon.”
“The most important thing was between two to three million Japanese people were saved by ending the war early,” Perkins said. “More cities would have been destroyed by bombs.”