NAS Whidbey turns 75

Location, location, location is everything, or so goes the mantra for real estate success.

It’s also the reason Oak Harbor landed what would become the largest Naval aviation installation in the Pacific Northwest with the premier national training center for tactical electronic attack squadrons.

Seattle’s ever-booming population also played a role.

IN JANUARY 1941, the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations sought a location for the rearming and refueling of Navy patrol planes operating in defense of Puget Sound. It was 11 months before the U.S. entered WWII and bases, including Naval Air Station Seattle, were gearing up for possible action.

NAS Seattle was commissioned in 1922 on the shore of Lake Washington at Sand Point. It had a huge hangar and small village of brick barracks and buildings on 413 acres.

But when the Navy’s new long-range and large patrol bomber, called PBY Catalina, arrived at NAS Seattle in 1937, Navy brass realized they had a problem.

A big problem.

The new bombers were big and powerful and capable of carrying a wide variety of ammunition.

However, NAS Seattle had to fly unarmed missions because the base was too close to a residential area that just kept growing.

MANY SITES along the Sound were scoured for an appropriate small seaplane base, including Lake Ozette, Indian Island, Keystone Harbor and Penn Cove.

The best appeared to be near the shores of a small farm town called Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, population 365.

A sandy strip of land separating Oak and Crescent Harbors seemed ideally suited for seaplane takeoffs and landings. Surveying began in August 1941 for a base strictly for seaplanes with no more than a few buildings and 250 men.

The headline in the Island County News read, “Huge Naval Air Station for Whidby Island; Four Million Dollars To Be Spent For Base Construction.”

(Back then, locals still spelled Whidbey without an “e.” The federal government and the Navy, however, spelled it with an “e.” Townspeople acquiesced.)

IN NOVEMBER 1941, Navy plans expanded. An air base would be added, along with thousands more men. However, topography near the seaplane facility wasn’t suitable for runways. The best place for planes, with the best visibility, was nearly four miles away, in Clover Valley, site of some of the best farm land on the island.

Then came Dec. 7.

Plans changed again. The base kept getting bigger and bigger.

Overnight, Oak Harbor went from sleepy backwater town to a war-building boom town.

Property owners sold their land and homes to the military, some not so willingly.

“People in Oak Harbor were excited. This would be a huge economic boost in the area,” said William Stein, historian and author of the recently released book, “Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.”

“But at the same time it came at a price. It may be necessary but it would mean their way of life was over,” Stein told an audience last week at Oak Harbor Library.

“It was bittersweet in many ways.”

ON THURSDAY, NAS Whidbey Island turns 75 years old. Its place in military history and a recognition of all those who trained on its wide variety of aircraft over nearly eight decades will be recognized in a formal ceremony.

Now the largest naval installation in the Pacific Northwest with more than 7,600 assigned military men and women, its original purpose as a seaplane base has long been overshadowed by the sprawling airfield that initially had a generic name.

On Sept. 23, 1943, the airfield was named Ault Field in memory of Commander William B. Ault, who went missing in action in the Battle of the Coral Sea the previous year.

After successfully striking the Shoho, the first Japanese aircraft carrier sunk in WWII, Ault and his radio gunner, aviation radioman 1st Class William T. Butler, apparently suffered mortal wounds.

On May 8, 1942, Ault radioed: “O.K. So long, people. We put a 1,000 pound hit on the flat top.”

He was never heard from again.

U.S. NAVAL Air Station Whidbey Island was commissioned on Sept. 21, 1942 from the steps of Building 12.

Commanding Officer Capt. Cyril Thomas Simard read his orders as a Marine Corps honor guard stood by and an American flag raised. There were 212 people at the ceremony.

Perhaps twice as many people will attend Thursday’s Commissioning Day activities, said Mike Welding, public affairs specialist.

Hundreds of active and retired military, their families and community leaders and others are invited. This summer, the base held an Open House to showcase many historical military aircraft and to allow a public celebration of its three-quarter century mark.

Thursday’s guest speaker is Admiral Bill Moran, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations. In a previous assignment, he was the commanding officer of VP-46, one of the maritime, patrol and reconnaissance squadrons at NAS Whidbey.

