National Service – Vietnam: In Their Own Words

National Service

The 1964 National Service Scheme was not the first time that compulsory service was implemented in Australia. The first scheme began in 1911 and ran throughout the First World War. Then, shortly after the Second World War, the scheme was revived and ran for over 10 years. From 1951 to 1959, all males aged 18 were called up for training in the Navy, Army or Air Force. A total of 227,000 Australians served in 52 intakes. National service, also known as military conscription, was introduced to ensure Australia had armed forces big enough to meet any potential threats.

Learn more about Australians in the National Service Scheme from 1951 to 1972.

A row of 9 men standing outdoors dressed in army uniforms, cloth hats and lace-up boots stand outdoors with shoulder bags, and 2 of them have rifles.

National servicemen on parade during signals training at Kapooka, Wagga Wagga, NSW. AWM P07435.006

Conscription

In 1962, 2 key events prompted the Australian Government to revisit its policy on military conscription. In August 1962, Australia sent its first group of military advisors to help the former Republic of South Vietnam. Then, the government was monitoring events that led to a new conflict in South-East Asia – the Indonesian Confrontation. So, in November 1964, the National Service Act 1964 was passed. This law made it mandatory for 20-year-old men to register for national service if their birthday was randomly selected in a ballot. Some conscripts were sent to Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation, which started in December 1962. Many conscripts who were sent overseas went to Vietnam when Australia's commitment to that war grew. Most people at home supported conscription throughout the Vietnam War, but not for conscripts to go to war. It is important to remember that every conscripted individual had a different experience.

Veteran Daryl Bristowe was conscripted into compulsory national service. As a national serviceman, he served in Vietnam for 3 months in 1971. Listen to Daryl as he shares his story, especially about his mum protesting the war.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. Did you know that not everyone who was called up for national service was sent overseas? Research and explain the different roles of national servicemen.
  2. Having heard Daryl's story, do you think his experience of being called up for national service was positive or negative? Explain why.
  3. Why do you think Daryl's mother wrote the letter? How might his national service have impacted her?
  4. Research the founders of 'Save our Sons'. Explain the movement's goal and activities.

Birthday ballot

Twice a year, from 1964 to 1972, a ballot was drawn. Numbered marbles or wooden balls were placed in a barrel and drawn like a lottery. The birthdates that matched the numbers determined who was called up for national service. This was known as the birthday ballot. Conscripted men were required to serve 5 years in the Army – 2 years full-time service followed by 3 years part-time service in the Army Reserve. More than 15,300 national servicemen served in the Vietnam War.

Patrick O'Hara was working in the Australian Public Service when he learned he had to serve 2 years in the Army. Patrick viewed national service as an adventure. Hear Patrick's reaction when his birthdate came up.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. How did Patrick's feelings change from registration to the time he left Geelong? Use quotations to support your answer.
  2. Describe how you would have felt if your birthdate came up on the ballot.
  3. Describe the impact of national service on each of Patrick's close personal relationships and why you think this may have occurred.
  4. Read National Service Scheme, 1951-1972. Find out about exemptions to being conscripted. Research and write in your own words who was exempt from being conscripted and why.

Conscripts in battle

In the early years, Australia's participation in the Vietnam War was not widely opposed. As the national commitment grew, more conscripts were going into action and then being wounded or killed. This was the first war that Australians could follow on television news reports, and anyone could see images and follow stories of the events. By the late 1960s, many Australians started to believe that the war against Communist forces was being lost. In the early 1970s, more than 200,000 people marched in the streets of Australia's major cities in protest.

Gary McKay was conscripted into the Army in 1968 as part of the National Service Scheme. He experienced battle firsthand. After returning from Vietnam, Gary stayed in the Army and took on different roles. Listen to Gary discuss the tough choices soldiers face in battle.

Watch the video:

Gary McKay went to Vietnam as a national serviceman and commanded an infantry platoon. He saw battle first hand.

