With over 27 years in the U.S. Air Force, Marion native Kenneth Thompson provided exemplary work for almost three decades across all corners of the world as part of the storage, inventory, logistics and administrative division.
Growing up in East Marion in the 1960s, Thompson graduated from the all-black Mountain View School in 1965 and enrolled in Harris Barber College in Raleigh before returning back to West Marion to work as a barber for House of James.
“I was there for about five or six months, and it’s still there in Marion,” said Thompson.
However, Thompson would decide to enlist in the military based off of previous financial burdens prior to barber college.
“My grandfather raised me,” said Thompson, “and he didn’t have the money to send me to a four-year college, and this was before I went to Raleigh. I did work in one of the industrial mills in Marion for a few months, but I wanted some way to continue my education. To move forward in life, I would say.”
In Feb. 1967, Thompson would enlist in the U.S. Air Force and enter basic training, where his first assignment would be in Florence, Maine as part of the stocking and storage shipping department before being deployed to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon, Vietnam in Sept. 8, 1968.
“Of course, I was frightened to death,” Thompson recalled of entering the country for the first time. “This was right after the Tet Offensive in ’68, the New Year where they’d been bombing everything. When we first got there, they’d said, ‘Welcome to Saigon, we’ll see you again this time next year.’ And I stepped off the plane and saw all these Vietnamese people that I’d never seen before – y’know, when they’d sit down, they’d squat. So that was a rude awakening for me.”
Stationed in Saigon, Thompson’s assignment was outside storage for supplies and equipment for damaged aircrafts.
“They’d come to me with a document, and everything was by stock number,” said Thompson. “So I’d take this part from my truck and put it on there truck and take it out to the flight line and they’d use that part to help get it back in the air. That was my job for the whole time that I was in Vietnam.”
However, Thompson admits that the wartime experience was overall frightening within those 12 months.
“I was 21 or 22 years old during that tour,” said Thompson. “All you could hear were explosions ... I remember we had bunk beds, and every time there was an explosion, they told us to hit the ground, and one of those days, of course I dove and landed on the concrete floor, and I hurt my knees real bad.”
Despite this, Vietnam would be just one of several overseas deployments Thompson would experience, as his military career would take him across the globe in administrative, storage and requisition capacities throughout the mid ‘70s into the ‘90s between Panama City, Florida., the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California (where he would perform logistics for the missile base), the United Kingdom, South Korea, Germany and Fairbanks, Alaska.
“I spent four years in Alaska, raising my four kids,” recalls Thompson, “and it was six months daylight, six months nighttime depending on what time of year it was. 40 below zero temperature, and you’d have to wear these coats and masks that’d cover everything but your eyes. It was cold.”
By the end of his service with the Air Force in Oct. 1994, Thompson moved to Atlanta, Georgia and worked a second career as an underwriter at the Regional VA Home Loans Office, approving loans for veterans across eight states in the Southeast from N.C. to Kentucky before retiring permanently in 2011.
Throughout the 27 years of active and inactive service, Thompson remains proud of what he was able to accomplish individually – earning three Meritorious Service Medals, two Commendation Medals, one Achievement Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Bronze Star Service Medal – as well as part of the public discourse.
“I put all my efforts into my assignments,” said Thompson. “I really was a sharp troop. I had my uniform starched and pressed every day so that’d show how much I was putting into it. I did everything I could to make sure something was done a certain way.”
Now resting comfortably in his Powder Springs, Georgia, home at age 70 with his wife of 45 years, Lovie Thompson, the retired vet periodically travels to Marion and Florida as he pleases to take in the sights, meet up with old friends and go deep sea fishing, all the while offering advice to the youth should they want to take part in the military experience.
“I think that if kids are not going to college, then the Air Force is a great way of life,” said Thompson. “It’s rewarding, it’s educational, and it’s gone on to help people achieve four-year college degrees. Out of all four branches of the military - we all help each other out in our departments – I’ve always been stuck on the Air Force.”