The Mole Hole: Effort to Help Save a Cold War Concrete Resource
Presenter: Travis Ratermann
From the middle of the 1950s through 1991, the rise of black smoke would continually rise above the treetops as the roar of jet engines faded in the sky above Blytheville, Arkansas. The rise of black smoke would strike fear in the hearts of those that lived in the neighboring area, as those B-52 planes may be on their final trip, as they carried nuclear warheads that could be deployed at with a single phone call from the President of the United States.
The Blytheville Air Force Base Alert Center and Alert Apron constructed as part of a national expansion of Strategic Air Command Facilities across the United States and its Territories, to help in creating a “program to safeguard nuclear deterrence” through the SAC Alert program. Though arriving late to the Strategic Air Command’s Bomber Alert Program, the Blytheville Alert Center and Alert Pad provided another installation that was able to augment SAC’s already strong ability to establish a one-third strike force to provide a counterattack within 15 minutes, in the event of a Soviet initiated strike on the United States. It is through the constant efforts of SAC and its airmen that the bomber fleet was considered the backbone of the SAC deterrent posture. For almost 34 years, this area had the dubious distinction of being one of the “highest security chunks of concrete imaginable.”
After the Soviets obtained nuclear weapons, both nations embraced a balance of power through mutually assured destruction (MAD), which stated both sides had maintained enough nuclear weapons to survive a first strike and to launch a retaliation that would destroy the other side. This uneasy balance was preserved by the deployment of different weapons platforms, including submarines, ICBM Missiles and bombers which would become known as the Triad of Deterrence.
As the third part of the Triad of Deterrence, these Alert Facilities and Aprons need to be studied and protected. By surveying these properties, nominating these property types, and restoring these buildings, especially the Alert Center, it allows the public to see and experience a day in the life of an airmen as they sat on alert 24 hours a day 7 days a week. By having a completely intact example of a Bomber Alert facility/apron, weapon storage area, and family visitation center, visitors can also experience the sacrifices airmen gave up, while out on Alert duty.
Travis Ratermann: Thank you. How many people have heard of the mole? Oh that's good at least we have some people. Up here... it's not there, oh there we go.
So this is an article that was taken out of the local newspaper right after the base in 1987. It says, The Boss of the Blytheville Air Force Base's 97th Bomb Wing had reference the Alert Crew Readiness Facility - That mound, multi-mouthed structure that sits far from another mound, also built by and for Warriors, the old Chickasaw Indian mound, just off the Air base in a highway. So what you have here in the lower left is the burmed embankment for the alert center, and just less than half a mile south of that is the old Chickasaw mound for a mound building of Mississippi Indians during that period, sort of put it in perspective.
The location, this is Blytheville, also known as Eaker Air Force Base. It was renamed in 1989 in hopes that the renaming of the base to be Eaker would help save the base from Brack, and it did not work. So this is just a little bit of Blytheville. So the Blytheville Air Force Base Alert Center and Alert Apron was constructed as part of a national expansion of the strategic air command facilities across the United States and its territories to help in creating a program to safeguard nuclear deterrents. Though arriving late to the strategic air command's bomber alert program, the Blytheville Air Alert Center and Alert Pad provided another installation that was able to augment SAC's already strong ability to establish a one-third strike force to provide counterattacks within 15 minutes. It is through the constant efforts of SAC and its airmen of the bomber fleet, was considered the backbone of the SAC deterrent posture. And I'm sorry for the missile guys, that's not what I believe, it's just what they say.
For almost 34 years the area was the distinction of being the highest security chunks of concrete imaginable. The Blytheville Air Force Base SAC alert area is located east of the southern end of the runway, situated at the center of the fenced area long the alert parking area. A taxi way to the southern end of the apron joins the Blytheville Air Force Base Alert area to the main runway, which allows bombers and tankers with the quickest access to that runway. Positioned around the apron are the crew readiness center, also known as the Mole Hole or the Alert facility. The Alert Aircraft Parking Apron, also known as the Christmas Tree or Chevron. The security police entry control building, the security gate, the electric power station, master surveillance and control tower, the alert fire team facility, small guard shacks, small shelters, alert space, basketball court, swimming pool, etc. along with the security fence.
These guys that were stationed out here were here seven days a week 24/7, waiting for the clocks then to go off to go over the North Pole at that point in time. So these guys had everything possible to maintain a somewhat normal life, living within this very secure area. So that's why you had the swimming pool and the basketball court. Located adjacent to the Alert area is the weapon's storage area, which is a highly secure area as well. This area contains the berm storage igloos, multiple cubicle magazines, storage buildings, surveillance and inspection shops, surveillance towers, command and control buildings, along with the security and guard fence in the entrapment area.
