Betting on History: National Cold War Museum Planned for Old Eaker Air Force Base
For years after the former Eaker Air Force Base in Blytheville closed in 1992, the abandoned facility was seen as a symbol for the area’s loss and economic woes. Buildings that were homes and offices to nearly 6,000 servicemen had fallen into disrepair; its runways, once full of military aircraft, were empty but for a few small airplanes.
But now plans for a multimillion-dollar museum of the Cold War era — during which the base once served — are viewed as signs of hope and prosperity.
“This has the potential to be a game changer,” said Liz Smith, executive director of the Mississippi County Chamber of Commerce. “This will have a major impact for the city of Blytheville, for Mississippi County and for northeast Arkansas.”
The National Cold War Museum, tentatively scheduled to open in 2027, will cost an estimated $25 million. It will focus on the base’s role during the Cold War, from its opening in 1942 until its closure in March 1992. It will also look at how the base affected the area both culturally and economically.
A feasibility study shows an estimated 50,000 could visit the center yearly once it opens its doors. It’s still in the early planning stages, but a local board challenged with developing the museum has hired designers who have come up with tentative plans for a two-story building near the southern end of the base.
A small exhibit that’s now housed in the former administration building and serves as a precursor for the larger museum plan draws dozens of people monthly.
Once a thriving military base, known as Blytheville Air Force Base through 1988, Eaker played a vital role in U.S. military security during the Cold War and was known for being home to the Boeing B-52G Stratofortress and the Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker. The base’s B-52 bombers were ready at a moment’s notice to roar over the Arkansas Delta and head to Moscow, or later Vietnam or even the Middle East.
Its closure left a gaping hole in the Mississippi County economy, and area leaders attempted to lure businesses using the airstrip as an incentive. The U.S. Postal Service briefly used the base’s runways and hangars as a Christmas mail sorting facility. C-130 aircraft would bring tons of mail to the base daily, local workers would sort it for the mail’s destinations, and the airplanes would line up and take off on the southern runway at the end of each day.
It replicated operations at the FedEx facility in Memphis. In fact, locals tried to lure FedEx officials into using the former air base as a training center. They also offered the base for a U.S. Border Patrol training site. Both plans failed.
So, the empty buildings – the crew’s ready-alert housing, storage buildings that kept nuclear weapons and other structures — gradually fell into a state of mostly disrepair. One Blytheville leader even called the cable network AMC to see if it wanted to use the ready-alert building to film a season of “The Walking Dead,” the post-apocalyptic program that featured shuffling zombies seeking survivors for their dinners.
In 2019, the National Park Service contacted the Arkansas Aeroplex, an aviation-oriented recruitment business based at the former base, and asked about designating the facility as a historical landmark.
It was turned down for the designation, but it seeded the idea for building a museum there, said Mary Gay Shipley, the chairman of the National Cold War Center board.
“The more we looked into it, the more we liked it,” Shipley said of the museum concept. “It will be very Air Force-centric, but it will also tell the bigger picture of the Cold War.”
For example, she said, because the base was one of the top targets identified by the USSR if war broke out, area school children wore dog tags for identification in case the Russians annihilated the base.
Like the aircraft that once roared down the runways, the idea took off. Nucor Corp., which operates steel mills in Mississippi County, donated $1 million for the project, and last year, a gala held at one of the base’s hangars for the museum raised $400,000.
“The sense of hopelessness was daunting to people at first,” said Smith, who is also a member of the museum board. “People saw the evaporation of the spirit when the base closed. All they saw was vacant buildings.
“Now, the base represents hope.”
It’s also the catalyst for a couple of chance meetings that give museum board members the idea that their plans may have divine intervention.
While making a video with Blytheville High School students about a Vietnam mission flown by members of the base in 1972, Tom Sylvester and his wife went to eat at the Wilson Café in the nearby town of Wilson. Sylvester began talking about his project and the base and asked another diner if he was familiar with “Linebacker II and Charcoal I,” the names of two planes that flew to Vietnam and were the focus of his video.
The fellow diner was silent for a moment. Then he said his name was George Jerrigan, the pilot of a KC-135 aircraft that fueled the B-52 bomber named Charcoal I during an ill-fated mission to Vietnam. Sylvester ended up including an interview with Jerrigan in the video that’s shown on a screen at an exhibit housed in the base’s old administration building.
And a visitor to that exhibit also had a once-in-a-lifetime chance meeting.
Joe Mirocke, a financial adviser in Dayton, Ohio, recently drove to Blytheville to visit the museum. Mirocke was stationed at the base from 1980 to 1981 as a military security officer.
It was the first time he had returned in more than 40 years.
As he signed a visitor’s book, he noticed the name of “Ricky Crawford” just above his. Crawford was the only other visitor of the day, the book indicated.
Mirocke said his best friend at the base four decades ago was named Ricky Crawford, and he wondered if it was the same person.
Then, Crawford walked into the museum’s lobby, and Mirocke realized it was his friend of long ago.
“I almost didn’t come that day,” Mirocke said. “I was in Nashville on business and decided to drive over at the last minute.”
Crawford also had not returned to the base in 40 years.
“Neither one of us had been back to the base in all that time,” Mirocke said. “And then here we were, the only two people at the museum at the same time.”
The base opened in 1942 and served as a training airfield during World War II. When the war ended, the base was briefly a processing center for discharged military personnel.
The base formally closed in 1946, and control of the land was transferred to the city of Blytheville. In 1955, the base reopened when the 461st Bombardment Wing moved there from Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Three squadrons of B-57 bombers were stationed there, along with B-52G bombers, KC-97 refuelers, T-33A jet fighters and other aircraft.
An exhibition room in the former base administration building. (Photos by Kenneth Heard)
The 97th Bombardment Wing assumed control of the base in July 1959 as a strategic air command base.
A year later, bombers from Operation Chrome Dome flew to the border of Russia to check against Soviet nuclear aggression, said museum exhibit manager Joseph Alley.
During the height of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, two B-52 bombers flew to the USSR and were prepared to drop nuclear weapons on Moscow. They were called back at the last moment, Alley said.
In 1972, a majority of the 97th Bombardment Wing went to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam in support of the Vietnam conflict. On Dec. 18, 1972, a B-52G from Blytheville was shot down over Cambodia. Three were killed, including Robert Thomas of Blytheville, a co-pilot of the aircraft named Charcoal I. Thomas’ mission and subsequent death is featured in a video at the museum.
The base was renamed the Eaker Air Force Base in 1988 in recognition of U.S. Air Force Gen. Ira C. Eaker. Two years later, the Cold War ended, and in March 1992, the base was closed.
“I can’t imagine the economic impact of the base’s closure on this area,” said Barrett Harrison, a former mayor of Blytheville and a member of the museum’s board.
“Fifty-thousand is a big number for us,” he said, referring to the projected number of yearly visitors to the National Cold War Center. “It will make a big difference for us.”
Smith said studies show that rural towns should build economic engines based on the resources they have.
“We brought a lot of industry and steel here,” she said. “Now we need to convert those with jobs here into spenders. Mississippi County is sales-tax dependent. Tourism is the second biggest industry in the state, and tourism rests on history. We need to capitalize on our own history.
“I’ve never been as excited about an idea as this one.”