On Jan. 17, 1941, almost 11 months before the U.S. entered World War II, the office of the chief of naval operations asked the commandant of the 13th Naval District to find a location for the re-arming and refueling of Navy patrol planes operating in defense of Puget Sound, should such defense be necessary. The commanding officer of Naval Air Station Seattle recommended the site of Saratoga Passage on the shores of Crescent Harbor and Forbes Point as a base suitable for seaplane takeoffs and landings under instrument conditions. A narrow strip of land tied Oak Harbor to what is now Maylor’s Capehart Housing. Dredging, filling and running water and power lines to the city were underway when word came to find a land plane site.
On Dec. 8, workers started a topographic survey of what would become Ault Field, about 4 miles to the north. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, bewildered citizens, caught up in the war effort, signed up for jobs to build the station. Farmers turned over the titles to their family lands to the government for runways and hangars, and moved to other farms in Skagit County. Actual construction of Ault Field started March 1, 1942.
On Sept. 21, 1942, Commanding Officer Capt. Cyril Thomas Simard read the orders and the watch was set. U.S. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was duly commissioned.
On Sept. 25, 1943, an area 2.5 miles southeast of Coupeville (OLF Coupeville) was approved as an auxiliary field to serve Naval Station Seattle. Crews surveyed the Rocky Point area in the summer of 1943. It became the transmitter and machine gun range. Air gunners going to the fleet were trained there.
Throughout the war, the station hosted a variety of aircraft for training, including PBY Catalinas, F4F Wildcats, F6F Hellcats, PV-1 Venturas and SBD Dauntless dive bombers. However, the station’s operations slowed at war’s end. It was almost certain the base would be earmarked for decommissioning. Many bases were closing because they couldn’t meet the requirements of the new Air Navy: 6,000-foot runways were the new minimum standard, and approach paths had to be suitable for radar-
controlled approaches in any weather.
In December 1949, the Navy decided that while Naval Station Seattle, the major prewar naval installation in the Northwest, was suitable to train reserve forces and support a moderate number of aircraft, it could not be expanded as a major fleet support station. Thus, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was chosen as the only station north of San Francisco and west of Chicago for this all-type, all-weather Navy field to support fleet and Alaska activities.
Taken out of reduced operating status, Whidbey had a new lease on life. Expansion and construction accelerated with the Korean conflict. Patrol squadrons dominated the base until the end of the 1960s, though heavy attack squadrons outnumbered patrol for a time.
The A-6 Intruder was brought into service during the Vietnam War. It served the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as their primary all-weather attack aircraft for more than 30 years. Whidbey was the West Coast training and operations center for these all-weather, medium-attack bomber squadrons. In 1966, Attack Squadron 196 was Whidbey’s first squadron slated to receive the A-6A. In 1997, VA-196 was Whidbey’s last A-6 squadron to retire. The Intruder saw service in Vietnam, Libya and Desert Storm. At one time, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island had as many as 125 A-6 aircraft.
In the 1970s, the EA-6B Prowler also came into prominence at the air station. The EA-6B assumed the primary mission of strike aircraft and ground troop support. The aircraft’s highly specialized electronic intelligence receivers and jamming equipment degraded or destroyed enemy radar and command and control capability, enabling safe passage of friendly strike aircraft. The aircraft was also capable of carrying the AGM-88 high-speed anti-radiation missile. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island was home to the majority of the Navy’s Prowler squadrons, and is now the only base for the new EA-18G Growler squadrons. The first Growler arrived on station in 2008. The airborne electronic attack aircraft combines the state-of-the-art two-seat, twin-engine F/A-18F Block 2 Super Hornet with the EA-6B Improved Capability III system to provide next-generation electronic attack capability.
Today, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is more than just the home of all Navy tactical electronic attack squadrons that fly the Growler. The air station hosts P-3 Orion maritime patrol squadrons, EP-3E Aries fleet reconnaissance squadrons, and a search and rescue unit, which flies the MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter. The air station is also the center of activity for naval air reserves in the region.