Conscription and the birthday ballot

 

In Australia, 15,300 men were conscripted into the Australian Army during the Vietnam conflict. More than 200 died and at least 1,200 were wounded on active duty.

Most 20-year-old Australian men had to register for national service between 1965 and 1972. Servicemen conscripted under the scheme became known as 'Nashos'. Names of potential conscripts were selected by a birthday ballot, where numbered wooden marbles were drawn by lottery from a barrel. The numbers on the marbles matched a secretly maintained list of birthdays.

Members of the Australian public and the media supported conscription during the Vietnam War. However, support waned after the first conscripts were killed, stirring the anti-war movement. Australia's last combat troops came home from Vietnam in March 1972. Conscription and the National Service Scheme also ended in 1972.

National service in the Vietnam War

Clean-shaven older man dressed in double-breasted dark suit and tie leans against a wooden bookcase in a wood-panelled room with black-and-white photographs

Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, in Canberra in 1960, before Australia's commitment to the Vietnam War. The Menzies government introduced conscription in 1964. NAA: A1500, K5524.

In view of the deteriorating strategic situation and foreseeable future requirements, an effective strength of 33,000 is required to provide a larger regular field force to carry out cold war tasks ...

[Cabinet memorandum, National Archives of Australia]

Conscription returned to Australia in November 1964. Minister for the Army, Jim Forbes, had argued for its reintroduction. He claimed compulsory national service was the only way to boost the Army's numbers.

The need to grow the Army was mainly in response to Australia's involvement in the Indonesian Confrontation and concerns about war with Indonesia in New Guinea. Added to this were 'emerging threats' from communism in Asia and Australia's overseas commitment to Cold War allies.

Tensions were increasing between North and South Vietnam by May 1965. The United States supported South Vietnam. As an ally of the US, Australia agreed to allow national servicemen to be sent overseas to Vietnam.

Initial response

The Army did not support National Service. Instead, it argued the need for skilled tradesmen and officers, not:

... the ragtag selection of semi-trained men it had come to expect from national service.

[Mark Dapin, The Nashos' War]

Conscription was generally supported by Australians. Polls showed widespread support for the policy. Parents saw it as a way of instilling discipline in their sons, as well as teaching valuable life skills. For the young:

It was a chance to bury the disappointment of work and return to the safety of school, and the raucous comfort of a mob of men their own age, dealing cards, passing footballs, camping out and chasing skirt, while they learned to use weapons, drive vehicles, read signals and fight.

[Mark Dapin, The Nashos' War]

At the time, the Australian media portrayed conscription in a positive way. Army life and national service were generally praised.

Close up of young man dressed in Army slouch felt hat with a Rising Sun badge, with lines of soldiers waiting in the background

National Service army recruits training at Puckapunyal, Victoria, before deployment to South Vietnam, c 1967 to 1968. AWM P05394.001

The birthday ballot

Most 20-year-old Australian men had to register for the National Service Scheme. The Department of Labour and National Service (DLNS) administered the scheme. Those who registered were subject to a ballot, drawn twice a year.

If their birthdate was drawn, they were subject to up to 5 years of army service. This included 2 years of continuous full-time service in the Regular Army, followed by 3 years of 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.

The birthday ballot was like a lottery. Numbered marbles or wooden ballot balls (now held by the National Archives of Australia) were placed in a hand-spun barrel. A pre-decided number of marbles were drawn. Those whose birthdates matched the numbers drawn were then called up for compulsory national service.

In the official history of the conflict, the birthday ballot process is described as an initial public ceremony to draw the first number, followed by the private drawing of the rest of the birthdates. The birthdates included in the ballot were also kept secret until 1970. This changed after public pressure.

Across 16 ballots held from 10 March 1965 to 22 September 1972, over 1,000 dates were drawn from the barrel. Between 60 and 133 numbers were drawn from the ballot each time. The birthdates ranged from 1 January 1945 to 30 December 1952.

The appendix to the official history gives a complete list of birthdates drawn in National Service ballots.

Who didn't have to go

Men called up for conscription could apply for a temporary deferment of up to 12 months. They had the right to reapply after that time. Temporary deferments could be approved for:

  • apprentices and trainees
  • full-time students
  • farm workers, on the grounds of 'exceptional hardship or compassion'.

