Category Archives: Artifacts

Safety plug for Nagasaki’s “Fat Man” atomic bomb

Where: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri.


Photo: Truman Library

Almost 25 years ago, Clay Bauske of the Truman Library received the type of phone call that gives a museum curator pause. The caller said he was the electronics test officer aboard the airplane that dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945. Better still, he had one of the safety plugs from the bomb and wanted to donate it to the museum.

“I was, to say the least, skeptical of his claim,” Bauske says. “Rarely do you get cold calls from people who have in their possession significant artifacts from historical events that shaped world history.”

The story checked out, though, and in 1988, electronics test officer Philip Barnes visited Independence and presented the safety plug to the library.

The bomb dropped on Nagasaki that day was called Fat Man and was a plutonium bomb, unlike the uranium bomb Little Boy that had been dropped from the Enola Gay on Hiroshima three days earlier. Maj. Charles Sweeney piloted the aircraft that dropped Fat Man, a B-29 bomber named Bockscar. The tag on the plug attests to its provenance and is signed by Barnes and Navy Cmdr. Frederick Ashworth, the weaponeer responsible for arming the bomb.

“This is one of those rare artifacts that immediately creates strong and wide-ranging emotional reactions in everyone who sees it,” Bauske says. “The enormity of the consequences of the only two atomic bombs to be used in war can’t help but draw out deep emotions.”

A version of this story originally appeared in The Kansas City Star by the same author.


Young Hank Aaron


Photo: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, courtesy Ed Scott

Where: Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City, Missouri.

A young man – maybe 19 – stands in front of his local train depot in 1953.  He could be waiting for a favorite cousin to arrive, or he may be about to board the train that will deliver him to his destiny.

This photograph was taken of Henry “Hank” Aaron in Mobile, Alabama  just prior to his departure for the Negro Leagues.  Bunny Downs, team manager of the Indianapolis Clowns,  had just negotiated the deal with Aaron’s family that would allow the young recruit to leave home and join the team on the road.  It is presumed that Downs took this photo.

“This is not the largest or most well-known item we display, but it is by far one of my favorites,” says Dr. Raymond Doswell, vice president of curatorial services for the museum.  “This photograph denotes a moment in American history when greatness was discovered.”

Aaron played for the Clowns in 1953 and was then recruited by the Milwaukee Braves, who later moved to Atlanta.  The rest, they say, is history.  Aaron developed into one of the greatest baseball players of all time, breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing career home run record of 715 before setting the new one at 755.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Kansas City Star on April 4, 2010.

The Flag Over Kon-Tiki

Where:  The Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.  

Kon Tiki flag

Photo: Truman Library

Sometimes the back story is as good as the one we know.

In 1947, Norwegian adventurer, ethnologist and future Academy Award-winning director Thor Heyerdahl set sail across the Pacific in a small, balsawood raft that carried with it the flags and support of several nations, including the United States.  He called the raft Kon-Tiki, after an Incan sun god, and set sail that spring from Peru to the Polynesian Islands, some 4,000 miles away.

He wanted to prove that a primitive raft such as his could make the journey, and that the islands of the South Pacific could have been settled by early South American Indians travelling on similar rafts.

Upon his successful return from the expedition, President Truman invited Heyerdahl tothe White House where he presented Truman with the American flag that had flown over Kon-Tiki.  Almost as an afterthought, Truman asked if he could have the Norwegian flag as well. Heyerdahl agreed and sent the Norwegian flag later.

Now for the back story.  A number of years ago, there was a movement afloat in Norway to have Kon-Tiki’s Norwegian flag returned to Norway so that it could be placed in the expedition’s official museum in Oslo.  Heyerdahl stepped in before his death in 2002 and personally stopped the movement, maintaining that he presented it to President Truman as a token of Norwegian-American cooperation and friendship, and that the flag should remain at the Truman Library.

Call the Truman Library for hours.

Samurai Sword

Samurai Sword

Photo: Truman Library

Where:  The Truman Library, Independence, Missouri.  

Just a few months into his presidency, President Harry S. Truman was presented a gift so rare that only ten of them are known to exist in the world – a samurai sword made by Masamune, a legendary sword smith from the Sagami Province of Japan.  The swords are considered national treasures in Japan, according to Clay Bauske, curator at the Harry S. Truman Library.

“While most objects in the Truman Library museum collection date from mid-20th Century America, some have deep significance to other cultures and other times,” says Bauske.  “The Masamune sword is an example.  Although we deal specifically with a 20th Century president, through the gifts he received, we are exposed to a much wider world of historical traditions and cultural materials.”

Masamune worked nearly 750 years ago fabricating blades of high workmanship.  The tang of the blade on this sword has gold, inlaid characters that indicate the sword was authenticated by a representative of the Japanese emperor in the 16th Century.  The disks on the handle are bronze covered in gold; the black scabbard signifies formality.

The sword was presented to President Truman on March 4, 1946 in the Oval Office by General Walter Krueger, commander of the 6th Army occupation forces in Japan following the Second World War.  General Kreuger was given the sword by a Samurai family in Japan.

Find out more about the Truman Library here.