The third area located within the current Blytheville Air Force Base Historic district, which we got listed in 2018, is the family visitation area. Now the service members that were out here did not call it the family visitation center, they colloquially named this the family planning area, for folks to come and visit. The family visitation area was constructed between the middle of the 1970s through the middle of the 1980s, and it provided a place for families and aircrew to see their husbands and fathers during their alert rotation. The combination of these three areas being intact is almost unprecedented at any other site throughout the United States. The Alert facility and Alert Pad has been razed to make way for many of the alert facilities on many of the active bases and those that have been de-activated.
The former Blytheville/ Eaker Air Force Base has been a very intact area, making it a great place to try to interpret life at this point and time for the men, women, and families who sacrificed years living under the auspice of the Cold War. The Blytheville Air Force Base was constructed beginning in May of 1942, with completion by December 3rd of 42'. So the entire base was constructed in very little time. As a twin-engine aircraft base for bomber pilots. However, by late 1945, the war in Europe was over and there was little need for so many bombers and the base was then de-activated.
By 1953 to 1955 there was no question that TAC would be stationed out of the newly reactivated base, which was reactivated in 53'. In July of 1955 the United States Air Force reassigned the Blytheville Air Force Base to the Tactical Air Command, better known as TAC, to house the new B-57. However, the Air Force had realized the B-57 was not a good plane for low level bombing runs, which was part of its mission. It quickly decided to discontinue this from the Air Force, which left the newly opened base without a plane to fly. In 1957, the report was submitted by the United States Air Force that would transfer the Blytheville Air Force Base from TAC to the Strategic Air Command, better known as SAC, effective in 1959. Fifteen B-52's and a squadron of aerial tankers would be replacing the B-57. The national register nomination for the historic district says, "throughout the Cold War period, this combination of nuclear armed submarines, missiles, and bombers would become known as the Triad of Deterrence."
The bombers would be eventually on alert and house the crew readiness facility, and the bombers would be housed out on the Apron. It would become the cornerstone of the deterrence and help keep the Soviet Union at arm's length, eventual show of force. Eventually the United States turned to SAC as the center-point of the nuclear bomber program for the Triad of Deterrence and its alert program. Again it is noted in the original session that it stands to reason that the brunt of an initial attack would be directed against SAC. Because the Soviets know only too well, the price they would have to pay for aggression that would be unacceptable to them, unless they needed to succeed in preventing SAC strike force to be launched. As long as the Soviets knew that, no matter what means they had to employ to stop it, a sizeable percentage of SAC strike force would be in the air with a counterattack within minutes of the initial aggression. They would have to think twice before undertaking such an aggressive maneuver.
As part of the retrofitting of the base from TAC to SAC, new infrastructure was needed to align within SAC's new mission. These new buildings included the Alert Crew Readiness Facility, the Alert Pad, the support structures, and the weapon's storage area. SAC alert facilities were composed of two major parts, the bomber alert facility which held the crews in the Alert Apron itself, where the aircraft were constantly on stand-by.
The development of the crew right next to the facilities was in response to the Killian Report, a document completed in 1954 to assess... what is going on... there we go… 1954 to assess the nation's ability to deter the attacks by the Soviet Union. One suggestion made in the report was to disperse bombers across the United States and have pilots and crew members prepare to fly immediately in response to a Soviet attack. Maintaining such readiness required that an aircraft be positioned along the run-way, ready to take off, and that the pilots and crews would be housed in a nearby facility. In early 1950s SAC officials studied different flight line configurations to help with the best possible facilitating a quick launch of the bombers. Originally designers planned to do a standard stub plan, which you see there in the middle of Shepard. However due to the reduced time timing to take off for the stub design, it was no longer used. It's really hard to take a B-52 and make it go at a 90 degree angle, so it was never really able to meet its 15 minute take-off rule in order to get that going. So 90 degrees was not going to work.
The original designers planned on that, but they later decided on the Christmas Tree or Herringbone design. The style apron that would recognize SAC's alert aprons overall, and would provide that faster take-off. When combined with the close location of the crew readiness building, the 90 degree style would still remain at a few bases, though is phased out over time. In September of 1991, three major operational commands, TAC, SAC, and MAC all would be inactivated due to restructuring. This inactivation of SAC in September of 1991 and the consistent questions about the retiring of the B-52 fleet, which is still in existence and heavily used, is all but closed the books on the Air Force activity at Blytheville Air Force Base. A glimmer of hope began again as word spread about a potential addition of a MX Rail Garrison, which may go in at Blytheville. Ultimately the plan fell through following cuts to defense budgets, with talks between the Soviet Union and United States continuing. Then Congress also began to focus on the retirement of the B-52. The bomber and the expansion of a new B-1 bomber was about to take off.
