News

60 years ago, base was big news

My how things have changed in 60 years. In 1942 a 49-pound bag of flour cost $1.39 and a U.S. Navy petty officer earned as much as $129 per month.

And, it cost a whopping $4 million to build Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Seaplane Base and Ault Field.

Of course, then it was spelled “Whidby” Island.

These are just a few tidbits of information about the period gleaned from pages of the Island County Farm Bureau News, now known as the Whidbey News-Times.

Understanding life on Whidbey Island at the start of the 1940s is particularly pertinent today, the 60th anniversary of the commissioning of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The military has shaped the growth and the complexion of the island, in ways that couldn’t have been imagined 60 years ago.

Just over 14 months passed between the first, prominent front-page announcement that a Navy base was planned for Whidbey Island, and an ever-so-brief mention that the base had been commissioned on Sept. 21, on the eighth and last page of the Sept. 24, 1942 edition.

When the Farm Bureau News hit the stands on July 17, 1942, Whidbey Islanders learned that a bill had been introduced to Congress that would fund the construction of a “huge new naval air base” here. Although America had not yet been drawn into World War II, the government was preparing for what appeared to be inevitable.

“Construction of the Whidby Island station would be part of the $20,000,000 expansion program, which is being hastened as a direct result of the German-Russian war,” the article said. “Hostilities between the Nazis and the Communists have lessened the tension upon Japan by freeing her rear from the threat of Stalin’s armies and, in addition, if Germany were victorious over Russia, she would take possession of large Russian bases near Alaska.”

Congress was preparing America to defend her borders by strategically locating naval forces and aircraft. Whidbey Island was part of the plan.

Henry Jackson played a big role

Congressman Henry M. Jackson proved to be a valuable source of information during 1941, leading up to the commencement of the building of the base. While the bill took several weeks to go through Congress, Jackson seems to have given it his tireless support. In Sept. 1941, Jackson visited Whidbey Island to share the news of the proposed base’s progress.

“I cannot conceive of anything that will stop the construction of this base,” Jackson was quoted as saying, in a Sept. 4, 1941 front-page story.

Jackson seems to have been able to anticipate America’s involvement in the war. Clearly he visited Oak Harbor to garner the support of his constituents, who would soon be made to live with a permanent military presence. Jackson conveyed his view of the importance of a base here.

“Jackson emphasized that while this country was and is spending huge sums to prepared for the war that might someday reach our shores, the stake was far greater than any sacrifices we would be called upon to make,” the Sept. 4, 1941 article said.

These sacrifices would be family homes and farms, resulting in a new definition of life for many on Whidbey Island.

At this same time, Jackson “gave personal authentication to the rumors” that the naval air base would be located at Crescent Harbor. Jackson went on to become one of the most influential members of the U.S. Senate and made a run for President of the United States.

The Nov. 20, 1941, edition of the newspaper informed Whidbey Islanders that property at Clover Valley was going to be used for a “landing field for Navy planes” in addition to the base at Crescent Harbor.

Landowners weren’t given a choice. They were required to sell their property to the U.S. government for fair market value. The strong lead of the front-page article provides a glimpse into the mood of the community over such an announcement.

Clover Valley eyed

“Fanning the interest of farmers to a fevered pitch of excitement and causing speculation on the part of every citizen on North Whidby, the news that part of the rich farming district of Clover Valley would be included in the Whidby Island Naval Air Base project was made known officially this weekend,” the article began.

An appraisal process began shortly thereafter, performed by a government appraiser assisted by appraisers of a mortgage lending institution.

By the end of 1941, the project, including work at both Crescent Harbor and Clover Valley, was a definite to proceed, and the Navy officially named it.

“The official name of the project, designated by the Secretary of the Navy, is Re-Arming Base, Whidby Island, U.S. Naval Air Station, Seattle Washington, placed under the command of the commanding officer, Captain Ralph Wood,” said a front-page story of the Jan. 1, 1942 edition of the Farm Bureau News.

The Navy’s decision to procure the Clover Valley land was based on a principle that has proven valuable to this day.

“The Clover Valley territory will be used as an air field for Navy land planes, those in authority said...The site was chosen because the land is level and situated ideally. The territory is an inverted “L” so that planes may have two runways to land into the wind when it is blowing from any angle,” said a Nov. 20, 1941, story explaining the strategic importance of the property.

That assessment has proven its worth, with the same two runways, designated with the call numbers “7/25” and “13/31,” still in use today for the same reason. The two runways provide four different directions in which to take off or land.

“It was a real upside-down type of thing at first,” Dorothy Neil, an Oak Harbor resident since 1925, said this week of the selling of farms. “But, it seems like that spurred a number of good jobs on the base.”

By the first of the year of 1942, the Austin Company, a construction firm contracted by the Navy to build the base, reportedly had 50 men on the job, building structures. By Jan. 15 the Austin Company employed 150 men, working round the clock, in an effort to speed up the project. Workers set up floodlights to facilitate night work. The dredging of Crescent Harbor was scheduled to begin within a matter of weeks.

By that time testing of the area of Clover Valley had been completed, revealing “the soil is solid and suited to its purpose,” reported a Jan. 15, 1942, article.

Just three weeks later, construction workers had made significant progress. Whidbey Islanders were shocked and amazed.

“So quickly changing is its face that the west boundary of Crescent Harbor would not be recognizable to a man returning from a week’s vacation,” said an article in the Feb. 5, 1942 newspaper, referring to the filling in of the marshland “from shore to shore.” By then, the Austin Company had picked up the pace of construction even further, employing 303 workers and 14 subcontractors.

Neil says this greatly helped Whidbey Islanders, still recovering from the Great Depression.

“What a wonderful thing it was,” Neil said.

Buying the farms

“I remember well the base being built and the farms it took over,” said Bob Muzzall this week. Muzzall, a lifelong resident of Oak Harbor, was 21 years old in 1941. “A lot of my friends’ folks had to sell, and it was a good move,” he said.

During the spring of 1942, the Navy had negotiated the purchase of the properties it needed to acquire at both Crescent Harbor and Clover Valley. Reports in the Farm Bureau News indicated that sellers had thought they were dealt with fairly. Many reportedly bought new farms, some off-island, and relocated quickly. There was a bit of a stir in May 1942 because sellers had not received timely payment of their money, but other news reports indicated that may have been due to the sellers not understanding the proper procedure for getting their payments. The Attorney General’s office in Seattle administered the distribution of funds, not the Navy.

Work on the base at both sites continued throughout the summer of 1942 with little more mention of it, except for when military personnel began to arrive to man the station. About 5,000 officers and enlisted personnel arrived here by fall.

Once the base was built and manned, it received its official commission Sept. 21, 1942.

“The U.S. Naval Air Station Whidby Island, Washington, received its official commission at 4 o’clock...September 21 when colors were hoisted at a formal ceremony. Captain Cyril Thomas Simar, U.S. Navy, became officially commanding officer of the station,” said the three-paragraph, page eight story in the Sept. 24, 1942, edition of the Farm Bureau News.

And the rest is history.

You can reach News-Times reporter Christine Smith at csmith@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611

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