The following people could apply for indefinite deferments:

  • married men
  • part-time members of the Citizen Military Forces
  • men assessed as being a security risk
  • men with a criminal record.

An exemption was granted to:

  • men who failed their medical fitness checks
  • diplomats
  • members of the Regular Army
  • members of religious orders, religious ministers and theology students
  • conscientious objectors who successfully proved their claims under Section 29A of the National Service Act 1971.

Aboriginal men could volunteer for national service but did not have to register for the birthday ballot. Torres Strait Islanders were not mentioned under the National Service Act.

The 'Nashos'

National servicemen had to be:

  • literate (able to read and write)
  • physically and mentally fit
  • taller than 5 feet 2 inches (157 cm)
  • heterosexual (the Army tried to screen for homosexuality).

Nashos came from all parts of Australia, cities and the bush. But national servicemen of this era did not 'represent a true cross-section of Australian society'. There were few First Nations men and no non-naturalised migrants until after 1967.

Patrick O'Hara: a Nasho's story

Patrick's birthday was drawn from the ballot in September 1966. After training, he was posted to Vietnam as a signalman with the 4th Field Regiment. O'Hara became a teacher after serving his time.

See Patrick O'Hara's personal particulars form.

Listen to Patrick O'Hara share his thoughts about the birthday ballot in an oral history interview.

Different roles

Two shirtless young men with short hair and army pants and boots crouch in grass while holding large artillery shells.

Australian national servicemen with the 102nd Field Battery, Peter Geelen (left) and Robert Costello, in Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam, May 1968. AWM ERR/68/0473/VN

National servicemen were trained as soldiers and officers. Many never left Australia for their national service. Those who did go to Vietnam served alongside Regular Army soldiers in various corps, including:

  • armoured
  • artillery
  • catering
  • engineers
  • infantry
  • medical and other specialist corps.

Nashos also fought in the Battle of Long Tan and the Tet Offensive.

Some well-known conscripts

There were some well-known Australians among Vietnam's national servicemen.

Normie Rowe

Pop singer, Normie Rowe, was called up for national service in 1968. Rowe had a number of top 10 hit songs and was named Australia's King of Pop in 1968. After training at Puckapunyal, Victoria, Rowe was sent to Vietnam. He served with A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment as a crew commander of an armoured personnel carrier.

Young man dressed in army uniform and dark beret carrying kitbags and a guitar case is walking away from soldiers who are disembarking from a plane.

Australian pop singer, Normie Rowe, arrives in South Vietnam for his national service duty in 1969. AWM P04656.442

Two soldiers facing away from the camera, one in an armoured personnel carrier with a machine gun and another beside the vehicle's turret, with long grass in the distance and another vehicle ahead.

Australian singer Normie Rowe on wartime operations as a National Serviceman, Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, 1969. AWM P04656.727

Peter Brock and Dick Johnson

Racing car drivers Dick Johnson and Peter Brock were conscripted into the Australian Army in 1965. They completed their national service in Australia and were both stationed near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Brock was an ambulance driver, and Dick Johnson was a mechanic. The men didn't know each other then but later became motor racing rivals.

Doug Walters

When 20-year-old test cricketer, Doug Walters, was conscripted in 1966, he was already compared to cricketing legend, Sir Donald Bradman. Walters remained in Australia after training and continued to play test cricket.

Conscientious objectors

Cream-coloured paper with large black block lettering that reads: Not with my son, you don't.

The 'Save our Sons' movement produced many posters like this one. They used simple, emotive language to protest against conscription in the Vietnam War. AWM ARTV03042.

Opinion polls showed national service was widely supported. There were actually more volunteers for the program than conscientious objectors.

Conscientious objectors are people who have strongly-held beliefs against military service. At least 1,000 men applied to be recognised as conscientious objectors under section 29A(1) of the National Service Act.

Conscientious objectors had to fund their claim through the courts. Once their case came before the court, their names could be published in the media. Some, like Simon Townsend, were jailed. Others, whose claims were unsuccessful, had to serve their national service time.

John Zarb

A large crowd walking along an urban street dressed in warm clothing and holding placards, including one that reads: Free John Zarb.