At the time the retirement talks were going on, Blytheville Air Force was continually told that they would remain open and there would be a shoe-in for the B-1 bomber. This reassurance from members of Congress from other states eased the anxiety of the civilians of Blytheville. Unfortunately, like everything else, the plan fell through and the base closed in 1992.
Following the base re-alignment and closure at Eaker or Blytheville Air Force Base, it forced Blytheville, which was an economically depressed rural region without a firm economic structure, to provide what the base provided. This closure frustrated citizens, that it continually backed the base for over 40 years. In the years that followed, more lip service was paid to try to define services that would help operate out of the former base, but none of them ever materialized. There was a short glimpse of hope, following the election of Bill Clinton for the reopening of the base, but all hopes were quickly extinguished. This left a large amount of animosity and hatred towards the Air Force Base and the federal government, and the continual promises that were made and broken over the ensuing decade.
Though underlying distrust and activities still circle around the Air Force Base, like the B-52s and KC-135s which used to be stationed out there, the winds are slowly changing. There is a new strong push to recognize the service of the former Blytheville Air Force Base. And the latest effort was spear-headed by several local activists that wanted to see the Alert facility and the Alert Pad reused. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program was contacted about promoting the history of the site, and staff members with the National Historic Landmark Program had been out at the site looking at a potential national historic landmark for the site. In these discussions, the National Register staff suggested that a national register nomination be done first in hopes of building that argument for a national historic landmark, and slowly work towards that, as we all know, grants sort of hinge on national register listing. So it’s like, let’s get our foot in the door first, and then we'll work towards the NHL.
So we'll see how that all sort of planned out. And it was decided to go with that process, and it included a process to make the Alert Pad a museum with the visitation center being the guest offices, with a tour of the magazine and storage area for munitions. This area was officially listed to the National Register on January 26 of 2018.
At the same time of the nomination was in process, other big events were already developing to help highlight the efforts being made to resurrect parts of the base that were very special to those that lived out there. One such effort was the rededication of the Linebacker II Memorial and the flag plaza, which you can sort of see here in the lower left. It got a new paint job and some new restoration, and we had five, six hundred people out there for this rededication, community members and families of Linebacker II, those that didn't come back from Vietnam during that period.
Also, is there to do a groundbreaking for the HULK 46 Memorial on the Memorial plaza. This was attended by former base airmen, especially the community. The hard feelings and bad blood that once existed in mass throughout the city of Blytheville towards the former base is starting to wash off. The HULK 46 Memorial is being designed by Washington State University students and their design and engineering program, as Lieutenant Eric Hedeen, who was a member of the HULK 46 that did not come back from Desert Storm, was actually a graduate of that program. So the students are looking at it as a we're giving back to the community, and the community is looking at it as people are wanting to take interest in what we have here. And this is a photo of the HULK 46 design that the students at Washington State University have put together.
Following the acceptance of the National Register Nomination group was spearheading the preservation efforts. Commissioned Hardline Designs, it's an architecture historic preservation and planning company out of Columbus, Ohio to develop a renovation plan. The plan would be given to the Arkansas Aeroplex and is used for planning and restoration for here on out. So a lot of this information from here is their sort of design plan, so I'm just presenting it for them.
As part of the conversation in the functioning of the museum space, incremental steps would need to be taken. This just happens to be the Entrapment Area. Hardline Designs proposed it being done with steps of priorities. It must be stated that the three main areas, the first one being the Alert Center itself which is building 1225, then the visitation area, and the munitions area. However much of the work of the conversion of the site circulates around the Alert Center and the Alert Pad itself. Therefore, Hardline Designs designated this priority one, due to the initial need for both funds and foot traffic. Hardline is suggesting that the exterior of the building be cleaned and made sufficient repairs to this space. The entry gate is also a very highly secure area, which we can see here, would love to be able to get that going again, make it operational. But Hardline Designs was also very focused on the fact that we have pot holes in this area, which it's Arkansas, we have pot holes everywhere. So it was sort of lower down on my priorities list.
The entry control gate is directly connected to the Entrapment Area itself and both people and vehicles would be able to travel into this to get into the museum itself. A lot of the removal that we would have to do would just be cleaning up around the site, from vandals along with a lot of the vegetation. The exterior of the Alert Center is going to take far more funds than the Entry Control area. The funds are sought to help seal up the building with the largest portion. [Inaudible] have done wonders on forcing issues into energy efficient windows at this place, it broke them all out. It's hoped that the estimated price, on just the Alert Pad itself, is going to be about a $500,000 renovation project, with most of that being roof and exterior repair, with hopes that it's done by 2023.
