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Sale of Hiroshima Bomb Part Challenged


SAN FRANCISCO -- By the time Lt. Morris Jeppson stepped off the B-29 that day, it was clear this had been no ordinary mission: The plane was called the Enola Gay, and the United States had just unleashed atomic power as a weapon.

So Jeppson, like other crew members, grabbed a few keepsakes -- namely, the green and red "plugs" that had deactivated, then armed, the bomb, dubbed "Little Boy." He tossed the thumb-sized switches into his duffel bag.

This week, several wars and 57 years later, Jeppson sold the plugs at a San Francisco auction--and suddenly, the federal government is very interested once again in a couple of forgotten tokens from the birth of the Nuclear Age.

Federal prosecutors in San Francisco have asked a judge to block sale of the artifacts. In court documents, the Air Force Material Command Law Office argues that the plugs are classified military property, not souvenirs, and are potentially dangerous.

A hearing is scheduled for Friday morning. Government representatives say they will ask for a restraining order blocking the auction, which brought $150,000 to Jeppson, now a retiree living in Las Vegas, and a $17,500 commission to Butterfields Auctioneers Inc.

Implicit in the government's argument is that the time is not right to encourage public dissemination of weapons technology--not when authorities are investigating whether Al Qaeda operatives planned to detonate a radioactive bomb in America.

"That whole issue will be fleshed out in documents that will be filed," Jocelyn Burton, chief of the civil division at the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco, said of the dispute, first reported in several Bay Area newspapers. For those involved in the sale, however, the government's vigilance seems overblown.

Not only are the plugs defunct technology, they argue, but they have been displayed in the past in museums. What's more, they are merely the mechanism that armed the bomb and had nothing to do with its inner workings--making them little more complicated than the electrical switches that operate a household toaster, the buyer said in an interview Wednesday.

"The security issue is absurd," said Clay Perkins, 68, of Rancho Santa Fe, a former rocket scientist for General Dynamics who has dabbled in San Diego-area real estate development since his retirement.

Perkins bought the plugs at auction Tuesday, but the sale was temporarily blocked by the government before he could take delivery.

"They say this poses a risk to the public," Perkins said. "There is simply no way that knowing what is inside these plugs would be of any scintilla of use to anyone who wants to understand how a nuclear bomb works."

Perkins said the plugs will be displayed in his home amid his collection of rare military memorabilia, including a Spanish cannon carried on a ship that was sunk in the 16th century.

The "Little Boy" A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.

The blast killed about 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more died later from the after-effects. The U.S. military's decision to drop the bomb has been second-guessed ever since, with some seeing it as a merciless attack on civilians. Others say there is little question that the bomb, and a second one dropped on Nagasaki, forced Japan to surrender and brought World War II to a close.

That first bomb contained an array of machinery that, at the time, was highly sophisticated, including radar systems and barometric sensors that ensured it wouldn't detonate until it was a scant 1,500 feet above Hiroshima. What's more, the bomb itself was still experimental, despite a series of successful tests.

"If it had blown up early, it would have been awfully embarrassing to wipe out the whole Air Force," Perkins said.

So military engineers installed two types of plugs--green ones that effectively shorted out the bomb's electrical connections, and red ones that completed the connections and armed the bomb. Shortly before the bomb was dropped, Jeppson, a weapons test officer, crept into the Enola Gay's unpressurized bomb bay and switched the plugs, arming the bomb.

"That was my job," Jeppson said Wednesday.

After the flight, Jeppson kept three of the green plugs, gave away two and took one home. The red plugs used to arm the bomb were destroyed in the blast. The red plug that was sold at the auction was an extra that apparently was aboard the plane but was not used.

"These are arguably the most important historical objects that came out of the 20th century," Perkins said. "They are the only thing left of the first bomb that used nuclear energy. [The bombs] started the good, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as well as war applications."

Monique Crine, a Butterfields spokeswoman, said: "The case against us is made without merit.... We really anticipate that the matter will be resolved shortly."

The plugs were just one piece of a large aviation memorabilia auction at Butterfields this week.

The auction included a tan aviator's suit worn by famed World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, a photograph of a 1903 flight signed by Orville Wright, and a pistol that aviator Charles Lindbergh carried to the 1935 trial of the man accused of kidnapping Lindbergh's baby.

A number of other Enola Gay artifacts also were sold, most of them from the collection of Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, the B-29's navigator. The collection includes the original in-flight navigator's guide and Van Kirk's clock, sextant and radio headset.

Van Kirk's collection, however, did not include any of the plugs--and they brought, by far, the most money of any of the Enola Gay artifacts this week.

"These are keepsakes," Jeppson said. "There is nothing secret about them. And they are not government property."

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