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William Thompson, rear admiral who helped create Navy Memorial, dies at 96

Rear Adm. William Thompson in undated photo.

COURTESY OF THE U.S. NAVY

By BART BARNES | The Washington Post | Published: October 22, 2018

William Thompson, a Navy rear admiral who in retirement organized and led the campaign to create a Navy memorial and heritage center on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, died Oct. 15 at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 96.

The cause was complications from cancer, said Capt. Gregory Hicks, a Navy spokesman.

In a 32-year Navy career, Rear Adm. Thompson was a special assistant for public affairs to three Navy secretaries: Paul Nitze, Paul Ignatius and John Chafee; and he directed the Navy's public information service in the 1970s when Adm. Elmo Zumwalt was chief of naval operations.

Rear Adm. Thompson was best known for his service after his 1975 military retirement. For 15 years, he was chief of the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, a private, not-for-profit lobbying and advocacy organization. In that role he was "the driving force behind the creation of the U.S. Navy Memorial," bringing it from an idea to fruition, the Navy said in an obituary release.

It continued: He is "credited with the vision, design, construction, and funding for the Memorial, the Heritage Center and the Lone Sailor statue," which is intended as a symbolic representation of men and women serving in the U.S. Navy. The Lone Sailor's sea bag bears the initials "WT" - William Thompson.

Since the founding of the republic, there had been talk of a Navy memorial in Washington. Pierre L'Enfant, the French-American engineer who designed the basic plan for the District of Columbia, wrote of a memorial in Washington "to celebrate the first rise of the Navy and consecrate its progress and achievements."

But the idea lay dormant for two centuries. Arleigh Burke, a three-time chief of naval operations, brought it up again in 1977. At Burke's urging, Rear Adm. Thompson took on the assignment.

This included gaining approval from the White House and Congress, and a site selection - at Market Square on Pennsylvania near the Archives Metro station - was negotiated by the Navy Memorial Foundation and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. The memorial was officially dedicated in 1987.

The memorial's Heritage Center features daily screenings of a movie, "At Sea," which The Washington Post once described as "a paean to ships and aircraft and the men who man them."

William Thompson, widely known as Bill, was born in Escanaba, Michigan, on Sept. 16. 1922, and grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942, attended Wabash College in Indiana and the Midshipman program at the University of Notre Dame, from which he graduated in 1945. Two days after graduation, he married Dorothy Zum Buttel.

He was an administrative officer aboard an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. His decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal and two Navy Distinguished Public Service Awards.

On retiring from the Navy, Rear Adm. Thompson ran his own public relations firm. In 2010 he published an autobiography, "Gumption."

In addition to his wife, of McLean, Virginia, survivors include three children, Stephanie Graves of Leesburg, Virginia, Craig Thompson of Roanoke, Virginia, and Brian Thompson of Winchester, Virginia; a brother; six grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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