Capt. Geoff Moore, base commanding officer, said the 75th commemoration gives the opportunity to celebrate past accomplishments and pay tribute to those who served.

“FROM WWII to Korea, Vietnam, through the Cold War to Desert Storm and today’s continuing battle against terrorism, units and people from NAS Whidbey Island have made significant contributions in defense of our nation,” Moore said.

“Those past accomplishments laid the foundation for the investment our nation has made in this installation, recognizing the importance it will continue to play for our national security. “

At 9 a.m. Saturday at the Sea Plane Base, a 7.5 kilometer walk and run is also scheduled to celebrate the 75th base birthday.

THE FIRST plane landed on Aug. 5, 1942 when Lt. Newton Wakefield, a former civil engineer and airline pilot who would later become operations officer, brought his SNJ single-engine trainer in with little fanfare.

Everyone was busy working on the still-incomplete runway.

In February 1943, an auxiliary field 2.5 miles from Coupeville was approved and in use by September.

Today, OLF Coupeville is where EA-18G Growler pilots practice touch-and-go landings to simulate landing on an aircraft carrier.

Whidbey’s timeline of its aircraft seems a complex alphabet soup of letters and numbers to civilians. But it’s how those in the military identify the era in which they trained, flew and served.

Sometimes the decades are defined by their planes: Wildcats, Hellcats, Neptunes, Marlins, Intruders, Skywarriors, Prowlers and Growlers.

Grumman F4F Wild-cats were the earliest squadrons of aircraft, followed by F6F Hellcats.

In 1944, dive-bombers called Douglas SBD Dauntless became the prominent airplane at Ault Field while several Consolidated PBY Catalina and Martin PBM Mariner seaplanes and Martin B-26 Marauders came aboard.

AFTER WW II, many naval air stations closed across the United States because they couldn’t meet requirements for post-war Naval aviation. However, Whidbey could accommodate the minimum standard of 6,000-foot runways and its approach paths were suitable for any weather.

Lockheed PV2 Neptune patrol bombers eventually comprised six patrol squadrons as Whidbey assumed more of a maritime patrol mission.

During the Korean conflict, patrol plane activity stepped up again but by 1965, squadrons transferred elsewhere.

With the Vietnam War, one of the most reliable, durable and accurate aircraft called the Grumman A-6 Intruder became a favorite for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

Whidbey became the West Coast training and operations center for the all-weather, medium-attack bomber squadrons, setting the stage for its next phase as a specialist facility for electronic warfare.

IN 1972, the Northrop-Grumman EA-6B Prowler assumed the primary mission of strike aircraft and ground troop support in Southeast Asia. Its specialized electronic intelligence receivers and jamming equipment destroyed enemy radar, allowing for safe passage of other aircraft.

In July 2009, the Prowler’s replacement came along to Whidbey, the Boeing EA-18G Growler. Today, there are 17 active duty squadrons, three ready reserve squadrons and a search and rescue unit that flies two Nighthawk helicopters.

Having successfully evaded closure in 1991 by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, NAS Whidbey has consecutively over the last five years ranked among the top three naval installations worldwide in the annual Commander in Chief Installation Excellence Award.

Material from the NAS Whidbey’s website, PBY-Naval Air Museum and the book, “Naval Air Station Whidbey Island” were used as references for this article.

This photo from the 1940s shows how Naval Air Station Whidbey Island appeared not long after its commissioning. Inset above, A-6 Intruders fly over Deception Pass Bridge in 1967.

 

An aerial photo shows NAS Whidbey in the 1940s.

Intruders fly over Deception Pass Bridge in 1967.

This undated photo shows Ault Field from the air.

Pilots from VAQ 196 fly A6 Intruders in April 1978.

Photos provided by Naval Air Station Whidbey A Naval Air Station Whidbey Island sailor is shown with an EA-6B Prowler in 1973.

Sailors grab a bite to eat in August 1972.

Sea cadets in the 1970s admire a trophy.

Officers assigned to VA-95, renamed the Green Lizards, in 1982, gather on tarmac at Ault Field.

The Martin P5M, show here is the 1950s, was the military’s last flying boat.

The gate into NAS Whidbey shown in 1960.