When John Ayres was drafted in 1965, he decided to go ahead and enlist in the U.S. Air Force – but he wasn’t expecting to get so much responsibility so quickly.
After a couple of years stateside, Ayres was deployed to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, which was directly involved with the Vietnam War, and he was put in charge of the sheet metal shop and the welding shop. The shops employed locals, and Ayres was able to get a crash course in the culture during his time there.
“I had nine locals working for me, and I was the lowest rank and the youngest NCOIC (noncommissioned officer in charge) at that airbase at that time. They gave me a lot of responsibility real quick,” said Ayres, who was 22 years old at the time.
His main responsibility there was to keep the portable airstrip in good shape. Whenever aircraft would crash land or come down with the wheels up – which often happened if the plane’s hydraulics got shot, he said – he would have to repair the strip, which was made out of interlocking honeycomb aluminum panels.
He had help from his employees who were all skilled laborers, either welders or sheet metal workers, and Ayres said they were great at what they did. And even better, they liked him, too, he said, laughing.
“They called me Sergeant John,” he said. “The people in Thailand are really pro-American. Thailand was directly involved in the Vietnam War, too. They were our ally.”
He was invited to their houses many times, and he even attended one of his employees’ weddings, which he called “a neat experience.”
“It was night and day from a wedding you’d see in the United States. The bride was all decorated, and it was very different, nothing like you’d find here,” he said.
At the time, the skilled trades workers made about 50 cents an hour, Ayres said.
Working so closely with the locals, Ayres became good at speaking broken Thai. Nakhon Phanom bordered Laos to the east of the Mekong River, so Ayres picked up some of the Laos dialect as well.
“I remember going to Bangkok on my way home, and there were some locals there. I was talking to them in their native language, and they were making fun of me because what I learned in Nakhon Phanom was a different dialect. It would be like somebody from Alabama talking to somebody from New York. It’s just different dialects of the same language, and they were laughing at me. I thought it was funny myself,” Ayres said.
During his time in Thailand, he earned the Vietnam Service Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Accommodation Medal.
Ayres returned from overseas in 1969 and went back to his job at then-Chrysler, where he had been working prior to his time in the service. By law, his job was held for him, and he was able to pick back up where he left off.
He considered finding a job as a welder due to the skills he learned in the Air Force, but he said Chrysler paid better and had better benefits than any welding job at that time.
In 2001, Ayres retired from Chrysler after 36 years, and he went on to serve in various leadership positions with veterans organizations. He was the post commander of VFW Post 1152 from 2003 to 2012. In 2011, he suffered a traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident and decided to hang up his hat as post commander. However, he later picked up more leadership roles and continued to earn high-level accolades.
He served as District 5 Commander twice, from 2008 to 2009 and 2019 to 2020, and during that period he earned All-State District Commander four times, All-American District Commander three times – which is the highest honor a district commander can get – and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Award. That award is given to one person each year.
“It was a labor of love. I loved working those positions. It’s all about veterans, and the VFW is probably the best veterans organization in this area as far as supporting veterans,” he said.
Ayres earned his latest All-American award this month at the end of his term as district commander. The veterans said the award meant a lot, especially receiving it while the local post has taken a hit due to COVID-19. During the pandemic, he was able to exceed 100-percent membership.
“Membership is the most important thing, and that’s why when we speak to our representatives they listen because they know you represent a lot of veterans,” he said.
While his term as district commander has ended, Ayres said he will continue to serve as a trustee for VFW Post 1152.