Wil Shellenberger, left, president of the PBY Memorial Foundation, Mark Christopher and Jim Dever examine a crate packed with beaching gear for a PBY stored in a warehouse behind the PBY-Naval Air Museum in Oak Harbor April 6, 2017. The gear was packed in 1943 and has never been opened. Shellenberger said he’d like to display such cases at other larger artifacts at a new hangar-style museum. Christopher and Dever will serve as emcee and auctioneer at a Celebration of Flight Dinner and Auction Saturday, May 20 at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

PBY Museum draws on star power for fundraiser

Mark Christopher is a gifted storyteller.

He’s made a career out of it, sharing his wit and voice as an on-air personality in Seattle.

Christopher and Jim Dever were only moments through the door at the PBY-Naval Air Museum in Oak Harbor earlier this month when Christopher was immersed in another story. This one was personal, a tale weaved around his late father, a Navy pilot who flew PBYs during World War II and later was a flight instructor at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The story had everything to do with Christopher’s presence in Oak Harbor, along with Dever, host and producer of King 5’s Evening Magazine.

They had come to Oak Harbor to get a lay of the land in preparation for hosting a major museum fundraiser, the inaugural Celebration of Flight Dinner and Auction May 20 at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge.

Christopher holds particular endearment toward the PBY seaplane — all rooted from a story told around a campfire in the woods near Cle Elum by his father, Capt. George Edward Thelen, in October 2000 — six years before he died.

“I’m the youngest of seven,” Christopher said, laying the foundation of the story. “There are five boys and two girls.

“My dad started getting Alzheimer’s. And (him) being from Montana, we decided let’s go camping one last weekend before everything gets all goofed up.”

Christopher said he remembers his dad looking around proudly and smiling, then saying “This is so great — the result of a sack, a wrench and a note.”

Everyone laughed. Except for Christopher. He was the only one unfamiliar with the tale.

“I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Well, the PBY, when I got shot down.’ I go, ‘What’s a sack, a wrench and a note?’”

It turns out, Thelen and six other air crew were aboard a PBY bound for Dutch Harbor when a Japanese Zero shot it down during the Aleutian Islands campaign of World War II in 1942.

Powerful head winds cushioned the sea landing for a heavy aircraft that wasn’t built to glide. It was one of a series of uncanny bouts of good fortune for the crew.

Another stroke of luck was a PBY passing overhead that spotted the aircraft, which had also deployed a raft.

As the story goes, the PBY was desperate to refuel and had to head back to shore. But on the way, about 10 miles from the downed aircraft, it spotted a U.S. Coast Guard Sub Chaser.

According to Christopher, the air crew came up with a rather unorthodox way to relay a message to the Coast Guard vessel without breaking radio silence.

“Somebody on the plane had a lunch, took it out and threw a wrench in it for weight, wrote down the coordinates of Dad’s PBY and said, ‘Get me as low as you can to that little boat. We’ve got one shot at this,’” Christopher said. “And they dropped the sack — and that’s the only reason I’m here today.”

Thelen was only 24 when he encountered his brush with death. Just months later, he became one of the first flight instructors at the Whidbey installation, his son said.

Christopher, whose full name is Mark Christopher Thelen, said his dad was treated like a “rock star” during an air show that featured a PBY at Ault Field in 2002.

Since then, Christopher has been on a mission to honor aviators and air crew who flew PBYs.

PBYs were the first aircraft to operate out of the Seaplane base at NAS Whidbey, starting in the fall of 1942.

The event next month is the PBY Memorial Foundation’s inaugural dinner and auction fundraiser.

It is the foundation’s first attempt to host a higher-profile event, using regionally-known TV and radio personalities who’ve done this sort of thing together before.

Christopher, presently the weekend news anchor at KOMO Radio, will serve as emcee while Dever will be auctioneer.

“He’s the heart and soul in terms of this story because of his family’s connection, and it’s so important to him,” Dever said of Christopher. “I just look forward to supporting it. I think it’s going to be a really fun event and it ties people together in Seattle with people out here in Oak Harbor, too. We’re going to have a bus come in and everything.”

It is the goal of the foundation to start building a new hangar-style museum in two-to-three years at a different site, said Wil Shellenberger, president of the foundation.

Space is limited in the museum’s present location on Pioneer Way, which features a PBY-5A Catalina in a parking lot across the street.

Larger artifacts, documents, uniforms and other items are stored in various nearby buildings.

“Basically, we’ve had some small fundraising events in the past,” Shellenberger said. “As the museum is growing, we really needed to do an event to raise a larger amount of money.”

Last year, Oak Harbor residents John and Norma Berto pledged $20,000 to go toward building a new museum if the community can match it. John Berto died in November, but the offer remains, Shellenberger said.

“We hope to raise even more than that,” he said.

Christopher is motivated to do this part in Oak Harbor and beyond.

It’s been his goal for more than a decade, in honor of his father, is to see a PBY be a part of the Boeing Seafair Air Show — something that hasn’t been done before.

That day could be happening very soon.

Shellenberger said it was recently confirmed that there’s a PBY-5A from Victoria, B.C., scheduled to fly at Seafair in August.

It’s the same PBY that also might be part of the open house at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in June.

n IF YOU GO The Celebration of Flight Dinner and Auction begins at 5:30 p.m., Saturday, May 20 at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge. Tickets are $75 per person. For more information or to reserve seats, call 360-240-9500 or go to the PBY-Naval Air Museum at 270 SE Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor. Tickets are $75.

(Story was originally published Tuesday, April 18, 2017)

Wil Shellenberger, left, president of the PBY Memorial Foundation, visits with on-air personalities Jim Dever of KING 5’s Evening Magazine and Mark Christopher during a tour of the PBY-Naval Air Museum in Oak Harbor Thursday, April 6. Christopher, whose father was a PBY pilot during World War II, will emcee the museum’s Celebration of Flight Dinner and Auction Saturday, May 20 at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge. Dever will serve as the auctioneer. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Retired Navy Capt. George Thelen stands next to a PBY at an air show at Ault Field in 2002. Thelen was a PBY pilot during World War II and later one of the first flight instructors at NAS Whidbey. He died in 2006. Photo courtesy Mark Christopher

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