Marine Cpl. William Thomas Perkins Jr. documented history as a combat photographer. Now his posthumously awarded Medal of Honor will go to Washington, D.C., to document his role in the Vietnam War.
Perkins died at age 20 in 1967 when he hurled himself on a grenade to save the lives of three other Marines. On Monday, his mother, Marilane Perkins Jacobson, 89, of Lexington, donated some of her son's effects to the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian complex in the nation's capital.
"I didn't want them to end up in somebody's brown box in a basement," Jacobson said. "I figured he should go to the Smithsonian."
Perkins was awarded the Medal of Honor two years after his death. He was the first and only combat photographer to receive the nation's highest military decoration. The 2nd Marine Division named a photographic lab for him.
Jacobson said the Medal of Honor was precious to her, "but I can't take it with me. I've just been holding my breath and asking God to give me time to send that where it should be forever."
Her son's love for cameras came from his father, William T. Perkins, who worked for Eastman Kodak, headquartered in Rochester, N.Y.
Perkins Jr. joined the Marines "because they were the only ones who said he could probably work with a Mitchell movie camera," Jacobson said. The Mitchell camera was a 35mm camera often used in Hollywood.
On Oct. 12, 1967, Perkins was documenting Operation Medina, a Marine helicopter assault in Quang Tri Province in Vietnam.
In the course of a hostile attack, an enemy grenade landed in the area occupied by Perkins and three other Marines. Perkins shouted "Incoming grenade!" then hurled himself on it and absorbed the explosion.
"He gallantly gave his life for his country," the official citation said.
Jacobson said she was brokenhearted when she learned of her son's death, but she wasn't surprised that he had died trying to save others. He was a gregarious person who knew no strangers.
Other effects, including a Purple Heart and photographs taken by Perkins Jr., will be taken to Washington by Lexington resident Jeff Garrett, a member of the museum's advisory board.
"One of the main exhibits they have in Washington is called The Price of Freedom," Garrett said. "It's basically the history of the American military from the French and Indian War to conflicts today."
The museum will rotate the Perkins items in and out of various exhibits, but they will be part of the museum's permanent collection.
"We're going to take as many things as she wants me to take," Garrett said.
Perkins is buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in California. His younger brother, Bobby, died of cancer, and Jacobson remarried after her first husband's death.
Asked what she wants people to learn from her son's effects, Jacobson said, "As far as I'm concerned, the war was a waste, and I hate war. Not too many other people threw themselves on grenades to save other people. But I would think they would think he had great character, which he did, and he lived a lifetime in 20 years."