Aviation history comes to life

Oak Harbor resident Mike Dilley views Navy artifacts at the PBY Memorial Foundation Aviation History Center on Seaplane Base. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

If you’re looking to get a jump start on commemorating the Centennial of Naval Aviation this weekend, there’s no better place to begin than with a journey into naval aviation history at Oak Harbor’s very own Naval History Center at the PBY Memorial Foundation, located on the Seaplane Base at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Start your tour of aviation history with some local background information. View a hallway lined with framed, color photos of all the planes flown on NAS Whidbey Island, including the famous PBY Catalina. There are also models of each aircraft.

Volunteer Richard Rezabek said the Memorial not only honors the PBY Catalina, its pilots and crew, but is also an authorized Naval History Center as well.

“That is one reason the Navy is sending us three dioramas that will help illustrate the unique history of the Seaplane Base,” said Rezabek, who also serves as chairman of the PBY board of directors.

One diorama will show the Seaplane base as it was originally constructed back in 1942. The other two will depict mock-ups of Hangar One and the navigation trainer for the PBY.

PBY Memorial volunteer docents Win Stites, left, and Will Stein display a watertight door used on the PBY aircraft. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

Continue your journey from 1940’s-era Oak Harbor on through history. There are rooms of artifacts dedicated to each of this country’s major conflicts, beginning with World War II.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the day that President Roosevelt declared would live in infamy — Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Visitors can view a special replica of the USS Arizona Memorial donated by the Pearl Harbor Survivors’ Association.

“Historical context is important for all major events,” said Rezabek. “We need to always keep in mind that what happened once, could happen again — and we should prepare accordingly.”

It is a lesson he feels is important for young visitors especially to keep in mind.

One local visitor, Mike Dilley, of Oak Harbor, agreed.

“I had some time today, and wanted to come out and see what they were organizing here,” said Dilley. “I’d like to bring my young nieces for a visit.”

History is certainly the driving inspiration for Rezabek and the other volunteers who staff the PBY Memorial Foundation exhibit building.

William Stein, vice chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, said his love for history probably stems from his grandfather, who owned a publishing house in Seattle.

“My grandfather never passed by a roadside historical marker but what he didn’t stop and read it,” remembered Stein. An Air Force veteran himself, Stein’s father is a former PBY pilot who will celebrate his 90th birthday on Saturday.

The center is always interested in related memorabilia, both new and old, said Stein. Even more valuable are the history lessons found in the stories of those who lived the conflict.

Memorabilia from the WWII Normandy Beach landing is one of many historic displays at the PBY Memorial Foundation. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

Some of those stories are closer than one might think. Oak Harbor resident Ray Guna brought in some items from the USS Arizona (BB-39), donated by his father, Andrew, who took annual leave from the ship on Dec. 5, 1941.

“His battle station was the Number 1 Turret Gunner,” said Guna. “Had he not gone on leave that day, he likely would not be here, and I certainly would not be here.”

One of Guna’s donated artifacts is an especially sobering memento. It is a cast of characters listing for a shipboard Neptune Party, known as “Crossing the Line.” The ship’s Neptune Party celebration took place on Sunday, July 21, 1940, exactly 72 weeks to the day that the USS Arizona came under attack at Pearl Harbor.

PBY Memorial volunteer docent Richard Rezabek, second from right, listens as a visitor asks a question in the World War II room of the Naval Aviation History Center. Melanie Hammons/Whidbey Crosswind

Moving beyond the World War II era, the innovation and accomplishments of naval aviation continue to impress. Next stop on the history tour is the Korean War. The displays and artifacts for that room are being coordinated by a Korean War veteran, said Rezabek.

Wartime accomplishments of the Vietnam War era, and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are not overlooked, either.

The Vietnam room showcases aviation-related uniforms, models, and even a full-size co-pilot’s seat from a P2V-7 Neptune patrol aircraft.

There’s still more to see and learn from the on-site library, for example, or by taking the controls in the center’s flight simulator.

While the vintage warbirds and modern aircraft will be on display Saturday at NAS Whidbey’s Ault Field Base, there will be classic cars to see on the Seaplane Base and NAS Whidbey’s Search and Rescue will demonstrate an over-water rescue at noon. The PBY Memorial Foundation will be open through it all.

Rezabek, Stein and the other PBY Memorial Foundation volunteers could not be more excited.

“That’s what this is all about,” said Stein.

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