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Monument to Survival: Blytheville Museum to Tell Cold War’s Story

10 min read

Barry Harrison was a Blytheville schoolboy when he learned to “duck and cover” under his desk to prepare for possible Soviet nuclear attacks that terrified America in the Cold War.

He found out later, after becoming a businessman and mayor, that Blytheville Air Force Base made his city the No. 5 U.S. target for Russia’s nuclear planners.

“Getting under that desk would give me about an extra 100th of a second” of life, Harrison said.

Mary Gay Shipley was a college freshman in October 1962, the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the risk of nuclear conflict was most profound in history.

Diplomacy averted disaster, but Shipley recalled fears so dark that officials issued dog tags to some schoolchildren in towns near Blytheville to help restore the kids to their families in case of nuclear evacuation. But Shipley also knew the reality of growing up in Blytheville. “Duck and cover was absurd,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been evacuated; I would have been evaporated.”

A U.S. Air Force depiction of the lower deck of a B-52 Stratofortress as it was equipped in 2006. (Provided)

Now she’s determined to educate 21st century Americans about those fearsome times with a national museum in Blytheville, which could use a tourist draw to ease  lasting economic pain from the Cold War base’s closure three decades ago.

For nearly 30 years, Blytheville Air Force Base was a Strategic Air Command facility with B-52 bombers and KC-135 fuel tanker planes standing constantly ready to rain nuclear bombs on Soviet targets.

A sign outside the base declared “Peace is our profession.”

And Blytheville’s SAC professionals did their job of nuclear deterrence so well that the base was eventually deemed unnecessary.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and soon East and West Germany reunited. The Soviet Union broke into 15 independent states in 1991, and the Cold War ended.

The Air Force dismantled the Strategic Air Command, and Blytheville Air Force Base, renamed late in its existence as Eaker Air Force Base, closed in 1992. The shutdown tore a gigantic hole in the local economy and the town lost about 6,000 residents, a quarter of its population.

City Never Recovered

Shipley owned an independent bookstore in Blytheville at the time, and the closing devastated her business and many others. She and Harrison say the city never fully recovered. So they’re working on a silver lining: the National Cold War Center, a $40 million project that they hope will draw tens of thousands of tourists, and perhaps even more, to the northeast corner of Arkansas each year.

Before getting into details about the center, Shipley, chair of the Cold War Center’s board of directors, emphasized the business impact of the base closing.

“If you want to know what it was like for the economy, think about what would happen if something sucked out one-fourth of your city’s population,” the former schoolteacher said. “It’s devastating.”

Robert G. Certain, commissioned into the Air Force out of Emory University in 1969, arrived “combat-ready” at Blytheville in 1971 (see sidebar). There he met his wife, the former Robbie Wade, whose father owned Wade Furniture Co. in town.

Certain is now on the center’s advisory board; Harrison and Shipley serve on its governing board. All three were elated in January when Congress officially designated the center as America’s future Cold War museum.

“The Air Force was probably the largest employer in Blytheville at that time,” Certain said, guessing the town had 30,000 residents. The population has since slipped below 13,000. An influx of steel plants near Blytheville and Osceola helped the region, but “city fathers have had a hard time figuring out how to find industries to replace the base,” Certain said.

“They tried to get FedEx to come there for their maintenance facility. That didn’t happen. You’ve probably noticed a lot of Delta Airlines DC-3s parked on the base, because they’re training aircraft mechanics there, but that doesn’t bring in a lot of high-paying jobs to help the local economy.”

Certain, Shipley and Harrison all have high hopes for the Cold War Center to become a hub of “heritage tourism.” Other sites in the region hold similar potential including  The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess (Mississippi County). Restaurants, hotels, retail stores and gas stations could thrive, they said.

Daunting Mission

The Cold War museum, which could open as early as 2027, will honor the work of men like Certain, who staffed Blytheville’s Ready Alert Facility, poised to be airborne within 15 minutes of a nuclear alert.

Certain was among the Blytheville crews who accepted that they might be called upon to unleash the fiercest weapons ever invented in missions certain to kill millions of people.

The Blytheville Air Force Base Exhibition (Terrance Armstard)

“Nuclear war was still a possibility against the Soviet Union,” Certain said. “Our purpose was deterrence. We acknowledged that dropping a bomb in anger would be a defeat of our primary mission, which was peace. But considering that we had 200 B-52s fully loaded with thermonuclear weapons stationed all over the country and capable of reaching well into the Soviet Union, we could do three things.

“One, we could provide deterrence by sitting constantly on alert,” Certain said. “Or if called upon, we could take off and pose a threat short of entering the country and then be called back if tensions eased. Of course, finally there was the possibility to execute the mission” to hit targets with nuclear weapons.

Certain served on alert for nuclear-armed missions from Blytheville before his war turned hot: He and Blytheville-based bombers were deployed to Southeast Asia for combat in the Vietnam War. And his crew engaged in the biggest bombing raids of the war, hitting targets around Hanoi in December 1972. Those raids, ordered by President Richard Nixon to prove America’s resolve to end the war, Certain said, are credited with convincing North Vietnamese officials to return to truce talks in Paris that soon led to the release of U.S. prisoners of war.

As fate had it, Certain became a POW himself (see sidebar) when a surface-to-air missile tore into his B-52 and forced him to eject. Three members of the six-man crew, including the pilot, Lt. Col. Donald Rissi, were killed. Three who parachuted away were taken prisoner.

Existing Museum

The Blytheville base already has exhibits detailing its history, from its birth as the Blytheville Army Airfield in 1942, when it trained pilots for World War II, through its commissioning as a Strategic Air Command base in 1958 and its mission as a tip of America’s nuclear spear through the next three decades.

