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]
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.
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.