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The Cold War Hot Again, Blytheville Moves Ahead with Museum Plan

4 min read

From his post near a missile silo on the South Dakota plains, Joseph Brehm weighed in on the mobilization underway in northeast Arkansas.

The Cold War is long over, but Brehm, a U.S. National Park Service ranger, said Cold War nostalgia is in full swing. In his fourth year at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near the town of Phillip, Brehm forecast success for Blytheville’s efforts to transform the former Eaker Air Force Base into a similar museum.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is there’s kind of an unusual tourism community that is very, very interested in Cold War sites,” said Brehm, a former history teacher, Defense Department contractor and 26-year veteran of the Park Service.

Blytheville is gearing up to transform the decommissioned air base into the Blytheville Air Force Base National Cold War Museum. Late last month the city announced it was moving forward with plans to construct the museum on the site of the former Strategic Air Command base that closed in 1992.

Blytheville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Liz Smith said backers of the museum project are seeing the sort of nostalgia and enthusiasm that have greeted other Cold War museums like the Minuteman site, both in the U.S. and abroad.

“It has bowled me over, really, having worked here as the director of the chamber of commerce for 15 years, that we have had so much outside excitement and interest,” Smith said. “People are really picking up on it.”

A capital fund drive with a $20 million goal is underway, Smith said, and plans are to have a small exhibit up and running by fall. A structural study by Minnesota based Strategic Performance Group estimated a price tag of around $13 million, but that did not include exhibits, Smith said.

Interactive exhibits, two aircraft and a refurbished alert facility are part of the overall plan. Smith said it was important to have some kind of exhibit in place — preferably by Veterans Day — in order to interest the Air Force in loaning a decommissioned B-52 bomber and a KC-135 cargo plane.

Plans for the preliminary exhibit are modest, but Smith said they will include a 3D model of the completed project.

“So we’ll have some kind of a room where we can say, ‘This is what’s coming next,’ and so on,” Smith said.

A feasibility study funded by an Arkansas Parks and Tourism Grant and supported by Mississippi County projected a minimum of 50,000 annual visitors by the museum’s third year.

“They said the sky is probably the limit. They think after Year Three it could go almost anywhere,” Smith said.

Smith said project research included input from Ruth Hawkins, director of Arkansas State University Heritage Sites, and consultation with other Cold War museums, including the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which opened in the 1990s. 

In its first 10 years the site drew an average of 45,000 annually Brehm said. Despite three spring blizzards that cut attendance last year, he said the site still drew around 138,000 visitors and is running 6% to 7% ahead of 2018 numbers.

“To the best of my knowledge so far, we’ve been doing okay,” said Brehm, noting that the site still evolves and updates according to current events, like the U.S. pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. 

Smith noted that the Blytheville Air Force Base National Cold War Museum has the added advantage of access to Interstate 55, a new Arkansas welcome center nearby and proximity to other historic sites like the Historic Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash Boyhood Home.

“We have one of the newer Arkansas welcome centers that sees lots and lots of visitors and gets many inquiries about the base even now,” she said.

Christened Blytheville Army Airfield when it opened in 1942, the base was a flight training center then a personnel processing station before it closed after WWII.

In the 1950s SAC reopened the base and converted it to a single-mission bomber base. Different squadrons, air wings and divisions made the base home, and it played roles in Cold War alerts and operations in Vietnam, the Grenada operation of 1983 and in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. 

It was renamed Eaker Air Force Base in 1988 and decommissioned on Dec. 5, 1992, during a round of base closures at the Cold War’s end.

Brehm observed that visitors come to the Minuteman site from former Cold War participants like China, Germany and the U.K. He said the Blytheville project is an “awesome opportunity” for enthusiasts from around the world to study a war in which the participants stood vigilant for the moment it might get hot.

“They’re going to be drawn to something like that,” Brehm said.

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