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Naval History Center: Preserving Whidbey’s Naval Past

PBY Naval airplane

rft-recommended-logoIn the 1930s and 40s, the PBY Catalina was a workhorse of a seaplane and the most widely used multi-role aircraft of World War II. Former Kenmore Air mechanic Adolph “Mickey” Meisch thought the venerable seaplane’s legacy was worth preserving. His dream has become the must-see Naval History Center, operated by the all-volunteer PBY Foundation, in Oak Harbor on Washington’s beautiful Whidbey Island.

The PBY or Patrol Bomber built by Consolidated Aircraft (the Y designation), was a muscular flying boat with a 104 foot wingspan. It had room for a crew of eight – the pilot, co-pilot, bow turret gunner, flight mechanic, radioman, navigator, and two waist gunners who manned armaments in the belly of the plane through large Plexiglas windows or “blisters.” Although slow and ungainly, this long-range aircraft distinguished itself in World War II in a variety of roles, including bombing the first Japanese ship and rescuing thousands of downed airmen.

PBY Cataline aircraft of Navy's air fleet

The PBY Catalina was considered the workhorse of the Navy’s air fleet.

Because runways weren’t long or strong enough to accommodate large aircraft during the 1930s, developers built seaplanes like the PBY that took off from the water. Whidbey Island’s harbor and naval air station (NAS) became the perfect home for PBYs. Back in 1998, Mickey and several other volunteers who had flown, worked on, or just loved the PBY, began the long and difficult process of preserving the plane’s history and returning the PBY to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Today, an impressive silver PBY, nearly restored, sits in the parking lot of Simard Hall next to what has become the Naval History Center.

Inside of PBY Naval aircraft

Inside the PBY Catalina is Spartan with wires everywhere. The technology is more than 70 years old.

Conjuring Spirits

“There were about 3,200 PBYs built,” explains Will Stein, the Naval History Center’s Director of Operations. “Today, there are about six dozen left and only a dozen of those are still flying. Our PBY was actually stationed at Whidbey Naval Air Station and we love that connection.”

Those kinds of ties, often local, are evident at the Naval History Center. Will and the other volunteers try to connect the memorabilia, whether it’s a flight suit, a sword, a letter, or a photograph, to the men and women who fought the battles. Docents provide colorful stories that make the exhibits come alive.

World War II Japanese flag

Japanese fighter pilots carried these flags signed by friends and family for good luck. This one actually has brown blood stains on it.

For instance, the Battle of Midway where the U.S. attacked and nearly destroyed the Japanese Navy is considered the most important naval battle of World War II. The display documents how Captain Simard, a Whidbey NAS officer after whom the Naval History Center’s building is named, helped oversee this decisive battle. There’s also a naval dress sword that went down when the USS West Virginia was sunk. When its owner realized his beloved sidearm was lost, he jumped into the water and retrieved it.

“This place conjures spirits,” says Will. He points to a flight suit worn in the Korean War. “There was a package of Spearmint gum and two nickels from the 1950s in the pocket.”

The Naval History Center offers displays from the 1940s to present day conflicts like Afghanistan. There are exhibits about the early building of the naval air station on Whidbey and the attack on Pearl Harbor, including headlines from the Seattle Daily Times, and hats, letters, and even a teak deck piece from the USS Arizona and other ships lost during the attack.

One poignant display is a Japanese flag carried for good luck by a Japanese soldier with hand written names and good wishes from the man’s friends and family. The brown spots on the flag are likely the soldier’s blood. Another is the MIA/POW empty table setting that has salt on a black plate to symbolize tears.

PBY Catalina engine

A restored PBY Catalina engine shows both the simplicity and sophistication of the machine.

Two bone chilling exhibits include a huge Nazi flag brought back from the war by museum volunteer Bud Zylstra and a bayonet with nine kill hash marks carved in its wooden stock.

Ancient, Functional Technology

A popular interactive exhibit is the flight simulator. Guests can fly the PBY or other aircraft over actual landscapes like Whidbey Island. It’s realistic and challenging. Will, who is a retired Air Force aviator, tried to loop-de-loop the simulated PBY and ended up crashing.

Naval History Center Whidbey Island display

The Naval History Center features a number of realistic displays that show what life and working conditions were like during World War II and other conflicts.

Of course, the gem of the exhibits is the PBY itself, which visitors can climb into with the help of docents. It’s a big metal tube with no insulation or heating or air conditioning. Flying these old planes to places like the Aleutian Islands earned them a reputation for being freezing cold or blazing hot. Between compartments there are water-tight metal doors just like in a boat. Other boat-like features include the floats or pontoons, an anchor, and lots of cleats for tying the plane to its dock.

Upfront in the pilot’s compartment, the yokes (the steering wheels) and most of the instrument dials are yet to be restored, but the pedals illustrate how strenuous it was to operate this plane without power steering. This was 1930s technology with manual controls, pulleys with wires, and no frills. But there’s also a certain beauty and simplicity in this plane. Despite her shortcomings, the PBY was a working hero that should be long remembered.

www.pbymf.orgby Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

This story first appeared in Harbors magazine.  

Interested in more stories about Whidbey Island? Check these out:

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Fraser’s Gourmet Hideaway, Oak Harbor, WA

Sweet Mona’s Chocolate Boutique

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Cook on Clay: Rugged, Elegant Flameware Cooking Pots

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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at