Protestors marching along Sydney Road, Melbourne, towards Pentridge Prison, in support of jailed conscientious objector John Zarb. State Library of Victoria Accession No H92.420/210

John Zarb, a Melbourne postman, was jailed after his claim for conscientious objection was unsuccessful.

Zarb was sentenced to 2 years in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison. His case became the centre of attention for anti-war protests. Hundreds of people wrote to him, marched in the streets and held vigils outside his jail.

Zarb was released more than a year early on compassionate grounds.

Simon Townsend

Young, clean-shaven man writing with a pen at a small desk littered with papers

Australian journalist Simon Townsend at his desk following his successful attempt to be registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, 1968. Herald & Weekly Times Limited portrait collection, State Library of Victoria Accession No H38849/4572

Simon Townsend is a former journalist and television presenter. He is best known for the 1980s children's show Simon Townsend's Wonder World.

In 1968, Townsend opposed conscription. He was jailed for a month in Sydney's Long Bay Jail and imprisoned at Holsworthy Army Base for a second month.

William White

William White was a Sydney school teacher and conscientious objector in 1966.

Unlike Zarb, White was not associated with the anti-conscription and anti-war movements, claiming personal reasons instead.

In a later interview with the ABC, White questioned whether the Australian Government was right in supporting the war in Vietnam.

White ignored his court order, which turned down his claim for conscientious objection. Instead, White went back to teaching until he was sacked under the National Service Act.

End of conscription

Under Labor, there will be no Australian troops in Vietnam after June 1970.

[Gough Whitlam, 1969 election policy speech]

Opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, opposed conscription and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam conflict. He made conscription a central policy of the Labor Party's platform in 1972. In the lead-up to the federal election, he said:

We will abolish conscription forewith. It must be done not just because a volunteer army means a better army, but because we profoundly believe that it is intolerable that a free nation at peace and under no threat should cull by lottery the best of its youth to provide defence on the cheap.

[Australian Labor Party policy statement, 1972]

The United States and Australia had already begun to withdraw combat troops from Vietnam in 1968. In the early 1970s, the public protest movement was at its height. The Australian public was tiring of the war in Vietnam.

In 1971, the Federal Cabinet made a secret decision to 'accelerate' the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. The cabinet minute was dated 26 July.

The Battle of Nui Le, the last battle to involve Australian troops, took place in September 1971. Four days later, Minister for the Army, Andrew Peacock, announced no national servicemen would be required to go to Vietnam if they did not want to go. Other soldiers began returning home to Australia that year.

On 5 December 1972, Gough Whitlam became Australia's new prime minister. One of his government's first decisions was to end national service. The National Service Termination Act 1973 was passed on 21 June 1973.

