Warrant Officer Wally Thompson AO, the inaugural Regimental Sergeant Major of the Australian Army, passed away peacefully at Bankstown Hospital on Thursday 19 April 2012.
I had the honour of serving with Warrant Officer Wally Thompson when he was the Brigade Sergeant Major of the 1st Brigade at Holsworthy in 1982.
Wally commenced his army service with the Citizen Military Forces in 1950 and was later conscripted into National Service. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army in 1954 and was posted to the 2nd Battalion of The Royal Australian Regiment where he served on operations in the jungles of Malaya.
In 1961 he was posted to the British Army Jungle Warfare School as an instructor. On his return to Australia in 1963 he was posted to the 1st Battalion of The Royal Australian Regiment.
In 1964 he was amongst our first contingent to be posted to the Australian Army Training Team (AATV) in Vietnam. During his tour of duty he was awarded the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star for action with 3rd/5th Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. AATV was the most highly decorated Australian unit in Vietnam.
On his return to Australia in 1965 he was posted to the Sydney University Regiment. In 1967 he served on the Headquarters of 10 Task Force as a Company Sergeant Major. The following year he returned to the 1st Battalion.
In 1968 he returned to Vietnam for his second tour of duty. He was badly wounded in the Battle of Coral and was evacuated back to Australia for medical treatment. After he recovered from his wounds he was posted to the Battle Wing of the Infantry Centre as the Company Sergeant Major. All infantry soldiers who served in Vietnam were trained at the Infantry Centre and they were well prepared for the action under the watchful eye of their Sergeant Major.
In 1970 he was posted to the 4th Battalion as their Regimental Sergeant Major and returned to Vietnam for his third tour.
On his return to Australia in 1973 he was posted to the Jungle Training Centre as their Regimental Sergeant Major. Battle Efficiency Courses were the final phase of a soldier’s preparation for service in Vietnam. The courses, conducted under the watchful eye of their RSM, an experienced combat veteran, were tough and unrelenting as any soldier who endured them will attest to.
Warrant Officer Thompson returned to the Infantry Centre in 1975. He was awarded the Order of Australia during this posting. In 1979 he was posted to Army Training Command as Regimental Sergeant Major. He was later posted to the 1st Brigade at Holsworthy as the Brigade Sergeant Major where I had the honour to work closely with him under Brigadier John Sheldrick.
In 1983 the post of Regimental Sergeant Major of the Australian Army was created and Warrant Officer Class 1 Wally Thompson was appointed to the position. He served in this role with distinction until he retired in 1987 with 37 years of loyal service to our Nation.
Warrant Officer Dave Ashley, the current Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army knew Wally for over 30 years. He remarked that the passing of Wally marked a sad day for the Australian Army and its soldiers. “Wally Thompson was the first Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army’ he said. ‘For me, personally, he is a role model. A role model for all Australian soldiers and someone that I look up to in the work I do on a daily basis. His legacy is profound. He was truly a soldier’s soldier’.
Warrant Officer Ashley went on to describe Wally as a great leader who epitomised the Regimental Sergeant Major. ‘He seldom gave orders or direction’ said Warrant Officer Ashley. ‘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 is a mentor, and will remain so, for Army’s current crop of RSMs, very much including me. While I met Wally only on a few occasions when we were both in uniform, but more so after Wally retired. Wally’s example has a very profound effect on me. Wally was not a ‘do this’ RSM, but a ‘do as I do and follow me example. Wally Thompson taught me, and thousands of other soldiers – the true value of respect’.
There is no greater accolade a soldier can receive from his peers.
The staff club at Kapooka and the Soldier Promotion Centre at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville have been named in his honour.
The army was family to Wally, as it is for most career soldiers. It is a brotherhood that only those who have served in it understand. He retained a strong interest in its welfare and was kept busy with invitations to commemorative services, graduation dinners, unit reunions and other special occasions. After a visit to the Soldier Promotion Centre at Lavarack Barracks in 2005 he 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.’ They are very fine young men and women who are a credit to the Army and to Australia.”
The success of an Army in battle relies upon the quality of its soldiers. Wally Thompson was one of the greatest of them all and his memory will forever be an inspiration for those who had the honour of serving with him.
The thoughts of over 45,000 serving soldiers and tens of thousands of former soldiers are with Wally’s family.
Rest in peace Wally, your duty is done, and you did us proud.
Major Charlie Lynn
DQ 1 Bde