Sweetwater woman reflects on leaving the family farm to become a plane mechanic during World War II
A smile crosses the face of Jessie Lou McReynolds as she scans the cavernous museum full of vintage airplanes, displays, and other World War II memorabilia, reminding her of some of the happiest years of her life.
McReynolds turned 98 on June 8 and still has vivid memories of those glorious days when she held a very important job, even though she was barely out of high school. McReynolds, who was Jessie Lou Monroe in those days, worked on the planes that the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) flew while training at Sweetwater’s Avenger Field.
Today, Avenger Field is home to the National WASP WWII Museum and its memorabilia that reminds McReynolds of her happy youthful years. She knew then and she knows now just how important her job was as a mechanic, doing tasks like checking the carburetor and spark plugs to ensure that the engines ran smoothly and that the pilots were safe.
“We had to check those spark plugs every day,” McReynolds recalled. “It couldn’t be too tight, and it couldn’t be too loose – it had to be perfect.”
Thanks to McReynolds and the other young ladies who worked on the planes, the WASP could concentrate on their flight training without having to worry about engine failure. And, just like the pilots who trained at Avenger Field, all the mechanics were young women. The men were away fighting the war, while the WASP were performing essential duties like ferrying planes and towing targets for ground artillery trainees, using live ammunition, to fire at. The female mechanics served an equally vital role. The service of all the women freed male pilots for combat duty.
“The women had that job to do,” McReynolds said. “We had to carry on.”
One of the reasons McReynolds smiles so easily remembering those days with her head “under the hood” of an airplane is that it sure beat farm work. And that’s what McReynolds had plenty of knowledge of before training as an airplane mechanic. McReynolds literally was born into farm work, arriving on this earth June 8, 1921, in the farmhouse at Nolan, located southeast of Sweetwater in Nolan County.
She was the second of 10 children born to Lou and Elinor Monroe. All 10 of those children had farm chores to do when they got big enough. Jessie and an older sister had four cows apiece to milk. Jessie isn’t shy about her feelings toward that chore.
“I hated it,” she said bluntly.
So after graduating from Divide High School in 1938 at age 16, Jessie was ready to move on, even if it wasn’t very far away.
“I wanted to go to Sweetwater and get away from the farm,” she said.
She got accepted into the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency started by President Franklin Roosevelt for youths ages 16 to 25. McReynolds recalled getting a job at the local hospital as a “tray girl” and living at a boarding house with other young ladies in the NYA program.
Then she began training for a mechanic position at Avenger Field, a job that came naturally to her. Much to her surprise, the other young ladies in the same training program were fascinated with her stories of life on the farm.
“Their thrill was to go home with me on the weekends,” McReynolds recalled, “and see what farm life was like.”
So, she showed them the big farmhouse and barn and the creek that was a favorite spot for cooling hot, dusty feet on a summer day.
“We’d wade in the creek and just be tomboys,” she said, grinning at the thought.
Learning how to work hard on that farm served McReynolds well when she got to Avenger Field and started the rigorous training to become an airplane mechanic. Her Vocational Training Record shows she accumulated 164 hours of training in nine areas, with an average grade of 90. The most hours, 60, were spent on riveting and sheet metal. Blueprints came in next with 36 hours of training. Eight hours were spent on nomenclature so the mechanics would all speak the same language. Once the training was completed, McReynolds was all in.
“I didn’t play, I worked,” she said proudly. “There was never a lazy bone in my body. We grew up knowing how to work.”
A newspaper photo from the time showed her and another mechanic working on one of the planes. The caption read, “Two of Avenger Field’s women mechanics keep the 420 horses of a BT-15 in shape. And that ‘ain’t hay.’” McReynolds looks intense in the photo, dressed in coveralls, her dark hair pulled back, safely away from the engine.
“Well,” she said, “I’m just showing off there.”
Maybe she was showing off for the photo, but that was the only time she wasn’t taking the job seriously. Just like many of the male World War II veterans, McReynolds didn’t talk much about her role in the war effort. She lives with a daughter, Ann Haub, who said her mother didn’t share much about her adventures when Ann was growing up. She did have a lamp base made from an artillery shell and a replica of a plane. But when pressed for more explanation, McReynolds would only say, “I worked on airplanes out at the base.”
McReynolds did entertain thoughts of becoming a pilot herself, but her plans changed when she met James Thomas or “J.T.” McReynolds, a farmer. But it wasn’t the farmer in J.T. that first caught her eye.
“He had the prettiest shop-made boots you ever saw,” McReynolds said, obviously still seeing those boots in her mind’s eye.
The WASP training program at Avenger Field ended in 1944. In 1946, Jessie Lou Monroe married J.T. McReynolds, leaving her airplane mechanic days behind. Today, thanks to her daughter, McReynolds is able to visit the National WASP WWII Museum on the grounds of Avenger Field whenever she wants to. She attends many of the functions there but perhaps nothing brings back the memories like just sitting in a chair in the quiet museum, looking at one of those planes she used to keep running like clockwork.
Her daughter Ann sits by her side, helping prompt her memory when details become a little hard to access. Ann is happy to help and to hear those stories, the ones her mother was too modest to share when Ann was growing up.
Somehow, Ann always suspected that “I worked on airplanes out at the base” didn’t begin to tell the story of the role that Jessie Lou McReynolds played in World War II.
By Loretta Fulton
Photography by Beth Dukes