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Vision for new military museum aims high

PLATTSBURGH — A Plattsburgh Air Force Base Museum is not a new concept, but to re-establish one 19 years after the former Strategic Air Command base closed is.

The resurrection of the museum was seeded a year and a half ago by Keith Herkalo, president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association.

The new museum is located across from the War of 1812 Museum on Washington Road in Plattsburgh.

Since May 2013, a group of former Air Force military and civilian personnel, community members and SUNY Plattsburgh students have met to raise a new museum from the dust of what once was.

Three of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base Museum Committee members are retired officers, who desire to keep the memory of the 100,000-plus personnel that served there and 40-year legacy of the base alive. Col. Joseph B. McNichols, committee chairman, Lt. Col. Frank Baehre and Col. Henry J. Wurster have a cumulative 42 years of active service at Plattsburgh, and if anyone can power this museum off the ground these former flyboys can.

The museum is slated to open June 7, and there’s much work to be done by more than a few good men and women.

“The biggest thing we’re excited about is that it’s coming together,” Baehre said. “We now seem to have enough funds to at least open the doors.”

Wurster spent 16 of his 24 years in the Air Force at Plattsburgh.

“It just seemed right that we should have a museum because it was a fairly significant wing throughout the Cold War, and so it was easy for me to make the decision to get involved,” he said.

McNichols was assigned 18-plus years at the base.

“They need a museum, and it’s nice we will be able to get a little one started,” McNichols said. “As Frank says, I’m not too sure if I’m excited about the fundraising because it’s been extremely difficult. And that is our biggest issue and will be forever to keep the thing funded.”

The start-up cost is approximately $25,000, according to Herkalo. The fledgling museum received a recent infusion with a $3,375 grant from the Association of Air Force Missileers.

The committee also seeks corporate sponsorship and hopes to tap the loyalty and check registers of former members of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base Liaison Committee founded by the late Clyde Lewis.

“That was one of the best parts of this base the fact that the civilian community and the base was so tight … the Roger Forrences, the Bill McBrides and the Clyde Lewises and all those people who devoted a great portion of their lives to the base,” McNichols said.

An exhibit will pay homage to the patriotism of the Liaison Committee.

“And, we need to reach out to the community,” McNichols said. “It’s not only to get funds from people who were here but from some of the businesses.”

The Liaison Committee and the base’s relationship were unique as the base itself.

“Plattsburgh was the only base east of the Mississippi to have in-ground Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles when we had the Atlases here,” Baehre said. “Those Atlas Missile systems were deployed around Plattsburgh in 12 silos and will be another large portion of the museum displays.”

Exhibits will also include life on and off duty and models of planes for each aircraft that was assigned to the base.

“Finally, we will have a section on the Cold War itself,” Baehre said. “And Plattsburgh Air Force Base would not have been built if the United States had not been engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Building Plattsburgh Air Force Base was one of the major Strategic Air Command’s deterrent bases throughout the world.”

If money was no object, the commanders’ wish list aims high: an FB-111A capsule.

“I’m trying to get that base (Davis-Monthan) to stop chopping them (FB-111s) and allow us to have the capsule, and we need a new canopy to replace the one here that is in dire need of help,” McNichols said.

He wants to enlist community members in reconnaissance to locate lost memorabilia such as the sleek, 84,000-pound concrete pedestal his FB-111A was once mounted on.

“The canopy was such that it was designed to take the sun at a certain angle,” McNichols said. “Now, we have it flat, and it’s going to crack. So, it would be nice to put that thing back up. That overall would be nice to do because I thought it was pretty spectacular when it was up.”

Another wish-list item is squadron patches from the 1950s and ‘60s.

“We can probably cover from the ‘70s to closure with the group that is still in the area,” McNichols said. “Some of the older gents that were here in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, if their families had something they would be willing to throw our way. It would be nice to have a diorama up there of every patch of every squadron that was ever around.”

Also MIA is the “Plattsburgh Airbase Story,” which was the circa-1978, three-screen multimedia presentation that was a staple at Lewis’s testimonial dinners.

Also missing is Casey Mahon, former public relations officer, and the mock Mark VI weapon, which was used by the 380th Munitions Maintenance Squadron to practice bomb loading.

“Allegedly, someone in the local area has it,” McNichols said. “It would be nice if they would loan it back. That’s the beauty of a museum, you can donate anything.”

A Klaxon, used for an electrically operated horn or warning signal, is another highly sought-after item.

“That is one of the challenges accumulating interesting items to put on display,” Baehre said. “When we were here in the Air Force, we had to give all the cool stuff back.”

There are some items that can be pinpointed with laser accuracy.

“Dave Vivian has to give us back our ‘Here Lies Crew Morale’ plaque,” McNichols said. “We had it on Alert. A Vigilance Committee put together one of these things. One of the wing commanders was killing morale, so we buried a pair of boots with concrete in them and a headstone that said, ‘Here Lies Crew Morale.’ They had this burial site outside the Alert Facility. Then, we moved it down to the Golf Course. I think the boots are long gone but we can always fill another pair of boots up.”

The Museum Committee also seeks in-kind donations of expertise of graphic artists, electricians and carpenters. Mannequins are also needed to display uniforms.

“If someone wants to name the museum after their parents or something or whatever, with the right size donation, that could happen,” McNichols said.

rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

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