RANTOUL — The Air Force missile in Rantoul won’t end up on the scrap heap after all.
Three days before work to dismantle the military artifact was to begin, the condemned has been pardoned.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus and an aide, Thomas Blanford, were able to convince the Air Force to hand over renovation and upkeep of the first-generation Minuteman missile to the village of Rantoul. It will be transferred back to the National Museum of the Air Force and loaned to the village.
Mayor Chuck Smith said the news marked a change of position by the Air Force, which previously held the village would not be allowed to maintain it.
Smith said he will appoint a committee of local residents to discuss possible funding options for the restoration/maintenance. Three residents have already been appointed — Michelle Clayton, Loise Haines and Jim Cheek, who is president of the Rantoul Historical Society.
The Air Force will send a team of specialists to inspect the missile and provide input on its condition and steps needed to restore it. Smith said when the village inspected it two years ago, the missile was determined to be in bad shape.
“What we saw was a lot of rust,” Smith said. “There’s a chemical reaction happening between the concrete inside the missile (there are 20 tons of concrete) and the metal surface of the missile itself. The missile is deteriorating. The metal is losing its composition.”
Smith said it was about two weeks ago the Air Force informed the village of plans to demolish the missile beginning on Monday.
“Things seemed to move more rapidly once the media established the fact this was for real and the missile could be lost forever,” Smith said.
Shimkus was contacted by Smith and others, including the Rantoul VFW, about saving the Cold War-era artifact.
When Rantoul VFW Commander Justin Penrod was informed by a reporter the missile would not be scrapped, he said he was “ecstatic it got through.”
“I can’t believe it! That’s great! Now we’ve just got to move forward and start getting people interested to push for a landmark and see if we can get the federal funding to preserve it. I’m glad they listened to us.”
Penrod had one regret though. He wished the missile would be given to the VFW for maintenance.
In an effort to save the missile, Shimkus wanted to keep the inquiries at the lower levels of the military. He didn’t want to call Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, whom he knows.
Blanford made numerous calls but was not getting anywhere when Shimkus told him, “‘Just call the Pentagon. I’m a military guy. There’s a duty office there. There’s always someone who will answer the phone.’”
Shimkus got the number of an Air Force colonel who could empathize.
“The great thing about the colonel, he never served at Chanute; he was an aircraft maintainer, and he knew historically Chanute was a facility that trained maintainers,” Shimkus said. “There was a military historical connection that he grasped hold of.”
Shimkus said he told the colonel, ‘“It’s the Rantoul rocket. We’ve got to do this.’”
The colonel then began making calls.
The defense logistics office was reached, and officials there contacted the Air Force Museum, and Blanford “had a good conversation with them early this morning,” Shimkus said.
David Tillotson, director of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, called Shimkus’ office to confirm the stop work order to end the planned demolition contract.
Shimkus informed village officials, and a conference call was held between Shimkus, the village, a veterans group and the Air Force museum “so everyone was on the same page.”
Shimkus said he loves it when a plan comes together.
“It’s gratifying when you can come through, and the community is united, and you win one for a change,” he said.
For a time, Shimkus was wondering what it would take to save the missile. He jokingly told Rantoul Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer he might have to chain himself to the missile.
“He would not have been alone,” Eisenhauer quipped, saying he wouldn’t have been surprised if some people would have gone to those lengths.
Despite word the crew won’t be showing up Monday to begin the demolition, Eisenhauer said he asked Air Force officials if he should show up Monday just to be sure.
Eisenhauer said during the discussion process, the VFW and the Rantoul Historical Museum had indicated they would be willing “to take the responsibility” of the missile if necessary.