A Quonset hut stands hidden by blackberry bushes just off of Highway 20 on Whidbey Island. The Navy used the structures, also called Homoja huts, for temporary housing starting in 1943. (Laura Guido / Whidbey News-Times)

A Quonset hut stands hidden by blackberry bushes just off of Highway 20 on Whidbey Island. The Navy used the structures, also called Homoja huts, for temporary housing starting in 1943. (Laura Guido / Whidbey News-Times)

Oak Harbor WWII quonset hut may be the last of its kind

The Navy’s Homoja huts were used to house servicemen through the 1960s.

By Laura Guido / Whidbey News-Times

OAK HARBOR — A hidden relic of the World War II-era solution to “Oak Harbor’s first housing crisis” is in danger, and members of the PBY Memorial Foundation are scrambling to save it.

An old Quonset hut stands, covered from view by blackberry bushes, off Highway 20, just south of city limits. The run-down metal structure may not look special, but researchers from the PBY Naval Air Museum have discovered it is one of the last remaining units in the original configuration from the Navy Homoja housing program, which began in 1943.

“It took several trips and a lot of research, but we confirmed that it was, in fact, a Homoja hut,” said Wil Shellenberger, president of the PBY Memorial Foundation.

As far as researchers know, it may be the only one remaining.

Wil Shellenberger stands in what he believes is the last Quonset hut from the WWII-era Homoja housing program that’s left in its original configuration. The PBY Memorial Foundation is trying to save it from demolition. (Laura Guido / Whidbey News-Times)

Wil Shellenberger stands in what he believes is the last Quonset hut from the WWII-era Homoja housing program that’s left in its original configuration. The PBY Memorial Foundation is trying to save it from demolition. (Laura Guido / Whidbey News-Times)

The owner of the hut donated it to the foundation. The real challenge lies ahead, Shellenberger said.

Engineers from the building moving company Nickel Bros have confirmed the structure is sound enough to relocate. However, the foundation needs about $30,000 to move it off the property, and there’s only about a month left to raise funds.

Normally, there would be grant money available, but there isn’t enough time, Shellenberger said.

The foundation is asking businesses, nonprofits and people for donations. The hope is to restore the hut to how it looked when it was being used as housing from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s, and turn it into a museum exhibit.

Oak Harbor resident Scott Hornung said he and his family lived in Homoja housing for “two tours,” in March 1957 and December 1960.

The Homoja program got its name from the admirals involved in its inception, whose last names were Horne, Moreel and Jacobs. The secretary of the Navy approved construction of the first 1,000 units on Sept. 27, 1943.

The 20-by-49-foot Quonset shells were divided in two, and each section included two bedrooms, a kitchen area, a bathroom and a living area.

Though they served as temporary homes, the lightweight steel structures weren’t the most comfortable living quarters. They smelled of linoleum and the oil-burning stove, Hornung said.

“I don’t have fond memories of living in the Quonset,” he said. “I think I was glad to get out of them.”

He celebrated his 12th birthday and Christmas in the Quonset hut in 1960. His mother put in a cardboard fireplace as decoration, he said.

Scott Hornung (left) and Wil Shellenberger compare their surroundings to a photo from Hornung’s childhood. (Laura Guido / Whidbey News-Times)

Scott Hornung (left) and Wil Shellenberger compare their surroundings to a photo from Hornung’s childhood. (Laura Guido / Whidbey News-Times)

The units were typically only used for a month or two so that sailors’ families had a place to stay while the servicemen went through training between deployments, Shellenberger said.

When the base was established in Oak Harbor, the city went from a population of 350 to nearly 10,000. That’s what Shellenberger refers to as the city’s “first housing crisis.”

The Homoja program was most active during the war, with the Navy completing over 6,200 units across the United States at a total cost of $21.1 million between 1943 and V-J Day in 1945. In Oak Harbor, the structures were sold off and re-purposed.

Oak Harbor City Councilman Jim Woessner said he attended kindergarten classes in a converted Homoja hut in the mid-1960s.

Each hut had two classrooms with kitchen areas and two bathrooms, Woessner said.

Former Oak Harbor mayor and veterinarian Raymond Ellis Jr. used one as his first office, Shellenberger said. Others were used on farms for storage, and the one the foundation is trying to save was used by a local Boy Scout troop.

Shellenberger also said he’s looking for more stories from locals who lived in the huts.

Those who want to donate to the rescue effort can send a check, marked for the Homoja Hut Program, to PBY Naval Air Museum, P.O. Box 941, Oak Harbor, WA. More info: pbymf.org.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling paper of The Daily Herald.

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