Caleb Perronteau was on his way to work Saturday when he had to stop to take a look at what was parked along Van Giesen Street in his hometown of West Richland.
“It’s awesome,” he said after getting a close up look at a replica of Fat Man, the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II. “Definitely worth stopping.”
For the past nine months Terry Klute, Bob Ver Steeg and their pals who hang out at the Richland Airport have been building a full-size model of the bomb, which was loaded in 1945 with plutonium made at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Saturday, it had its first public outing at a motorcycle poker run in West Richland held to raise money for Time of Remembrance.
Its builders plan to enter it in parades and take it to regional events. Once the novelty wears off, they hope to to find a museum interested in giving it a home.
Zebadiah Hindman of West Richland, who stopped with Perronteau to take a look Saturday, knew what the bulbous contraption was after studying the history of the atomic bomb at Hanford High.
But he didn’t know it was so big. “Completely impressive,” he said.
Klute and Ver Steeg, both retirees, don’t remember whose idea it was to build the model, but Klute is clear about the motivation.
He thought it would be educational for the community.
“We are trying to preserve some history — get a conversation going,” he said.
If it were not for the Manhattan Project effort to build the bomb, Richland would not be the city it is today, Klute said.
When Hanford was picked during WWII as the site to produce plutonium for an atomic bomb, 50,000 workers at a time each labored six and sometimes seven days a week on the secret wartime project. The United States was racing to produce an atomic weapon, aware that the Nazis had the same goal.
“It’s why all these people came out to the desert — to end a conflict,” Klute said.
Their descendants need to know that history, “good or bad,” he said.
The bomb killed an estimated 40,000 people, with more people dying later of radiation sickness.
But every day the war continued, troops were dying on both sides of the war, Klute said.
He believes that the bomb dropped Aug. 9, 1945, convinced Japan to start negotiating a surrender two days later, saving more Japanese lives than were lost in the explosion. The Japanese would have fought to the last man in an invasion, he said.
It’s because of Fat Man that Ver Steeg is here, he said. His father was one of many soldiers on troop ships headed to Japan when Nagasaki was bombed. The ship carrying Ver Steeg’s father turned around when Japan surrendered.
It’s a part of history that needs to be remembered, particularly in the Tri-Cities, Klute said.
Both his parents and his uncle worked at Hanford, and he was a nuclear process operator there for 40 years. He was born in Richland just weeks before plutonium produced at Hanford was used for the world’s first nuclear explosion, a test bomb detonated in the New Mexico desert July 16, 1945. He would graduate as a Richland High bomber.
But people from children to the current generation of Hanford employees who are cleaning up contamination from WWII and Cold War production of plutonium may not know what Fat Man looked like, Klute said.
The bomb weighed 10,300 pounds. It was so heavy that it was loaded onto a trailer that was pulled into a pit. That was the only way it could be hoisted into the bomb bay of the B-29 that was parked over the pit, Klute said.
The replica matches Fat Man’s dimensions at a little more than 10 feet long and 5 feet in diameter. But it weighs considerably less at about 400 pounds.
Both Klute and Ver Steeg have built airplanes from kits, making this a relatively uncomplicated project for them. But it still had its challenges.
They built it on a long shaft on a rotisserie that turned it in a hangar at the Richland Airport. They started with wood ribs joined by lath and finished it with an outer shell of fiberglass, finding that building something round that tapered toward its back end was difficult.
It also was occasionally tedious. The fiberglass required a lot of sanding with a close eye to make sure the correct curved shape was maintained.
At the heart of the actual bomb was a 14-pound sphere of plutonium. That was surrounded by explosives that would quickly and evenly compress the sphere into a critical mass, causing the nuclear explosion.
The model’s back fins are made of airplane aluminum. The tricky part there was to get the angled shape of the box around the fins correct.
Fat Man had a “parachute tail” intended to slow the bomb down as it dropped through the air, giving the crew “time to get the heck out of Dodge,” Klute said.
Builders of the model would run out to buy paint or fiberglass or other supplies as needed, so Klute does not know what the project cost. But it did not cost taxpayers a dime, he said.
The finished model is as close to the original as the builders could come.
“It’s not exact, but it’s pretty faithful,” Klute said.
There were second looks Saturday morning as the Fat Man replica was slowly moved from a hangar at the Richland Airport to the parking lot of Ty’s Bar and Grill for display.
It was hauled it on a military trailer that would have been used in the 1950s for a Genie missile. Klute bought it at an auction. The trailer used for the real Fat Boy was much larger to hold its multi-ton weight.
The trailer was pulled with a military airplane tug from the 1950s, made to look like it could be from the 1940s, complete to a pinup girl painting and a replica machine gun mounted on its back.
A replica of a bomb may not be welcome at every event, and that’s fine with Klute. But he thinks the model should be looked at as a learning opportunity.
The crowd raising money for Time of Remembrance was receptive. The event, held each September in the Tri-Cities, remembers those from five Western states who have died in recent wars.
“(The replica) gets people to see what veterans have gone through,” said Michelle Shaw of Prosser, a veteran of two tours of Afghanistan.
Romar Swarner of the Veterans of Foreign Wars said he’d seen pictures and movies showing the dropping of Fat Man, but “this kind of brings it home.”
“It’s awesome for the area,” said Jeff Larson of Kennewick. “It’s part of our history.”