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News | Dec. 29, 2020

Illinois community rallies to save landmark from scrap heap

By Jake Joy DLA Disposition Services Public Affairs

The beginning of this story was originally written like this:

The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile celebrated its 50th birthday in August. The Defense Logistics Agency’s property disposal team helped mark the occasion by turning a Minuteman into confetti.

But ultimately, that didn’t happen.

At 60 feet tall and six feet across, a static display of the Minuteman missile has towered above the west entrance to the former Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul, Illinois, for decades. The base closed in 1993, but the shell and a handful of static aircraft remained on the grounds as part of an aviation museum that hung on until 2015, even as private businesses filled some of the old Air Force buildings, civilians took up residence in former base housing, and airstrips and hangars became a public multi-use airport.

DLA Disposition Services Great Lakes Area Manager LaTanya Williams said DLA worked with the Air Force to help that airport – the Rantoul National Aviation Center – dispose of more than a half dozen inert airframes at the site in 2019. The agency’s property disposal expertise was sought again in 2020 for removal of the Minuteman facade. By mid-August, a $33,000 demilitarization contract had been approved by DLA to handle the missile’s destruction and removal.

Eric Vences serves as Rantoul’s airport manager and in August he confirmed details of the removal plan and said local leaders were “glad to see the project moving toward a conclusion.” Rantoul's recent evaluation of the missile showed it to be deteriorating and in need to removal, but he said the mayor’s office had talked about potentially designating the former West Gate area where the missile stood as a historic site.

A crane places a large missile.
A Minuteman missile landmark is installed at Chanute Air Force Base in 1966.
A crane places a large missile.
A Minuteman missile landmark is installed at Chanute Air Force Base in 1966.
Photo By: Courtesy of Rantoul Press
VIRIN: 660808-D-D0441-1234

“The goal was to get [demilitarization] done in one day,” Williams said, noting that removing the enormous object required advance coordination with local authorities on road closures to maintain a proper safety perimeter. The bottom quarter of the missile is filled with concrete, providing it with a steady base but also complicating potential removal. A contract crew would need to drop it on its side and slice it up with industrial shears to truck the remaining scrap metal sections away for recycling.  

Here’s where a standard scrap contract success story gets a significant rewrite.

Just as DLA locked in September 14 for taking down the behemoth, community members were alerted via local news sources about the impending loss of their friendly neighborhood inter-continental ballistic missile, and some folks weren’t having it.

“That missile is the only remaining landmark, the only thing that really represents what the base was all about,” said Justin Penrod, the commander of Rantoul Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6750. “It’s the thing people around the area most associate with Rantoul. You can’t pass through without seeing it from the highway. It’s a big part of our identity.”

Penrod wrote an impassioned email and sent it to DLA Disposition Services with less than two weeks remaining until the missile’s destruction. Part of the note read:

We would love nothing more [than] to have this honor to save our Chanute history. Our fellow [VFW] members consist of veterans that have served and retired from Chanute Air Force Base, and to allow another piece of their service erased from history by time would be a huge discredit to them.

Many were upset when the planes were cut into pieces, I being one of them. I didn’t serve in the Air Force and Chanute was closed shortly before my service time. But one of the fighter jets that was cut up and scrapped was one that my father worked on during his service. After he passed away in 2007, to be able to visit that plane made my days a little better. So I can understand why the people and veterans of Rantoul do not want to see another part of this great community going to the scrap yard.   

If we are granted the loan of the LGM-30 Minuteman Missile, we would be more than honored for it to stand where it is today. We would care for the land it sits on and maintain it to honor all those that served here. This missile means so much to our community, our veterans, and we want the opportunity to save it.”

Penrod shared that same email on his VFW post’s Facebook site. The post was shared nearly 400 times, reaching thousands of area citizens. People called the Rantoul village administration “day and night,” according to Penrod. They called their local and state legislators. They called the Air Force. They called the White House. Eventually, local U.S. Rep. John Shimkus’ office worked with the Air Force and DLA to halt destruction and loan the landmark to Rantoul.

The missile is still deteriorating and some challenges remain. Maintenance and care for the landmark that meet Air Force and area safety requirements may be costly. Penrod said he’s optimistic about their prospects for donations and grants. He said he believes his community will do what it takes to make sure one of the last recognizable remnants of Chanute AFB is preserved for years to come.

The base served many roles during its 75 years as a military installation, but will primarily be remembered as a multi-purpose training site. It served as the flight school for pilots in the first World War. It was the home for all Army Air Service technical training and was the main service member discharge point for the entire military at the end of WWII. In the 1960s, it became the technical training center for the Minuteman and ICBM missile maintenance, with an underground mock training launch facility located in a hangar right on the flight line.

The Minuteman III represents one leg of the U.S. nuclear triad as the only land-based nuclear missile currently in use. While there are reportedly 400 still in service – down from a Cold War peak of 1000 deployed during the ‘70s – they are set for retirement and replacement by the forthcoming Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent in the next decade.

While Minuteman missiles are definitely going away, perhaps Rantoul’s won’t. Not if Justin Penrod and the other members of VFW 6750 have anything to do with it. On Sept. 11, just three days before the landmark was due to disappear forever, his post had a triumphant follow-up note for its social media followers: