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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Blytheville exhibition part of greater museum effort underway

BLYTHEVILLE -- Some displays at the BAFB Exhibition could revive mostly forgotten dread in Arkansans old enough to remember the Cold War.

There's a color photograph of a mushroom cloud in billowing fiery orange.

There's a black-and-white photo of schoolkids practicing duck-and-cover under their desks. A touch of dark humor lurks in the caption: "The effectiveness of this method was never tested."

There's a movie poster of the mordant 1964 comedy "Dr. Strangelove," which ends with humanity facing extinction due to the Doomsday Device. Another poster advertises the same year's more sober "Fail Safe," in which both Moscow and New York City are incinerated by thermonuclear weapons.

There's a sign listing the five graduated defense conditions for American forces facing the threat of thermonuclear war. DEFCON1 denotes the lowest level of readiness. DEFCON5 indicates that war is imminent or has already started.

The BAFB Exhibition on Blytheville's outskirts addresses the potential Armageddon lurking in another Cold War acronym: MAD (mutual assured destruction). It also extols the Americans who served their country at this Strategic Air Command base for 37 years. The exhibit's acronym stands for Blytheville Air Force Base, called Eaker Air Force Base during the latter part of the Cold War.

BAFB's five galleries are a warm-up act for the planned National Cold War Center. Its indoor-outdoor complex is targeted to open here in 2027 as another potentially major Arkansas visitor attraction akin to Fort Smith's new National Marshals Museum. The center's board of directors is chaired by Mary Kay Shipley, former owner of Blytheville's legendary That Book Store.

Fundraising from public and private sources is in progress. Announced earlier this year were a $400,000 grant from the Division of Arkansas Heritage and a $500,000 grant from the National Scenic Byways Program in conjunction with the Arkansas Department of Transportation. A primary building and design team has been chosen.

Given Vladimir Putin's brazen invasion of Ukraine and ongoing tensions with China, some observers imagine a new Cold War. BAFB's exhibits revisit the original one against the Soviet Union. That potentially Earth-shattering confrontation gave purpose to Eaker's long-range bombers.

The base had opened in 1942 as Blytheville Army Air Field, a World War II training facility that closed after Germany and Japan were defeated in 1945. It was reopened in 1955 as a SAC facility and operated in that role until closing in 1992.

During the Vietnam War, the base's 97th Bombardment Wing was temporarily reassigned to the Pacific island of Guam. The exhibition's Honoring & Remembering gallery includes tributes to that unit's personnel killed in action or captured when their B-52 was shot down over North Vietnam. Specifically honored is Capt. Robert Thomas, lost the day before his 24th birthday in 1972.

Artist renderings of the future National Cold War Center picture a B-52 bomber that planners hope to obtain for display outside the main building. A sign lists the four principal aims of the anticipated museum:

◼️ Explore the local, national and international impact of the Cold War.

◼️ Convey how all walks of day-to-day life were affected during the war.

◼️ Explain the military strategy and effort in this unique conflict.

◼️ Guide visitors through the chronology of the long Cold War era.

The current smaller BAFB Exhibition goes some way toward achieving those goals, thanks to its thoughtful focus. One salient point is spelled out on a sign:

"A constant threat of nuclear annihilation existed. Although tensions waxed and waned over the multi-year span of the Cold War, many Americans feared that nuclear warfare would occur at any time."

BAFB Exhibition

3711 Idaho St., Blytheville

Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

Admission is free.

Visit or call (870) 838-8100.

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