TUMBY BAY - In late 1964 Australia passed the National Service Act. The Act required selected 20-year old men to serve in the army for two years, followed by three years in the Army Reserve.
The Act was amended in 1965 to allow conscripts to serve overseas. The following year the prime minister announced that national servicemen would be sent to Vietnam, where a ferocious war was being fought, to serve with regular Australian army units.
Those eight years when conscription was in force were stressful and confusing for many young men of eligible age, including those in the Territory of Papua New Guinea who weren’t really sure whether they had to register or not.
Young Australian men who were living overseas didn’t have to register. Papua was an Australian territory so young men working there were technically not overseas while New Guinea was a United Nations trust territory and young men there were technically overseas.
When I turned 20 I was in the Western Highlands so I wrote to the Department of Labour and National Service to enquire whether I was required to register.
By the time I got a response I was in the Star Mountains in Papua. Did this change the situation?
The twice yearly ballots to select those who had to undergo national service involved a lottery style selection, complete with a barrel and marbles. If your birthdate came up you had to enlist, if it didn’t you missed out.
The results of the lotteries were kept secret for a long time. If I had enlisted I would have been in the seventh ballot and the secrecy didn’t end until after the eleventh ballot.
We had heard rumours that a couple of kiaps had been called up and that there were attempts to get a general exemption for the rest of us but I don’t recall ever receiving any firm advice about this.
At the time I didn’t have any opinion about whether the war in Vietnam was just or unjust but I did have an opinion about Australia’s involvement in military adventurism and expressed this in my letters to the department.
I later took part in an anti-Vietnam War march while on leave and this hardened my attitude to the war and conscription in general.
In late 1969 I eventually got a letter from the Department of Labour and National Service telling me I did not need to register. No reason given; maybe the rumour about the general exemption was true. Maybe Port Moresby had just forgotten to tell those of us living on remote patrol posts, who knows?
As it turned out, even if I had registered, my marble hadn’t come up in the ballot. It was close but not close enough.
I suspected that even if it had come up I would have been deemed medically unfit because I had flat feet. Which would have been a bit ironic because there I was hiking through the rugged Star Mountains with policemen and carriers who also had flat feet.
In 1973 the newly elected Labor government, which had fiercely opposed conscription, moved quickly to abolish the system.
There is an interesting addendum to this affair. My son left university and joined the army in the mid-1990s, serving in Timor before being selected for officer training at Duntroon and subsequently serving in Iraq.
At his interview for Duntroon he was presented with copies of my old correspondence with the Department of Labour and National Service and asked what he thought. I hadn’t told him about them or their content and he was surprised. He must have given the right answers however.
He left the army after 10 years and by that time our views on military adventurism and the reasons why it happens were pretty much the same.
Unfortunately Australia still seems to poke its nose into wars that have very little relevance for us.
Our editor informs me that his marble was drawn in the ballot for what would have been the first draft of boys born in January 1945. So, it seems, did the marbles of most boys born that month.
The government must have been pretty worried they’d discover a lot of young Australians with flat feet.
By the way, Keith also wrote to Canberra from his outpost in the PNG Highlands to ask if he was eligible to join the forces anyway. He was told that, living in New Guinea, he was not so entitled. Like me, he was soon demonstrating against a war he had come to believe was not one Australia should have been fighting.