After gaining foot traffic and helping with rehabilitation of the Alert building itself, the next priority would go to the family visitation center. A lot of this building, the Alert facility had a 1985 addition, so we're trying to put that back to the way it looked originally. With the Alert Center rehabilitated the main draw would then be sustaining at the time funds, which we all have problems with, and generating the facility to help rehabilitate in priority four with the family visitation center. This just happens to be the plan of 1985 when they did an addition and sort of help with that lay out. Some of the big parts would be adding a living room, dining room, and some facilities to help fixing that up to help look like it did while it was being used. This is going to roughly cost about $1.8 million in order to get this up and going, on just this part alone.
The final priority is priority number five, enlist construction of a RV park, fixing the perimeter of the fence, along with the exterior lighting in order to keep vandals out. It would also help with the outdoor pool, the basketball court, the sentry gate, the guard shacks, the alert fire team, and fixing the Apron itself. The building would like to take a little more, including painting it, signage, and roof repair. The master control tower is still a site that has at least three phases that could work. One is just getting people to get to the tower, another one would be able to let them get up into the tower, and another one would be having the controls fixed. We used to have them functional inside that tower. And here is a picture of the tower, there is also the Alert storage areas, the air launch cruise missiles. If you can see in that picture, right behind that red little Jeep, there is actually a Coca-Cola distribution center out of there. I won't drink Coke in Blytheville, because those are what stored the nuclear weapons. I'm staying away from it. I always told them, I am not going to drink your diet coke, sorry.
But to fix up this area, is roughly going to be around $4 million to put this storage area back to the way they really wanted it to go at that point in time. This is a big project. There's a difference between wants and needs, and it may not be essential. My opinion is that Hardline Design's perimeter fencing would be one of those that would really need to go up in order to keep vandals out, and showing a priority to the folks that around there that there's something going on and to keep little vagrants out of the site. Even though the analysis of the site, costs associated with the project is again shown that the vision statement of HaThe rdline Designs that Blytheville welcome center along I-55, just south of the Missouri border, reports that the most commonly asked question by visitors is whether there is anything to see at the old Air Force Base, to which they say, "no."
Former workers stationed at the base often drive through the Aeroplex to look at the buildings and where they used to live. It is a source of fascination because it's both off limits while they were there for 45 years, but also something they all wanted to see. Many of the residents who lived within the base were, over the years, didn't know exactly what was going on within this very secure area. The base housed nuclear weapons, which they were aware of, but didn't know where they were at. The goal of the renovations, the master plan, is to create a space that allows visitors to both learn about the experience of the frontline domestic defense during the Cold War.
Just disappeared... company... that's fine, it's fine right there. Thank you sir.
The question of funding of the project will forever be discussed... Keep hitting the button.
And what do we know for the first time since 1992, the citizens of Blytheville are starting to come around on the idea of cashing in on this great concrete resource, that is the Alert area. This economically depressed area is looking for ways to capitalize on surrounding tourist designation, and will be lacked the projects to bring the tourists and tourists' dollars. An entire doctorate program in Heritage Studies is located at Arkansas State University, and could be a great resource to help garner attention for this site. Another great resource that could be garnered is the attention from other sites. Other great resources primed to help recognize the work that's going on at the ones that we've already heard from today, the Minuteman missile silo, as well as North Dakota... some of those places. Though it may be unrealistic to ask the citizens of Blytheville to pay for the renovations for the former Alert Base, we need to know that the community is completely behind this project and the renovations.
They've all heard it again, big ideas, and big let down. We've seen it come through with the Federal government, governors that have promised things, presidents that have helped along the way, and lots of Fortune 500 companies that have come and gone. Be realistic, do not promise things that you cannot provide on. Don't let people sit at the door, it's going to leave a lasting impression, is the one thing that we've figured out. Is that the first people that are going to come through this door, as a museum, are going to have that lasting impression that's going to make or break the museum once it gets up and going. And that's one of the things we talked about last week in an envisioning session, was how are we going to make those great first impressions now and sort of have the community behind this from day one.
You can strive and the damage can be done, and the reputation, and further funding opportunities before the site really ever gets up and starts flying. This is a comment from Sandy Rea, who actually showed up on Christmas Eve 1987, says, “The general public is really not aware of the crews' alert commitment... We need to impress upon the minds of the American public that we are proud of our job motivation and job satisfaction and because of this, we are not merely pieces of the Department of Defense, we are the people."
