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« 1988 »

The news on Page 1 of the Dec. 30, 1988, Arkansas Gazette came too late to be a Christmas miracle, but it was glorious none the less: The angel of death had passed over all of this state’s military bases.

Residents of Mississippi County had so feared that the Commission on Base Realignment and Closing would target Eaker Air Force Base at Blytheville they held vigils. Home to B-52 bombers and KC-135 stratotankers, the 45-year-old base was the county’s largest employer, with 3,698 jobs in 1987 and an estimated economic impact of $85.7 million within a 50-mile radius, the Gazette reported.

But Eaker was not on the hit list. Other states were not so lucky: 86 facilities were chosen for closing, five for reduction, 54 for repurposing. Meanwhile, Eaker was to expand slightly: It would receive a KC-135 from the hit-listed Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire and that craft’s 16 personnel. (Pease eventually became an Air National Guard facility.)

“Today’s decision is one of the most gratifying I have ever known,” said Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers.

Rep. Bill Alexander, whose 1st District domain included Eaker, called the report a vote of confidence for “the job it is doing to defend our nation.”

President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci, wanted to unburden his budget by closing facilities that had outlived strategic usefulness, but every base had defenders in Congress. He came up with a plan to sidestep all but the most wily senators and representatives. He talked to Congress about facilities like Fort Douglas in Utah. Established in 1862 to guard stagecoach routes, it had evolved into a Reserve training base in the center of the University of Utah campus, where its operational flexibility was operationally not flexible. And the major claim to fame of Fort Sheridan in Chicago was an 18-hole golf course.

Congress approved Carlucci’s idea for an independent commission whose work had to be accepted entirely or entirely rejected. Congressmen could not spare any one base without recruiting a majority to nix the whole list.

But they could block the $300 million needed to implement it. And so Eaker was not safe until Congress had approved funding the closures, which it did in 1989.

But this was only the first of what became four rounds of base closures from 1988 to 1995. Eaker led the list in 1991. It closed in 1992. Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith would follow in 1995.

Elsewhere on this Page 1, the worst mass murderer in state history was sentenced to death — plus 147 years — in the murders of two of his 16 victims, and he wanted to die. Opponents of capital punishment appealed to save him, arguing that he was not competent to choose. Although the court sided with Ronald Gene Simmons, he had not yet stood trial for 14 of those murders, and so legally he could not get his wish.

— Celia Storey

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