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Phillip Cecil Thompson (1944–1986)

by Stephen Garton

This article was published:

Phillip Cecil Thompson (1944-1986), soldier and Vietnam War veterans’ advocate, was born on 2 November 1944 at Camperdown, Sydney, one of six children of Sydney-born parents Cecil Harry Thompson, labourer, and his wife Isma May, née Martin. On leaving school Phill became an apprentice spray-painter, working around Toongabbie and Granville. After serving briefly with the Citizen Military Forces, he enlisted in the Australian Regular Army on 29 March 1962. He was in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, on two tours between June 1965 and October 1968. In August 1968 he was severely wounded in action in Phuoc Tuy province. He served in Malaysia as an assistant-instructor in 1969-71. Having risen to the rank of warrant officer, he was discharged as medically unfit for service on 22 December 1975.

Handsome, well built, and of medium height with brown hair and hazel eyes, Thompson had married Jill Gray, an assistant-nurse, on 25 April 1964 at St John’s Church of England, Parramatta. By 1974 he was living with Wendy Joan Bates, a shop proprietor, whom he married on 21 July 1976 at the local registry, Singleton, after he and his first wife divorced.

Suffering from cancer, serious pain in his arm and an anxiety disorder, Thompson had little success in a number of business ventures. He began to involve himself in Vietnam veteran groups, becoming New South Wales branch president of the Vietnam Veterans (Action) Association of Australia in 1979. From March 1981 he served as national president. He was centrally involved in the creation of the Vietnam veterans’ counselling service.

From 1978 stories concerning the deleterious health effects of Agent Orange, a powerful defoliant used by the United States of America in Vietnam, were aired in the USA and Australia. Thompson, who was convinced that Agent Orange was to blame for high levels of cancer in veterans and an abnormally high incidence of serious birth defects in their children, led the campaign to gain pensions for veterans and their families suffering the effects of this herbicide. Media coverage was generally sympathetic to the plight of the returned servicemen. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the minister responsible, Senator Tony Messner, rejected these claims; there was no link determined between the herbicide and ill health, with those afflicted thought to be suffering ‘post-Vietnam syndrome’. In 1983 the newly elected Hawke Australian Labor Party government established a royal commission, headed by Justice Phillip Evatt, to investigate. Thompson led the veterans’ case before the commission, delivering the closing arguments after funding ran out to sustain legal counsel. In 1985 the commission’s report concluded that Agent Orange could not be definitively isolated as the cause of veterans’ health problems. Celebrated as the ‘father’ of the Vietnam veterans’ movement, Thompson was awarded the OAM that year for his advocacy work.

On 22 November 1986, worn down by the pressure of the case and in deteriorating health, Thompson drove to an isolated area at East Hills, Sydney, where he died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Survived by his wife and the two sons of his first marriage, he was cremated. John Schumann, lead singer of the rock group ‘Redgum’, wrote the song Safe Behind the Wire in tribute to his friend. Since Thompson’s death, despite the findings of the Evatt royal commission, liberal benefit-of-the-doubt clauses have enabled many Vietnam veterans and their families to gain access to pensions and other benefits on the basis of problems arising from Agent Orange poisoning.

Select Bibliography

  • J. McCulloch, The Politics of Agent Orange (1984)
  • B. O’Keefe, Medicine at War (1994)
  • S. Garton, The Cost of War (1996)
  • Debrief, Apr 1988, p 3
  • Canberra Times, 5 Oct 1992, p 5
  • B2458, item 214635 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Stephen Garton, 'Thompson, Phillip Cecil (1944–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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