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Speaker 1: With all the concerns that you have about the community accepting what you're doing with all this, are you trying to involve them in any way?
Travis Ratermann: Very much. As of right now, like I said, last week almost everything was completely outdated as of last week when we put on an envisioning session. Bringing in folks, not only from the community, but also Washington D.C., Canada, Europe, talking about Cold War history overall. But it's really about getting the base, the community back involved with this. Because if you don't have that base, especially with a project that's not funded by the state. This is just a lot of folks trying to get behind this to get this to work, so we really need them on the front end, and they are very involved on it now. But it's changing that mindset that is a problem, because they had been left behind for so long that it's going to be a slow process, but it's slowly starting to change.
Speaker 2: I run the Ronald Reagan Minuteman site up in North Dakota, but before that I worked with the... called the former Lincoln Air Force Base, then Lincoln Nebraska, there was a lot of similar things going on there, they closed the base. There was a lot of promises about to do something better, and there's a motivation involved right now about a new museum in Lincoln. Not necessarily for the SAC Base, but other features of aviation in Nebraska. But I just recently saw on Facebook, somebody mentioned about that... the Mole Hole, a possible name might become the National Cold War Museum. Could you elaborate?
Travis Ratermann: Yeah. I didn't know about that till last week. Not being involved in it and being more on the state side as just the historian for the project, sometimes I get left out of that discussion. So I walked into the envisioning session last week and they're like, we're going to go take it past just talking about the bombers and the KC-135s that sat on alert out here and take it one step farther. Sort of had the idea that if you're going to go, go big or go home. So they're seriously in contention, talking about more of a national scope on the Cold War itself, with the focus being the B-52 and the KC-135, but doing both sides. And we sort of tossed around the idea that if you're going to talk about the Cold War, you need to have both sides. And we brought in some exhibitors to talk about, not only the U.S.'s side of the Cold War, but bringing in perspectives from the KGB and some of the Soviet Union in order to get that contrast on both sides. So it is an idea, I can't say that it's going to happen just yet, but that's what we're shooting for.
Speaker 2: Well with another major part of the argument is basically that Damascus [inaudible 00:26:27]
Travis Ratermann: That would be an interesting take on that. Damascus is itself its own fun explosion. But they are so far away that trying to get the two to be connected, without doing some serious heritage tourism in order to catch those sites. We had 17 other Titan II sites within Arkansas, north central Arkansas. So most of those are gone, I went out and explored all of those within the last six, seven months. All of those are private property now, and there's no access to get into those sites without owner permission. So I mean, it'd be difficult, it'd be great to do, but it would be difficult at this point.
Speaker 3: I always thought that the sign out at the gate that said "Peace is our Profession" was a Kubrick thing. But if you could capitalize on that and if they have an old theater there, and you start running "Dr. Strangelove" for five bucks a head... I think you could get some fundraising going.
Travis Ratermann: "Dr. Strangelove" and strategic air command. That's the hope.
Speaker 4: Just along those lines, the Los Alamos Historical Society had a group of actors give the Reykjavik production a reading, but that also was the meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev. So maybe involve your cultural people to also educate.
Travis: We sort of have the same problem that Wyoming has, in that everything's stripped out of the inside of the building. Working with our folks in section 106 side of the office, Little Rock Air Force Base still has theirs; it didn't last very long as a SAC base before it transitioned over to TAC. They came to us not so long ago and said that they wanted to raze their building. And so we sort of worked out an agreement that the Air Fort in Blytheville we get first dibs on anything to come out of sacrifice. Water fountains, and klaxons, and anything else that may be in there that we could use, pull out and put up there. And they gave us permission to do that, and so we have a signed MOA with them looking at taking stuff out of their building before they raze it.
Because they are disappearing at a very fast rate off many of our Air Force bases. What made ours a little more significant, in my opinion, compared to a lot of the other ones, is that we are completely intact. Almost nobody has the Entrapment area, the fire team, the pool, the basketball court, any of the security gates. So we're a little more pristine in that nature, little run down, but we have all the pieces to it.
Travis Ratermann is the Survey Historian for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, located in Little Rock, AR. He has a B.S. in Historic Preservation from Southeast Missouri State University and a M.S. in Historic Preservation from Ball State University. As the Survey Historian, Travis is involved with reviewing Residential and Commercial District Surveys from throughout the state. Travis gathers information by surveying the property, completing site forms, taking photographs, and researching historical records of the property, to determine its authenticity and historical significance. His main focus is on documenting Arkansas’ current and former military installation including: Fort Chaffee, Pine Bluff Arsenal, Blytheville Air Force Base and former Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot.