One of the finest … decorated Warrant Officer Wally Thompson (OAM) did three tours of Vietnam. Photo: Department of Defence
There were no bad soldiers, Viscount Sir William Slim once said, quoting Napoleon, only bad officers. With due respect to both, that might have been a little simplistic. The quality of the senior non-commissioned officers and warrant officers often makes a huge difference and of all the warrant officers available when the army decided to create a rank for the best WO, Wally Thompson got the nod.
There were company sergeant-majors and battalion sergeant-majors, but an idea developed: ''Why not have one for the army?'' Under the then chief of the general staff, Lieutenant-General Sir Phillip Bennett, it was implemented. A veteran of three tours of Vietnam, Mentioned in Dispatches, wounded and awarded, Thompson was promoted to WO1-A, the ''A'' standing for ''army''.
Thompson became the first sergeant-major to stand beside the chief of the general staff, and able to present a soldier's perspective, where otherwise the top general had only the counsel of other officers. In the words of today's WO1-A, David Ashley, the position gave him the capacity to project the general's thoughts and outlook to the ranks and standing beside the general he promoted the idea that ''every individual in the army, even the common soldier, is important''.
Wallace Talbot Claxton Thompson was born in Sydney on November 9, 1932, son of a merchant seaman, Albert Thompson, and Alice. He completed his education at Ashfield Technical School and at the age of 17 joined the Citizen Military Forces. In 1951, he was conscripted for three months full-time training under the then national service scheme. In 1954, he enlisted in the regular army and was posted to 2RAR, which went to Malaya in 1955, during the Emergency. Thompson served as a section commander. In 1958, promoted to sergeant, he married a telephonist, Judithe Edwards. A daughter, Sharyn, was born 11 months later, followed by a son, Brett, in 1960. In November 1961, he was posted to the British Army Jungle Warfare School in Johor, Malaya. Two more daughters, Catherine and Elizabeth, were born in Singapore. In December 1963 he was posted to 1RAR. In July 1964, he was promoted to WO2. The following month, he was sent to Vietnam as a member of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. He was awarded the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star for action with 3rd/5th Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Returning, Thompson was posted to the Sydney University Regiment.
In January 1968, Thompson was posted back to 1RAR and went back to Vietnam. He fought at the Battle of Coral, where the North Vietnamese and Vietcong tried to oust the Australian Task Force from its artillery bases near Bien Hoa City. Thompson was wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade and returned to Australia. He was mentioned in dispatches. In February 1969, Thompson was posted to the Infantry Centre at Ingleburn. In 1969, his second son, Scott, was born. In September that year, Thompson was promoted to WO1 and posted to 4RAR at Townsville. He was then sent on his third tour of Vietnam.
In August 1973, Thompson was posted as regimental sergeant-major at the Jungle Training Centre (renamed the Land Warfare Centre). In December 1974 he was posted to the Infantry Centre at Singleton.
He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the Queen's Birthday Honours list in 1977 for ''meritorious service in the Australian Army as the RSM Infantry Centre''. In January 1983, following a series of headquarters postings, he was promoted to WO1-A and went to the office of the Chief of General Staff.
Ashley said: "He seldom gave orders or direction. He didn't need to. When a soldier was in the wrong, Wally's mere distant presence would snap him into the right. This is a great soldiers' example of the respect Wally was, and is, held in. Wally led by example, which in our egalitarian army is the most effective form of soldier leadership.''
Wally Thompson retired in 1987 but remained in touch with a wide network of friends and colleagues, serving in the role of elder statesman, and stayed active in several ex-service organisations and battalion associations.
Neil James, the executive director of the Australian Defence Association, said: ''He was really the last of his generation of very experienced soldiers in the the army post-World War II and Korea. They served in Borneo and Malaya and Vietnam and well into the '80s. They were very experienced and great at handing on their knowledge to younger members. He belonged to the 'grin and bear it' generation and became increasingly frustrated at the attitudes of younger people.''
But at the opening of the Soldier Promotion Centre at Townsville in 2005 Thompson said: ''I had most of a day going around and talking to the soldiers at Lavarack and I know I can say one thing: we're in safe hands.'' Wally Thompson died in Bankstown on April 19. He is survived by his widow, his two sons and his daughters Catherine and Elizabeth.