New book explores 75 years of NAS Whidbey history

William Stein spent about 18 months researching and writing a book about Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

During WWII, trainees moved through Naval Air Station Whidbey Island like gusts of wind blowing off the ocean.

“The guys came through here, came and went, came and went,” William Stein tells a group gathered at Oak Harbor Library recently to hear about his book exploring 75 years of base history.

“Look at that sign with the wrestling and boxing classes,” he says, pointing to a black and white photo showing men sparring in the ring and waiting to jab and punch. “It says, ‘50 men per hour 0800-1700 daily.’

“That’s nine hours a day times 50 men an hour. That’s 450 men a day!” Stein exclaims. “It was a mill for turning out trainees.”

Retired from the Air Force, a historian and longtime volunteer at PBY-Naval Air Museum, Stein spent about 18 months researching and writing the 127-page book. It’s published by Arcadia as part of its on-going Images of America series.

As with other Arcadia Images publications, the story is told through a collection of photos and a short introduction.

“Beginning and the War Years” is the first chapter, explaining how Oak Harbor was selected in 1941 for a new small seaplane base, how farmers’ land was bought up by the military and how the small town couldn’t handle the surge of construction workers.

So desperate for housing, chicken coops got divided into small rooms and were rented out.

The book moves through the eras of the base with photos of new aircraft, aerial shots showing constant air station expansion, maritime reconnaissance patrol, USO shows, off-duty activities and the hi-jinx and joking around of young Whidbey sailors.

History repeats itself. Themes such as too many people and no places to live, locals complaining of loud, noisy training exercises and rumors of closures and cutbacks ebb and flow throughout the decades.

There’s also the constants. The joy, hugs and tears of reunions after long deployments, the thrill of the newest aircraft, the formalities of inspections, rank and command.

Community perspective was another constant Stein noticed in his research going through decades of newspaper articles.

“People welcomed the economic aspect of the base but at the same time, they wanted it to keep as low a profile as possible,” he said.

The book is also the product of a longtime dream of the PBY-Naval Air Museum, which is listed as co-author.

“It the first real complete history of the base,” said Wil Shellenberger, museum director.”We’re hoping this leads to Will doing more research.”

Stein, who majored in history, says “just the facts” kind of writing is in his family’s DNA.

“I’m a stickler for truth. I’m always careful to explain it wasn’t because of a need for rearming and refueling for why the base is here. Those seaplanes were coming from Seattle, 20 minutes away, but they had a 3,000-mile flying range. It made no sense.

“They needed a larger, safer place to operate their planes. The original purpose of NAS Whidbey Island was a seaplane base. Period.”

Stein set out to answer how it came to be the size of small city with its own airport, fleets of aircraft, its own hospital, movie theaters, restaurants and some 10,000 residents.

It’s all in the book.

• “Naval Air Station Whidbey Island” costs $21.99. It’s available at Oak Harbor’s PBY-Naval Air Museum, Coupeville’s Island County Museum and other locations.