Australia and the Vietnam War

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The Birthday Ballot - National Service

A letter from the National Service Registration Office, Sydney, advising Steven Blake that he was required to submit to a medical examination 'in accordance with the provisions of the National Service Act'. [Image courtesy of Steve Blake]

A letter from the National Service Registration Office, Sydney, advising Steven Blake that he was required to submit to a medical examination ‘in accordance with the provisions of the National Service Act’. [Image courtesy of Steve Blake]

Often known as conscription, the National Service Scheme was introduced by the Menzies Government in November 1964. Popular belief holds that the scheme was conceived specifically for Vietnam. Although untrue, the close timing of its introduction and Australia’s growing commitment to the war made it seem so to many people. In late 1964 the Government had yet to decide on increases to the number of Australian troops in Vietnam, and was, in fact, more concerned about the regional implications of the Confrontation between Malaya and Indonesia, particularly its potential to spill over the border of Papua New Guinea for which Australia had defence responsibility. Small numbers of national servicemen served in Sarawak, a Malayan state on the island of Borneo, in early 1966 towards the end of Confrontation. The first national servicemen reached Vietnam in the middle of that year, several months before the official end of Confrontation on 11 August 1966.

'the lottery'

  • New recruits doing sit-ups at Puckapunyal in Victoria, c.1967-68. [AWM P05394.004]l
  • 5RAR, including the first national servicemen deployed to the war, marching through Sydney before their departure for Vietnam. The bulk of the battalion sailed on HMAS Sydney from Sydney in April 1966. The remainder travelled on commercial charter flights and the battalion with subsidiary units was complete in South Vietnam by 13 May 1966.  [NAA A1200, L54706]
  • An information book for national servicemen. [Image courtesy of John Thurgood] I was called up. That's the only lottery I think I've ever won. [Lieutenant Robert Hanam, Civic Affairs Unit, in Australians at War Film Archive, Interview: 2161]
  • ‘He’s complaining to the Army about not getting his Registration Card – he wants to burn it.’ [nla: PIC/7345/805 LOC 9421-9430]
  • Sapper Raymond Francis Ryan, MM, Rosalind Buley, 1973. [Oil on canvas 55.8 x 40.6 cm, AWM ART 40863] Sapper Raymond Francis Ryan, MM, a national serviceman, was posted to the 1st Field Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers in South Vietnam in November 1968. On 9 March 1969, he and other members of 5RAR were led into a minefield near Hoa Long, tripping some of the mines and wounding several Australians.  Ryan was among the rescue teams sent in to help the injured. They spent four hours in the darkness, prodding the ground with bayonets to reach the casualties and clear a path for their evacuation. As the rescuers withdrew through the field, Ryan detonated a mine and was severely wounded.
  • Lance-Corporal Norman (Normie) Rowe from Victoria, A Squadron 3rd Cavalry Regiment in his M113 armoured personnel carrier (APC) at Fire Support Base Kerry, Bien Hoa Province, February 1969.  The popular Australian singer was conscripted for National Service, and served in Vietnam from 14 January 1969 until 19 December 1969. [EKT/69/0002/VN]
  • Private Michael Fernando, was conscripted in 1970 and served with 2nd Advanced Ordnance Depot at Vung Tau from 29/03/1971 to 28/10/1971. His account of his experiences as a National Serviceman is held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. [AWM P04914.001]
  • ‘DON’T LET THIS MAN GRAB YOUR MARBLES’ – poster from the Riley and Ephemera Collection ‘Conscription. Anti Undated’.

Under the National Service Scheme, twenty-year-old men were required to register with the Department of Labour and National Service (DLNS), they were then subject to a ballot which, if their birth date was drawn, meant the possibility of two years of continuous full-time service in the regular army, followed by three years part-time service in the Army Reserve. As part of their duty, national servicemen on full-time duty were liable for ‘special overseas service’ including combat duties in Vietnam.

As the number of men eligible for call-up far exceeded the number needed for military service, the bi-annual ballot determined who would be considered for national service. The ballot resembled a lottery draw, even to the extent, in the case of the final five ballots, of being fully televised. Numbered marbles representing birthdates were chosen randomly from a barrel and within a month men whose numbers had been drawn were advised by the DLNS of whether they were required for participation in the scheme or not. Those failing to register without an acceptable explanation were automatically considered for call-up as well as being liable to a fine.

Various categories of men eligible for national service were granted either indefinite or temporary deferments. Applications were considered individually and only after the ballot had been drawn. Men for whom no exemption applied and who were selected for call-up were required to be as fit as those enlisting in the regular army. The process involved a medical examination by a civilian doctor. If passed, this was followed by an interview and finally a security check carried out by the Attorney General’s Department, the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and the Commonwealth Police. Men who passed these three tests were usually given a month’s notice before having to report for military service.

Men who failed to comply, who misled the medical board and who made false and misleading statements were liable to prosecution and if convicted were sentenced to prison for a period equivalent to that which would have been spent on national service. Fourteen men were thus prosecuted, until 1968 they were incarcerated in military prisons. Later, they served their time in civilian gaols.

Between 1964 and December 1972 when the Whitlam Government suspended the scheme, 804,286 twenty-year-olds registered for national service, 63,735 national servicemen served in the Army and 15,381 served in Vietnam. Between 1966 and 1971 Australian infantry battalions were typically comprised of an even mix of regular soldiers and national servicemen. Some 200 national servicemen lost their lives in Vietnam.

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View video of Interview 5 Second Lieutenant David Sabben 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2585

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Newspaper clipping The death of South Australian Private Errol Noack, 5RAR, in May 1966 caused some Australians to question the use of National Servicemen in Vietnam. Although official notification advised that his death was due to the enemy, he was in fact accidentally killed by Australian fire. [The Advertiser, 26 May 1966]

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Letter of Private Michael Fernando’s handwritten account of his experiences as a National Serviceman, 1970-71. Fernando’s account touches on a number of areas relating to an Australian serviceman’s experience of the war in Vietnam, including training, pre-deployment preparations, initiation into his unit, life at Vung Tau, and the period leading up to his return home. [AWM PR91/180]