By William Smith
Burlington native and resident Joan White was one of the first eight women in the country to guide stateside pilots from a control tower during the Korean War.
More than a few Air Force pilots were shocked to hear a woman in the control tower, including one who complained during a thunderstorm.
“I remember he said (over the radio), ‘My God, they’ve got a woman in the control tower!’” White said, laughing. “We were an oddity.”
White has always been a tough cookie and a smart one. She let comments like that roll off her back, letting snappy one-liners play out in her mind.
“I wanted to say, ‘And you better listen to me, or you’re going to be off course,’ ” White said.
White and her family didn’t think her service unusual. She came from a military family.
It only seemed reasonable for White, who at the time was Joan Cook.
“I enlisted in February of 1951. I enlisted because many of my friends were getting killed (in the Korean War),” she said.
White had graduated high school three years earlier. She went to control tower school after basic training and worked in a control tower in Washington State. She later went to San Antonio, Texas, where she was adjunct to a supply squadron.
“That’s when they were sending a lot of guys overseas at the same time. They would come in and assign them a job, and in less than six weeks they would be gone,” she said. “So my CO (commanding officer) dumped all their jobs on me. I was a payroll officer, salvage store officer, and clothing store officer. I think I had about eight jobs at one time. But it was interesting.”
It’s her time in the air traffic control tower that sticks out most to White. Control tower school for the Air Force was in Biloxi, Miss.
“I had worked for the telephone company, and I think that’s why they wanted me for the control tower. They knew I could handle myself on the phone, and you have to talk on the mic to the pilots,” she said.
There was no separate building that served as a tower back then. It was located on top of the hangar, and there were usually only two or three people in there at once.
“You know how high these hangars are. We had to climb up the steps on one side, cross the gang-plank through the center of the hangar, climb a ladder, and come up through a trap door,” she said.
White served two years in the military, which included officers’ training school, and exited the service as an Air Force Second Lieutenant.
She doesn’t have any regrets but does often wonder how her life would be different if she stayed in the service.
White wouldn’t have been allowed to serve in combat in the 1950s, but she saw the effect it had on the men. During a visit to a medical ward in Fort Lewis, Wash., she was told not to talk to any of the patients.
Almost all of the patients had the 100-yard stare, suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was bad. They (the soldiers) had this stare. They didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “The first one I saw was a boy I used to ice skate with at Crapo Park. It got me, I tell you. I can still see his face. I often wonder what happened to him. He was the funniest little kid. He loved to crack the whip when we were ice skating.”
Life moved on for White. She got married and lived in Media, Ill., with her husband and three daughters, where she worked as a physical education instructor for a public school. Joan and her husband, Jim, later got divorced, and she moved back to Burlington. Her daughters graduated from Burlington High School.
White has always been a musician at heart. She became obsessed with piano at a young age and played violin in the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra. She taught violin lessons in the Suzuki Strings program and even played cello.
It’s been a good life. White is 93 years old and resides at The Views assisted living facility. And she’s still as practical and strong-willed as she was 70 years ago.
“I can’t believe I’ve lived this long,” she said, laughing again.