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
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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
birthday was drawn 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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
- Why was conscription introduced during the Vietnam War?
- What was the impact of conscription on Australian society?
- Learn about Private Errol Noack, one of Australia's first conscripts and the first to be killed in Vietnam.
- Listen to oral histories in Vietnam war stories.
- Explore sources from the Vietnam War.
- Read a secret memorandum recommending introduction of conscription.
- Examine Vietnam Moratorium posters.
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