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Sporting a flight jacket with several sewn-on patches, Robert Byttle sits at an antique soda shop-style table sipping coffee in the kitchen in Building 12, the PBY Museum’s new home. On the wall above the sink hangs a 12-foot-long illustration of the famed PBY and in the corner a jukebox plays Tommy Dorsey.
Richard Rezabek, wearing a PBY t-shirt, joined him at the white wrought iron table, talking of the museum’s humble beginning, when 10 years ago a dozen veterans got together to form the PBY Memorial Foundation.
At first the museum made its home at the old community gas station off Pioneer Way. The location was great for attracting foot traffic, even though the space was small. These spontaneous visitors often dropped donations in a little box, which helped to pay the bills, Byttle said.
In February, the museum moved to Building 12 on the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Seaplane Base, realizing its long-awaited goal of having a place on the base to call home. The historically registered building is much larger and has room to store extra artifacts. The foundation hopes to soon have a restored PBY on display.
But since the move, visitor numbers have dropped and so has the museum’s donations.
“We just don’t get the foot traffic anymore like we did at the pump station,” Byttle said, referring to the former rented space on Pioneer Way. “We need corporate sponsorship because we need funds very badly.”
While the building is rent-free, the museum must still pay for utilities to keep the space heated, the water flowing and the lights on.
“Since we don’t have walk-in traffic, it’s a little edgy,” Rezabek said about raising enough money to cover the museum’s expenses.
The Foundation is looking to increase membership to help cover their costs.
“We haven’t raised the price of membership in 10 years. It’s always been $25 for individuals and $35 for families,” Rezabek said, adding that they don’t plan to raise dues, either.
Volunteers are still getting the artifacts settled into their new home. The layout allows for era-specific rooms, starting with World War II. Byttle and Rezabek hope the rooms will be completed by Christmas time.
The best part of the PBY museum is that the history there is alive — the volunteers flew the PBY, camped in the Aleutians, and lived aboard aircraft carriers.
Byttle launched into a story from his time in the Aleutians. The mess hall food was terrible and they were having hotdogs again. Byttle decided to take the matter into his own hands. He grabbed his gun, walked to the river and shot a salmon out of the water, gaining instant popularity as the smell of fresh salmon wafted over the camp.
“We just survived up there,” he said.
Down the hall is a PBY flight simulator, which Byttle compares to a video game.
“These kids come in here and operate the controls, and they’re great. I usually end up crashing,” he said.
Other rooms highlight the Korean War, Vietnam War and current conflicts. The museum also features models of each aircraft to fly from NAS Whidbey Island and volunteers are also collecting books for a reference library at the museum.
But it’s not all military memorabilia. The museum also houses several pieces of community history such as long-time Whidbey News-Times reporter Dorothy Neil’s red typewriter and the original oven from the Oak Harbor movie theater.
The museum builds it base from monetary donations used to keep the lights on and material donations to fill the era-specific rooms.
“We will take anything anyone will give us,” said Rezabek.
The museum continues to thrive because of the volunteers, which range from its die-hard founding members to active duty personnel who come in to help with some of the heavy lifting. Volunteers also hail from the fire department, city staff and the Whidbey Cruisers.
So next time you’re in for a little local history, check out the PBY Museum in Building 12 on the NAS Whidbey Island Seaplane Base, and get it from the guys who experienced it first-hand.