Robert R. Ayres Jr., 82, was pilot in Marine Corps, fund-raiser at UM

January 11, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Robert R. Ayres Jr., whose World War II exploits as a Marine Corps dive-bomber pilot earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross for action against an enemy force of Japanese destroyers, died Saturday of heart failure at Kent & Queen Anne's Hospital in Chestertown. He was 82.

Mr. Ayres was 22 when he dropped out of the University of Maryland in his junior year to enlist in the Marine Corps as an aviation cadet in the spring of 1941.

Trained to fly SBD Douglas Dauntless dive bombers, Mr. Ayres was assigned to the Hawaiian Islands in 1942 and to Guadalcanal in 1943.

Nicknamed "Salty" after crashing a submarine patrol plane into the sea, Mr. Ayres had his first combat mission Feb. 1, 1943, when word reached his Guadalcanal base that a "Tokyo Express" consisting of 20 Japanese destroyers was bringing reinforcements to the island.

Mr. Ayres flew one of the 16 planes dispatched to intercept and destroy the enemy ships.

"It wasn't long before the squadron leader came over the intercom and said, `Look below, boys, there's those sons of bitches,'" he told Michael H. Rogers, a Mount Washington author, in a recent interview. "I looked down and saw the huge wake in the water created by a force of 20 Japanese destroyers sailing in two columns of 10 each. ... And the attack dive was always an exhilarating experience."

Mr. Rogers' book, Memories of World War II Marylanders Who Answered Their Country's Call: Time Will Not Dim The Glory Of Their Deeds, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press this year.

Mr. Ayres and his comrades returned several days later to finish the job. As he flew over a destroyer, he made a direct hit with a bomb. He recalled veering his plane to the right and gaining altitude, and said: "I don't think I'll ever have a more satisfying experience than seeing that destroyer break into two pieces and sink before my eyes."

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission -- one of 80 he undertook by war's end. His other decorations included two Air Medals with seven gold-star clusters and a Purple Heart.

He was matter-of-fact when it came to explaining his wartime exploits: "Being in combat was just a job we had to do. It was a matter of getting them before they got you. I never had a fear of flying in combat."

His Purple Heart was the result of a lucky shot -- by a Japanese soldier. He was zeroing in on a building as an enemy soldier fired a rifle at the plane. His mouth was open at the time, and the bullet passed through Mr. Ayres' cheeks, causing little damage.

"When I think of Bob's life, I think about how he seemed larger than life. He was a real hero who emulated the tough, `go get 'em' attitude of the young men who turned the tide against overwhelming odds in the early stages of the war," Mr. Rogers said.

While he told his family little of his wartime adventures, Mr. Ayres grew nostalgic every Memorial Day.

"I think I'm pretty tough, but on Memorial Day I sit here crying my eyes out. There were so many heroes during the war, but if a group of men deserves respect it is the Marines who made one bloody assault after bloody assault on the beaches throughout the Pacific," he said in the interview.

A career Marine Corps aviator, he flew helicopters carrying wounded and supplies in combat during the Korean War. He was discharged in 1963 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Born in Chestertown and raised in Baltimore, he was a 1938 graduate of City College.

He returned to the University of Maryland, College Park to earn his bachelor's degree in 1960. He worked for the university there in fund raising for 15 years. He lived in Annapolis, and moved to Chestertown after retiring in 1985.

He was a communicant of Shrewsbury Episcopal Church in Kennedyville, where services were held yesterday.

Surviving are his wife of 47 years, the former Catherine Ford; a son, Robert R. Ayres III of Chestertown; two daughters, Catherine Wendt of Ashburn, Va., and Robin Ayres Knepper of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

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