Women recall their contributions as history makers

  • Published
  • By Nicole Turner
  • Tinker Public Affairs
It's by pure coincidence that Helen Keasling and Louise Strom both now have daughters working as civilians at Tinker Air Force Base. But it's not a coincidence that when they started jobs at military installations more than 50 years ago, they didn't realize they were an integral part of history.

Ms. Keasling has lived in Oklahoma nearly all of her life. She married an Army service man in 1940, and soon began working at Tinker in 1943 during World War II. She is now 90 years old and recalls what it was like to work on an Air Force base during such a crucial war in American history.

During that particular time, many on-base employees were required to go through a medical exam to see if they were "physically fit" to work on Tinker. Ms. Keasling wasn't an exception.

"We just walked in and they asked us to pull our skirts up," Ms. Keasling said. "They wanted to see our legs so we showed them. They were looking for a varicose vein. There I was, 23 years old and I didn't have no veins."

After being hired, employees then had to attend training before they could actually begin their duties on base.

"They first sent us to a six-weeks training. All I did was get a piece of sheet metal and cut it up. There wasn't no class; there wasn't no instructor," Ms. Keasling said. "And six weeks later they came in and called me out; I was through training."

Immediately after her training, Ms. Keasling was placed in instrument repair, but she found herself not enjoying that type of work.

"That was like working in a jewelry store, sitting on a stool with a microscope and those instruments. That wasn't my happy day and the supervisor knew it," she said.

So Ms. Keasling was ultimately able to switch with another woman who was working in instrument field testing. With the new position that was located in a repair hangar, Ms. Keasling checked and replaced aircraft instruments like gas gauges, oil and oxygen gauges, temperature and compasses.

"That's how I got into instrument field testing and I loved it. That was my job," Ms. Keasling said. "The cockpit is like a car dashboard and it's just full of instruments."

Ms. Keasling enjoyed other aspects of the job, too, especially when some of it felt a little more daring than other parts.

"We had one compass where we had to climb on the wing of a cargo plane. That's like getting out on a second story window. You couldn't stand up on those wings because they slanted, so we'd have to lay down on our bellies and get to the compass."

Ms. Keasling worked the morning shift from 6:15 a .m. to 3 p.m. Each day she would walk about a half mile to the repair hangar with a packed lunch. She wore pale blue coveralls and a small, metal identification badge with her employee number engraved on it. Ms. Keasling was one of only three women within her unit, as opposed to at least eight men. She would punch a time clock each morning and afternoon. Her pay was roughly $16 every two weeks, which equates to about 20 cents per hour.

While at Tinker, Ms. Keasling was able to experience and witness many events. She got to see one of the first airplanes "that could land on water."

"It's amazing the difference between that and a fighter plane," she said.

She also had the opportunity to go on a test flight for one of the aircraft and assisted in installing an extra fuel tank in a B-29, which is a historic event that is now a featured picture that hangs in the main hallway at Bldg. 3001.

Ms. Keasling said she can't remember seeing many people in uniform at Tinker because most of them were fighting in the war. It was primarily civilians and retired military who worked on base.

As aircraft flew back in, straight from the war zone, Ms. Keasling would repair the damaged instruments, and prepare the planes to go back into battle if needed. She said most of the time working on base was pleasant and exciting, but when the planes would come in and she would repair ones that somebody recently lost their life in, it just brought the war home. She said it made her and other women feel like they were fighting and part of the war, too.

"Some of it was sad," Ms. Keasling said. "It was hard to take. I thought about all of the girls that I knew whose husbands went overseas."

However, Ms. Keasling said, it was also rewarding to know that she was involved in something so important to her country.

"During the war, we got news on base quicker than the public did," Ms. Keasling said. "It was interesting to know that you worked on the planes and repaired the planes and then they took them back to fight with."

Ms. Strom married an Army veteran in California in the 1940s. But when they found out her husband's father had cancer, they moved to Seattle, Wash., to be with him. In a time of job strikes and budget cuts, Ms. Strom and her husband were given the opportunity to work for Boeing, an industry that produces aircraft for the United States military. It was in 1952, during the Cold War.

Ultimately, Ms. Strom was assigned to file and delete airplane blueprints, specifically for the B-52H Stratofortress, which was a new airplane not yet introduced into the Air Force.

She said she worked in an area that was "stacked up with filing cabinets" and contained several million blueprint files, all designated to the B-52 alone.

"They put me out in the hangar where they were building the B-52, so actually I got to see almost everything that they did," Ms. Strom said. "They would bring in this piece and that piece and put it together, sometimes it would fit; sometimes it wouldn't. They were picking up or returning all day long."

But she was never allowed to see what the plane actually looked like until it was finished. Everything was "secret," she said. Blueprints were folded up and numbered. When they came across her desk, Ms. Strom would mark off the number and then re-file the blueprint, without opening them up and looking at them. She said she handled about 1,000 blueprints each day.

"I think at that time it was one of the largest planes that they had ever built," Ms. Strom said.

Finally the day came for the first test flight of the B-52, now a crucial bomber aircraft in the Air Force.

"We didn't know until we went to work that day that they were going to do the test [flight]. It was that secret. It was just another day, another week, another month for us," Ms. Strom said.

In a strictly enforced orderly fashion, many employees gathered outside to see the B-52 take off and make its mark in history.

"We got to see it land. It was just awesome. It was, I think, the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me in my life," Ms. Strom said. "Boeing was quite large. The whole plant was out there to see all of this. Everybody was excited."

However, the rush and excitement came and went in a short time. In her mid-20s, Ms. Strom had no idea that watching the flight of the first B-52 was such a "spectacular" event.

"The excitement of seeing it in flight and everything was all over," she said. "We just had a job to do, and we just went back and did what we were supposed to do, not really thinking where this was going to go in the future."

Ms. Strom didn't take pictures, or get names, which is something she says she truly regrets. But now, at 83 years old, she will always have a memory of it in her mind.

"When I see them (B-52s) today, it makes me go back in time to think that I was in on the very first one. Later on, I realized that what I was part of was really something," Ms. Strom said. "There were a lot of memories; I'll never forget them."

Ms. Strom and Ms. Keasling have passed their military history on to the next generation -- their daughters working on Tinker. Gail Kulhavy, Ms. Strom's daughter, works in the 72nd Air Base Wing Communications Directorate. Ms. Keasling's daughter is Jan Young, who works in the 428th Supply Chain Management Squadron.