OAK HARBOR — When Bud Zylstra was 18 and building houses as a construction apprentice on what was then a small Navy base in Oak Harbor, he had no idea what the base would become.
Zylstra, now 94 and a World War II veteran with the Army Air Corps, admires the changes Whidbey Island Naval Air Station has undergone over the years.
“It went from a Model T Ford to a deluxe Cadillac,” Zylstra said.
On Thursday, 75 years to the day after NAS Whidbey was commissioned, Zylstra visited the base he helped build in the town he has always called home.
Zylstra isn’t alone in having found a “home” in Oak Harbor.
“As soon as I got here, I just felt like I was home,” said retired Capt. David Williams, who along with having been stationed at the base early in his Navy career was the base commander in 1986 and 1987. “Every time I left, my first order of priority was to figure out how to come back here.”
With a large American flag as a backdrop Thursday, a Navy band played songs from each of the decades of the base’s existence.
“It all started in 1942 with the idea that we could turn a town of 350 people into a town that supports an air base,” said Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran. “This base continues to contribute and has always contributed in incredible ways for our national defense.”
While he is now the second-highest ranking commissioned officer in the Navy, 20 years ago Moran was stationed at NAS Whidbey.
While many who visited the base Thursday played pivotal roles in the base’s history, one guest had special meaning for many of those in attendance: an EA-6B Prowler.
The aircraft, which was retired from naval service in 2015 but is still used by the Marine Corps, was used at the base for 44 years.
“It was a lot of fun watching (the Prowler crew) taxi in,” said base commander Capt. Geoff Moore. “A lot of people did their career in that aircraft.”
The Prowler was on loan for three days from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina.
Moore, who took the helm at the base in February 2016, said it is an honor to be the base commander during its 75th anniversary.
“It is a great honor to be here for such a momentous occasion,” Moore said. “It’s such an amazing opportunity to be in an environment with these amazing young sailors that just knock your socks off.”
What started out as a seaplane base in 1942 evolved into the Navy’s home of electronic warfare. But that’s not what makes the place special to either the Navy or the people who have served there, Moore said.
“It’s not the missions we perform, nor the aircraft, it is simply the people who have served here,” Moore told the audience. “This is our history, this is our story, this is our base.”
Chapters are still being added to that story: In October 2016, the base began receiving squadrons of P-8A Poseidon aircraft, which by 2020 will have completely replaced the P-3C Orions that, like the Prowlers, have become synonymous with NAS Whidbey.
Two crews that will operate the unmanned aerial MQ-4C Tritons are set to arrive at the base by 2021, though the drones and their maintenance crews will be in California.
In addition, the Navy is studying the environmental impacts of adding up to 36 EA-18G Growlers — which replaced the Prowlers — to the base.
“This base is just going to continue to be very important,” Moran said. “This is who we are, it hasn’t changed in 75 years. Folks, we got 75 more years to go out here. We’re not going anywhere.”