History of the PBY Memorial Foundation

History of the PBY Memorial Foundation2018-09-21T09:49:22+00:00

It began with a meeting of WWII PBY veterans and their wives at the NAS Whidbey Island Chief Petty Officers Club on September 22, 1998. After several months of planning meetings, the PBY Memorial Association is incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 1999. In 2000, the group discusses the potential for a museum, starts searching for an airplane to buy, and looks for office space and storage where accumulated memorabilia can be stored. A website follows the next year, fundraising begins in earnest and several members travel to Canada to view prospective planes for purchase.

By 2002, PBYMA membership is growing and an offer is made on a PBY located at Moses Lake, WA. Negotiations drag on over the next two years with the deal ultimately falling through. After a name change to PBY Memorial Foundation in 2003, an anonymous donor makes an abandoned gas station available to become the first real “home” for a PBY Museum. After much “self-help” cleaning and fixing, a small real museum and office is opened in 2004.

A video project, “In Defense of Their Nation,” is completed by the PBYMF in 2005. A tale of the Navy’s arrival on Whidbey Island during WWII, it is told by local people who saw and experienced the transformation of their quiet community into a bustling military base. While most of the video’s commentators have passed on, their story is timeless and impactful. The DVD plays continuously in our museum theater and is available for purchase in the Ship’s Store and online.

Our very first flight simulator is set up in 2006 and attracts many aviation wannabees to the controls. Next, the museum gets a Pratt & Whitney 1830-92 cutaway training engine – the same engine that powered PBY Catalinas. It is, to this point, the largest item on exhibit.

The “gas station museum” looks more authentic in 2007 with the addition of a WWII-era jukebox to our growing accumulation of memorabilia. In July 2007, an article in our newsletter pictures a PBY at Skagit County Airport as a ‘photo-op’ with an Australian visitor. Inauspicious at the time, it has significant meaning for the future!

Just as concern is growing about the organization’s future at the gas station, good fortune shines in 2008 when CAPT Gerral David, Commanding Officer of NAS Whidbey Island, facilitates the move of the PBY Museum into Building 12 on the station’s Seaplane Base. With more room for a rapidly growing artifact collection, Building 12 is a prayer answered. After a short probationary period, the PBYMF is awarded a 5-year lease.

Our search for a plane continues but comes up short again in 2009 when a full-cash offer wins out for a plane in Central Washington. But the year has several important highlights, including a visit by Norway’s Seattle Consul and Mr. Nils Christiansen of Victoria, B.C. A former Norwegian 333 Squadron crewmember, he officially christened the 333 Squadron exhibit in Bldg 12.

2009 is capped off by a PBY-6A Catalina returning to land on Crescent Harbor for the 67th Anniversary of the commissioning of NAS Whidbey Island. It taxied onto the Seaplane ramp and remains tied down for a week to receive visitors, young and old. This visit really whets the organization’s appetite to obtain a plane of its own. The next year a “Project Seaplane” fundraising drive is started to do just that.

In 2010 it finally happens! A PBY (remember the newsletter picture in 2007 at Skagit Airport) comes on the market. With only $10,000 in the bank, we step out on a limb with an offer of $60,000 and are told that the offer will be honored for one week. It is below other offers, but the seller’s agent wants the plane to be owned by a museum rather than cut up for parts by other bidders. $50,000 is needed! What to do?

At a monthly Tuesday PBY members meeting, it’s announced that $50,000 is needed in outright gifts or short-term loans, by Friday. By 5:00 pm that Thursday, the final checks totaling $50,000 are received at our bank. $50,000 in less than 50 hours. A remarkable example of what our members can accomplish. The plane was ours! Now, to move it to the Seaplane Base!

It takes a Chinook helicopter and dozens of volunteers to ‘fly’ the PBY to the Seaplane Base. More volunteers re-assemble the wings. The dream comes true with a lot of work, enthusiasm and capital.

In July 2010 the aircraft is dedicated by the wife of a pilot who actually flew the plane during WWII. It is christened “Gerral’s Girl” in honor of CAPT Gerral David, who had done so much for our organization. The nickname is: “GiGi”.

Taking a deep breath after acquiring the plane, the focus shifts to creating many historical exhibits and building the strength of the PBYMF as an organization from 2011 through 2013. During this period, an architectural firm is hired to develop a design for a future hangar-style building for the museum. We start a tradition of joining with Canadian Forces stationed at NAS Whidbey for joint observances of their Armistice Day and our Veterans Day, each recognizing the official end of WWI on November 11.

In January of 2013, Win Stites, our first and only President, announces that he wishes to retire after 14 years of faithful service. The Trustees reluctantly agree with the proviso that he stick around to help the new President, Wil Shellenberger. Wil continues to help to this day.

As the end of our lease approaches in 2014, it is becoming apparent that NAS Whidbey security requirements limit access to the museum, and if the museum is to really reach its full potential, it’s essential to move off base into the local community. After brief consideration of a lease of land, and reviewing numerous rental properties, the Trustees settle on 4500 sq. ft. at our current location on SE Pioneer Way in downtown Oak Harbor.

In the spring of 2014, all our artifacts, library and administration are moved to this location. But, our beloved “GiGi” remains behind until January of 2015. Once again, her outer wings came off, but this time she is towed during the wee hours of the morning to a vacant lot across the street from the museum. With her outer wings replaced, she sits on display today.

That April a grand opening celebrates public access to the plane during museum hours. What other town do you know that has a genuine PBY amphibian on the main drag in a downtown parking lot?

Over the next three years the museum continues to build a reputation as a top- quality small museum. With strong local community financial support, particularly from Island Thrift and various partners who are featured elsewhere on this website, the museum has continued to enhance and build its collection of historic naval aviation artifacts. A variety of innovative and historically valuable exhibits are created for the visiting public. Volunteers from the local Naval Hospital help create an exhibit honoring Navy Corpsmen who received the Medal of Honor for heroic action in combat. For the 75th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, over 40 personal stories are collected from people who remembered that day as youngsters. Seattle’s KING 5 TV features this exhibit and interviews one of the participants at the museum.

One of our most innovative efforts has been to take history outside the museum walls. Small museum exhibits have been placed in local libraries, at the Navy Exchange and, currently, we have an exhibit on display at a small downtown shopping mall. Our biggest effort has been bringing a flying PBY from Victoria, BC to various air shows in the area, including flying in the same show as the Blue Angels at the Seattle Seafair Air Show. The museum has a 21-foot Nimitz class aircraft replica that we present in various parades and events in the Puget Sound Region. Over 400,000 people saw the combo of the PBY and replica carrier each year in 2017 and 2018.

To engage young visitors the museum emphasizes interactive exhibits such as a PBY gun turret that you can slip into and feel what it was like to man a WWII machine gun. Or, you can experience night vision devices and practice-search a terrain table in total darkness to spot possible enemy men and equipment.

Very popular are our two flight simulators where you can fly a PBY or the latest hot jet fighter! In our aircraft display area, you will see “GiGi”, our PBY-5A aircraft, as well as many pieces of ground equipment and military vehicles.

Our Future Home

As the PBY-Naval Air Museum has matured, we are looking to the future. The architectural drawings that were commissioned in 2012 have never been put aside as we have continually sought a future site for a new, larger hangar style museum that will allow us to expand the scope of our mission to encompass all Naval Aviation throughout the Pacific Northwest. We are actively pursuing property as you read this and hope that we will have good news to add soon.

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