NAS Whidbey Island Community
Squadrons of PBY Catalinas flew from the Seaplane Base, starting in December 1942 when Lt. J.A. Morrison brought in the first PBY. These squadrons flew to Dutch Harbor, Cold Bay, Umnak, Nazan Bay, Adak, Amchitka, Shemya and Attu.
Like big flying boats, PBYs took off with a churning of water and a roar of engines for their practice runs in Saratoga Passage, then returned, skimming the hill above the hangar and settling into the bay to repeat the maneuver.
Residents of Oak Harbor soon became accustomed to the circling bombers training for the real thing in the Aleutian Islands. And with the attack by the Japanese there, a real concern gripped Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
The late Bob Walker first set foot on Whidbey Island in 1944 to attend aerial gunnery school, followed by a tour with training squadron VPB-61 at the Seaplane Base.
He described his job as sitting in the PBY-5A aircraft’s “tower,” which was the heart of the plane. “That’s where the engines were started and things like the fuel system, wingtip floats and slats were monitored. The PBY took off at 75, climbed at 75 and flew at 75. It was low and slow.”
Walker, an aviation machinist’s mate second class, later worked with HL-10, performing hydraulic and structural maintenance on the PB4Y-2 aircraft in 1945.
“We’d spend six months here and then three months in Kodiak, Alaska, on patrol.”
Members of Patrol Wing 4 still tell stories of their Catalinas and Venturas being shot down and their crews killed, wounded or captured on their hunt for the Japanese during World War II.
Retired Cmdr. Ellis Skidmore of VPB-61 recalled, “Our PBY Catalinas carried a lot of cold-weather gear, plus four square-nosed depth charges, which made us 2,000 pounds over maximum gross when we took off.
“As dawn came up, our planes would be lined up, ready to take off. We could tell when the plane ahead of us left the runway because the plane would settle down over the water to where only the exhausts on top of the engines were visible to us.
“I can still remember that sinking feeling as our plane settled below the runway. We would stay on full power as the wheels came up and we kept the yoke pulled back to start our rate of climb at 75 feet per minute until we got up to our cruising altitude of 200 feet.
“Sometimes we’d fly like that for 10 hours, almost eyeball-to-eyeball, looking for submarine periscopes and shipping.”
Patrol planes flew long-range navigation training missions over the North Pacific. Fighters and bombers made bombing, rocket and machine gun attacks on targets in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Torpedo overhaul equipment was transferred to NAS Whidbey Island unexpectedly in 1942 from Indian Island, Washington. At the start, the torpedo shop refurbished six torpedoes per day. By January 1945, production had increased to 25 per day.
At the Seaplane Base, several PBM seaplanes were aboard in the summer of 1944, and a few B-26s arrived early that year to be used to tow targets.
Today, the general public is invited to see a Catalina (on the Seaplane Base) and PBY aircraft memorabilia at their new location on Pioneer Way in downtown Oak Harbor. Call 360-240-9500 for business hours.