As Keith and Doris Thompson contemplated their newborn son Barry on September 13 in 1947, they would have had no inkling this very date would lead to his death on February 1, 1970, aged 22.
Barry Thompson was the third of five children, between sisters Margaret, June, Valda and Helen. He grew up in Gunning, went to the public school, and worked as a shearer and shed hand until called up on May 1, 1968.
In 1964 the Menzies government, concerned about ‘aggressive communism’ and insufficient army strength introduced national service. A legislative amendment extended this to ‘special overseas service including combat duties’.
All 20-year-old men had to register with the Department of Labour and National Service. Ballots were held twice yearly and marbles inscribed with birthdays were drawn out of a barrel (the final five ballots were televised).
Conscription plebiscites were defeated twice in Australia during WWI. In WWII, three months of military training was mandatory for some unmarried men. Conscription was ended by the Whitlam government as Australia withdrew from Vietnam.
Thus Barry Thompson was deployed to Vietnam and given a big send-off at the local RSL Club. Family members went to Garden Island Naval Base to farewell him for “nashos” training at Puckapunyal near Seymour, Victoria. Private B J Thompson, ID 2789920, served for 11 months in Vietnam as a rifleman with the 5th Battalion in the Royal Australian Regiment, mainly as a forward scout for his section. According to his comrades, he was a likeable larrikin and very good in this role. On February 1, 1970, he was hit by an exploding hand grenade, dying in the arms of a comrade.
When news of his death came, sister Helen remembers answering the door and, on seeing the Army officer, immediately exclaiming, “Barry’s dead. Barry’s dead.”
A formal military funeral was held in Gunning, complete with gun carriage. Private B J Thompson is buried in the general cemetery. His name is inscribed on memorials including the Gunning Cenotaph and Seymour’s Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Walk.
Because of the divisive nature of the Vietnam War, punctuated by huge demonstrations, the official Welcome Home March in Sydney did not occur until October 3, 1987. Flags with names inscribed on the flagstaff were given to the family of each of the 521 soldiers killed in Vietnam, carried at the front of the March. Barry’s flag was held aloft by a comrade-in-arms.
The Australian Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated in 1992. One returned serviceman said: “The March was for those who came home. The Memorial is for those who did not”. On this Anzac Day, let us remember Private Barry Thompson as his sister Valda Lees places a wreath for him at the Gunning Cenotaph.