Learning activities

Sources

  • 1964 'R.S.L. Move On National Service', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 17 February, p 3, viewed 23 June 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article131744064
  • 1966 'SPORTS Comment', Tribune (Sydney, NSW : 1939 - 1991), 16 March, p 12, viewed 23 June 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article236348688
  • ABC Education, 'Luck of the draw: the Vietnam Birthday Ballot', accessed 3 August 2021, https://education.abc.net.au/home#!/media/521089/
  • ABC (1990), 'Hindsight' excerpt, accessed 19 August 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/archives/80days/stories/2012/01/19/3414782.htm
  • Australian War Memorial (2020), ' Fifty Australians: Normie Rowe', accessed 30 July 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/fiftyaustralians/41
  • Australian War Memorial (2019), 'Compulsory military service', Forging the Nation - Federation: the First 20 years exhibition, 26 October 2000 to 4 February 2001, last updated 3 December 2019, accessed 19 August 2021 https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/forging/security/service
  • Australian War Memorial (2020), 'National Service Scheme 1951-1972', accessed 23 June 2021 https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/conscription/vietnam
  • Australian War Memorial (2021), 'Vietnam War 1962-75, accessed 23 June 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/event/vietnam
  • Australian War Memorial (undated). 'Let no man be forced to kill: Free Zarb', accessed 23 June 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C96429
  • Bonfield, Mel (undated), 'Simon before Wonder World!', National Film and Sound Archive, accessed 25 July 2021, https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/simon-townsends-career-simon-townsend-wonder-world
  • Callaghan, Allen (2009), 'A Brief History of National Service in Australia', National Servicemen's Association of Australia, lasted updated 20 January 2015, accessed 23 June 2021, https://nashoaustralia.org.au/History.htm
  • Culture Victoria (undated), 'Photograph - Free John Zarb', accessed 23 June 2021, https://cv.vic.gov.au/stories/a-diverse-state/against-the-odds-the-victory-over-conscription-in-world-war-one/a-legacy-of-peace-activism-in-brunswick-and-coburg/photograph-free-john-zarb/
  • Dapin, Mark, The Nasho's War: Australian national servicemen and Vietnam, Viking, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 2014
  • Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) (2007), Vietnam: Our war - our peace, Second Edition, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/media/file/vietnam-our-war-our-peace
  • Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) (2019), 'The case of John Zarb', Anzac Portal, accessed 1 November 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/events/conscription/moratoriums-and-opposition/case-john-zarb
  • Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) (2020), 'National Service' media backgrounder, 31 January, accessed 24 June 2021 https://www.dva.gov.au/newsroom/media-centre/media-backgrounders/national-service
  • Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) (2021), 'The Vietnam War', Anzac Portal, accessed 1 June 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/vietnam-war
  • Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) (undated), Nominal Roll of Vietnam Veterans, accessed 1 June 2021, https://nominal-rolls.dva.gov.au/vietnamWar
  • Farnsworth, Malcolm (undated), 'It’s Time: Whitlam’s 1972 Election Policy Speech', accessed 1 June 2021, https://whitlamdismissal.com/1972/11/13/whitlam-1972-election-policy-speech.html
  • Langford, Sue (1997), Appendix from Peter Edwards, A Nation at War: Australian politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965–1975: the official history of Australia's involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts 1948-1975, Volume VI, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, accessed 25 June 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/viet_app
  • National Archives of Australia (1967), 'Learning resource: personal particulars form for Patrick O'Hara,' B2458, 3791411, https://www.naa.gov.au/learn/learning-resources/learning-resource-themes/war/vietnam-war/vietnam-national-service-conscript-personal-particulars-form-patrick-ohara
  • National Archives of Australia (1971), 'Cabinet proposing a national service scheme – secret memorandum', A4940, C162, part 2, https://www.naa.gov.au/learn/learning-resources/learning-resource-themes/war/vietnam-war/cabinet-proposing-national-service-scheme-secret-memorandum
  • National Archives of Australia (1971), 'Cabinet decision to withdraw Australian forces from Vietnam, 1971', A5909, 319, https://www.naa.gov.au/learn/learning-resources/learning-resource-themes/war/vietnam-war/cabinet-decision-withdraw-australian-forces-vietnam-1971
  • Naughton, Kevin (2014), 'We had to bring it in': defending conscription, 50 years on', Crikey, 8 January, accessed 23 June 2021 https://www.crikey.com.au/2014/01/08/we-had-to-bring-it-in-defending-conscription-50-years-on/
  • Normie ROwe (undated), 'National Service – Training', https://normierowe.com/js_photo_albums/national-service/
  • O'Hara, Patrick, 'Birthday Ballot', video interview, Anzac Portal: Department of Veterans' Affairs, accessed 26 June 2021 https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/patrick-ohara-birthday-ballot
  • State Library of South Australia (undated), 'Conscription during World War Two', Student collection, World War Two (1939-45), https://digital.collections.slsa.sa.gov.au/nodes/view/37
  • Stephens, David (2019), 'Stephens, David: Mark Dapin: politely pushing back against Australia’s Vietnam mythology', Honest History, http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/stephens-david-mark-dapin-politely-pushing-back-against-australias-vietnam-mythology/
  • Wikipedia contributors, 2021, 'Dick Johnson (racing car driver', accessed 25 July 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Johnson_(racing_driver)
  • Wikipedia contributors, 2021, 'Peter Brock' , accessed 26 July 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Brock
  • Whitlam Dismissal, speeches, accessed 19 August 2021, https://whitlamdismissal.com/whitlam/speeches

Last updated:

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Conscription and the birthday ballot, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 July 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/events/conscription-and-birthday-ballot
Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.
CAPTCHA