Answer the questions:

  1. What hard choices and sacrifices did Gary and his fellow soldiers have to make during the Battle of Nui Le?
  2. 'I have seen the very best in men in the very worst of circumstance. You know, it's funny. We are expected to behave normally in the most abnormal of environments. And it's a big ask.' In your own words, describe what Gary means by this.
  3. How does Gary's story about the Vietnam War help you understand what veterans go through?

Discover more about Operation Ivanhoe and the Battle of Nui Le 1971.

Returning home

Many Australians' lives were changed by the war. Some service personnel gained valuable qualities, like discipline and strength. Others had difficult memories from the war. This made it hard for them to cope with stress and adjust to everyday life. The effect on conscripts and their families depended on the individual and the support they received. Community perception also played a role in shaping their experiences.

Wayne was a nurse when he was called up for national service. When he served in Vietnam as a medic, he had to leave his wife and young child. Wayne's salary decreased substantially, and the family struggled financially. Listen to Wayne talk about his experiences as a medic in a warzone and the changes to his family on his return.

Watch the video:

Wayne Brown was called up for National Service and went to Vietnam as a medic. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.

Answer the questions:

  1. Why do you think Wayne was more scared of 'not going in' than 'hanging back'?
  2. Wayne was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. What does this tell us about Wayne and his service?
  3. How do you think Wayne might have felt when he returned home and saw that things had changed in his family? What kind of help and support might he have needed during that time?

Leadership and comradeship

Good leaders were important in helping conscripted Australians deal with the hard challenges they faced. The officers or non-commissioned officers in charge gave advice and taught self-discipline. They created a feeling of togetherness among those who were conscripted into national service. The leaders had to make important choices during tough battles. They kept everyone's spirits up and made sure that everyone was all right.

Noel McLaughlin was conscripted into the National Service Scheme in July 1967. He learned to be a driver and signaller and went to Vietnam twice. Listen to Noel talk about the leaders and friends he had during his time in Vietnam.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. What made Noel think leaders like Roy Hughes, Lee Bonser and Terry Walker were good at their jobs and deserving of respect?
  2. How do you think Noel's experiences with his leaders and friends influenced his service?
  3. Explore other veterans' stories on the Anzac Portal. Many veterans talk about the significance of their mates during times of war. In your own words, explain why these friendships were so important.

Character building

Australians have debated national service for a long time. Conscription has sparked varied reactions within the Australian population. It caused a lot of upset during the Vietnam War. Some believed in strengthening the military and fulfilling commitments to other nations. Other people did not like conscription. They wanted the freedom to choose and disagreed with the Vietnam War.

Conscription had a big impact on David Sabben. Listen to David talk about how national service made him stronger and more grounded, which helped him succeed in his career.

Watch the video:

Second Lieutenant David Sabben 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR

'National Service was the making of me'. Second Lieutenant David Sabben discusses the positive impact of National Service on his life.

Answer the questions:

  1. How did David's time as a national serviceman impact his life and career?
  2. David said, 'I am going to take more out of it [national service] than it gives.' What skills and qualities did David gain from his service?

Going further: research questions

Australians in the national service schemes from 1951 to 1972 poster.

Two men in army uniform hang over the top of a high wall and extend a helping hand to another man in army uniform at the bottom of the wall.

This poster was created to commemorate the contribution of Australians conscripted into the national service schemes from 1951 to 1972. It shows national service recruits working together to complete an obstacle course while training at Puckapunyal in Victoria before deployment to Vietnam in the late 1960s.

  1. Imagine you receive a conscription notice during a period of conflict. How would you feel about being required to serve in the military?
  2. Think about the arguments and protests against conscription in the 1960s and 1970s. If the same protests were to happen today, would you join in on the movements against conscription? Why or why not?

Visit Conscription: Great Debates to run your own debate about military conscription.

Discover more about public opinion.

Curriculum notes for teachers

The videos and activities align with Year 10 History, v 9.0 Australian Curriculum.

The impact of World War II, with a particular emphasis on the Australian home front, including the changing roles of women and use of wartime government controls (conscription, manpower controls, rationing and censorship) ACDSEH109

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