Walter M. Thompson, a former Sacramento city official who recounted his service in a racially segregated unit in World War II for the PBS documentary “The War,” died Oct. 23 at 90.
He recently had been hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism, his daughter Valerie Hooper said.
Mr. Thompson retired in 1989 after 13 years as the citizen’s assistance officer at Sacramento City Hall. Besides handling public complaints and investigating allegations of unfair treatment by the city, he led a task force of residents, business owners and public and private groups in efforts to reduce gangs and drug activity in the Meadowview neighborhood.
“He was a real people person,” former Sacramento city manager Walter Slipe said. “He had a long history in Sacramento and saw how the community had grown and knew the people and the issues in neighborhoods.”
A charismatic man who warmed up to people easily, Mr. Thompson formed friendships that led to a variety of early careers. He worked as a supply inspector at McClellan Air Force Base and left in the 1950s to go into business buying surplus aircraft parts. He started a Sacramento engineering firm that manufactured mud flaps for trucks, worked at Aerojet and was executive vice president of a Minnesota-based toy company.
His cordial nature helped him cope with racial discrimination that he encountered at McClellan Field during World War II, family members said. He recounted his experience in the Army Air Corps in the acclaimed documentary “The War” by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, who interviewed several Sacramento residents for the 2007 series for PBS.
Born in 1924 in Brownsville, Pa., he was drafted in 1943 and tried unsuccessfully to get into the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen training program in Alabama for African Americans. Instead, he was sent to McClellan and found himself housed with other black troops in “Splinter City.”
“We lived in two-by-four huts, eight men to a hut, with outside showers and bathrooms,” he told The Sacramento Bee in 2007. Meanwhile, white soldiers “had regular barracks and the luxuries.”
Assigned to all-black 4909 Aviation Base Unit, Mr. Thompson was a talented musician who played the trombone in McClellan’s Barons of Swing band. He also played football with the McClellan Flyers, who took on other military teams in games at Hughes Stadium.
Although the team was open to all soldiers, most players were African Americans, he said. “I didn’t know whether the white guys didn’t want to play with us or just weren’t good enough to make the team,” he told The Bee.
Mr. Thompson married Jeroline Green, an inventory clerk at McClellan, in 1944 before shipping out to Guam with the 464th Aviation Squadron of the 20th Air Force. He was discharged after returning to United States in 1945 and settled in Sacramento.
In addition to serving on boards of civic and community groups, he was an active member of Calvary Lutheran Church in Rio Linda for 60 years. He worked as a Sacramento code enforcement hearing officer after retiring as citizen’s assistance officer.
Along with his wife, he was a founding member of the Mr. and Mrs. Club, a longtime African American social group. The couple had three children and lived for more than 50 years in Carmichael.
“If friends or family or the community needed something to be done or taken care of or resolved, they went to my dad,” his daughter said. “He became a neighborhood leader.”
In addition to his wife of 70 years and Hooper, Mr. Thompson is survived by another daughter, Shirley Ramey; a son, Walter Jr.; two sisters, Roselma King and Barbara Brown; and six grandchildren.
A service is set for 10 a.m. Friday at Calvary Lutheran Church, 515 L St., Rio Linda. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Calvary Lutheran Church or to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, https://www.rarediseases.org/.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.