The current museum will be a small part of the National Cold War Center, which will be built across the runway from a restored alert center. Teams manned the alert center around the clock, ready to get bombers and tankers into the air.

Some years ago, the National Park Service was looking for a preserved SAC alert center to designate as a heritage site, Harrison said. Modifications after the base was closed ruled out the Blytheville site, but the inquiry sparked an idea.

“We did a feasibility study to determine if people would be interested in coming to see a B-52 bomber and a tanker plane and hearing the story about just that phase of the Cold War,” Harrison said. “We learned people would be interested, and that there would be an even bigger opportunity to see artifacts from the whole Cold War history.”

Leaders put together the Cold War Center board and an advisory board including former Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Christian F. Ostermann of the Woodrow Wilson Center, who oversees the center’s renowned Cold War International History Project in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve filed our paperwork to get a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 tanker moved here to display just exactly like they were when the base was active,” Harrison said.

Shipley thinks the museum “has the potential to be way beyond anything even we have envisioned,” noting that Interstate 55 carries millions of vehicles through the area each year. “I’m not sure exactly which year it was recently, but 148,000 individual visitors signed in” at the Blytheville Welcome Center, operated by Arkansas’ state parks division. “The No. 1 question people ask them out there is, ‘What can we see at the air base?’”

She added that Cold War missile silo museums in Arizona and the Dakotas draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Architects, Exhibit Designs

The center board enlisted a “great team” to build the project, Shipley and Harrison said. Polk Stanley Wilcox architects of Little Rock provided designs and renderings. Gallagher & Associates of New York, Washington and Portland, Oregon, are designing the exhibits.

“Some of their work includes the World War II Museum in New Orleans,” Harrison said. “The International Spy Museum in D.C. was designed by these folks. They’re known as some of the very best in the country as far as exhibit design.”

No contractor has been selected, though talks have begun, Shipley said. The center will be Arkansas’ first federally designated yet privately funded museum. “In January we got the plans from Gallagher & Associates and Polk Stanley, so we’re putting together a packet that we will use to go out and raise money with.” Several million of the projected $40 million cost have already been raised, including $1.9 million from the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism.

Shipley said fundraising will determine whether the center will be ready by 2027. As the oldest person on the center’s board at 80, she’s hoping for the best. “I would really like to see something before I need the professional services of the undertaker.”

The Cold War dominated global politics for a half-century, reflecting a struggle between societies based on capitalism or communism. The subject is too important to let fade into history, Shipley said.

“The effort of each of those groups to dominate the world is why we had all of these little hot spots in history, and some of them weren’t so little, like Korea and Vietnam,” she said.

“If you don’t pay attention to the lessons of history, you get to do them again. We could have blown everything up. They [Russia] could have blown everything up. Somehow we were able to keep from doing it.”

God and Country: A Blytheville Flier’s Story

Capt. Robert G. Certain after his release from captivity in Vietnam in 1973. He later returned to Blytheville as a chaplain. (Provided)

Robert G. Certain was a U.S. Air Force captain and an Arkansan’s new husband when a surface-to-air missile shattered the B-52 he was navigating over Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Dec. 18, 1972.

“The pilot and the gunner were hit by shrapnel, and the co-pilot also died,” Certain told Arkansas Business. At that time, Hanoi had some of the world’s heaviest anti-aircraft defenses.

Certain and two crewmates managed to eject, seeing within seconds that the bomber was on fire and going down. Ejecting took a tenth of a second, but Certain had plenty of time to think about his future and his wife of six months, the former Robbie Wade of Blytheville, in the two long minutes it took to free fall from six miles up to 15,000 feet, the altitude at which his parachute deployed.

He was thinking he’d be a POW, and he was for 100 days — part of that time at Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

Certain, in his mid-20s at the time, had been assigned to nuclear-armed B-52s on alert at Blytheville Air Force Base before navigating bombing raids over Vietnam in 1971. He returned to Arkansas and married in May 1972, but was deployed back in Southeast Asia when President Richard Nixon ordered intensive B-52 attacks around Hanoi at Christmastime.

The operation, Linebacker II, wreaked heavy destruction and drew controversy. Its main goal, however, was to convince North Vietnamese leaders to honor a truce that would bring American prisoners home — and Certain said it worked. When longtime POWs heard the B-52 strikes, they cheered.

“They started basically mentally packing their bags because they knew they would be going home,” said Certain, who served in the Air Force and Reserve for 30 years before retiring as a colonel.

Combat in Vietnam earned Certain a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Bronze Star, but a decision after his release in early 1973 changed the course of his career and brought his cherished honor, the Legion of Merit.

“When I came out of prison the Air Force agreed to send me to seminary on active duty,” Certain said. It was a calling he had resisted before. “I went to the University of the South and attended seminary as an active-duty assignment for three years.”

After another year and a half of active duty chaplaincy, he became an Episcopal parish priest with secondary employment as an Air Force Reserve chaplain. One assignment was back in Blytheville, at the renamed Eaker Air Force Base, before its closure in 1992.

Certain is on the advisory board of the National Cold War Center, which is working to build a major museum on the old Blytheville base.

Certain hopes visitors will learn several things: that Russia is still a threat to U.S. security, China is a significant threat and North Korea is dangerous. “It serves us to have a strong military, even if we don’t use it,” he said. “The Strategic Air Command never delivered a single nuclear weapon, but it’s important to have the strength and not use it, if that makes sense.”

Although he was abused and feared he’d be killed, Certain eventually appreciated his Vietnamese captors’ restraint.

“I wonder what it would have been like had one of these guys gotten shot down over Blytheville, Arkansas,” he said in a 2021 interview with the Distinguished Flying Cross Society. “I wonder if they’d have made it into a prison.”

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