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January 21, 2018

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PBS’ ‘History Detectives’ take on case of Henderson resident’s WWII-era artifact

Son hoping keepsake is piece of bomber that crashed into Empire State Building in 1945


Steve Marcus

A piece of a B-25 Mitchell bomber lies on a table with printouts of New York Times newspapers from 1945 at Irv Atkins’ home in Henderson on Wednesday, July 18, 2012. The artifact, from a B-25 bomber crash into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945, was featured in a PBS TV show called “History Detectives.”

1945 B-25 Bomber Crash

The Empire State Building can be viewed through a hole in the roof of a penthouse on 33rd street, New York, in this July 28, 1945 photo.  Debris from an army B-25 bomber which crashed into the Empire State Building caused the hole in the roof along with a fire to the penthouse.  Launch slideshow »

When Louis Atkins arrived to work on Monday morning, July 30, 1945, he found a small hunk of metal sitting in his midtown Manhattan office in New York City.

The mangled piece of metal was severely burned and sported rows of rivets. Atkins surmised the object was part of the B-25 bomber that two days earlier had crashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, which sat across the street from his office. The crash killed 14 people.

Atkins took the piece home to show his family, and over the next 60 years, the artifact and its origins became an accepted part of Atkins’ family lore.

The piece eventually was passed onto his son, Irv Atkins, who brought it with him across the country in the late 1990s when he moved from New York to Henderson.

Although Irv Atkins had always trusted his father’s version of events, the family was never able to definitively link the piece of metal to the crashed bomber.

Last summer, he set out to verify the authenticity of his father’s artifact and contacted the PBS program “History Detectives” to begin an investigation.

“My father was a salesman, but I don’t think he’d make up something like this,” Irv Atkins said. “It was lying around for 67 years, so I said, ‘Why not? It’s worth a shot.’”

Nearly a year later, Irv Atkins has his answer, which will be revealed to all on a new episode of the program that airs at 9 p.m. PDT Tuesday.

The investigation of Irv Atkins’ artifact took researchers from New York City all the way to the desert of California, said Eduardo Pagan, a history professor at Arizona State University and one of the show’s co-hosts.

“It starts with good, old-fashioned legwork. You pick up the phone and start calling around, seeing who can help us identify this,” Pagan said.

Verifying the authenticity of Irv Atkins’ piece of metal proved difficult, Pagan said, because it had few identifying markings and there are few other known pieces of the plane in the public sphere.

“From everything that we could gather, the place was cordoned off immediately. All sorts of officials rolled in and swept everything up. Where those pieces went, we don’t know,” Pagan said. “I thought there was no way in the world we could figure out where this piece was from. It took a lot of scratching our heads.”

Pagan and his team eventually found their answer at a B-25 bomber graveyard in California, where they visited an aviation expert and compared Atkins’ metal piece to fuselages and parts from other B-25 bombers collected at the site.

“Eventually, we landed on the right person,” Pagan said.

The entire investigation process took several months, and although Irv Atkins found out the truth about his father’s artifact late last year, he’s keeping tight-lipped about the findings until the episode airs.

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