Monday 15 April 2024

The Forgotten Men



The Canberra billet which I guarded in 1970. Taken in 2006 with an extra floor added. Excuse the blurry shot. 

Between November 1964 and December 1972, 804286 twenty year-old Australian men registered for what was euphemistically called national service.  

Of these, 63735 had their birthdates drawn in one of the sixteen ballots and were enlisted into the Australian Army. They were conscripts, although that word is generally not used.

Perhaps the notion of conscription does not sit well with our national narrative. History would suggest that, which may explain the endurance of the euphemism. 

Of that conscripted group, a minority (15381) served in Vietnam. I was a member of that minority. The remaining forty thousand plus served out their two year obligation in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Borneo or Malaysia. This post is about those who didn't serve in Vietnam, and as a consequence are forgotten. They had no "Welcome Home " in 1987. Nobody wrote a song about them.

Those 63735 men had a number of things in common. They were taken away from their employment and income, their homes and families, and their reasonable expectations of a future on the basis of a lottery draw. Meanwhile their unballoted peers continued with their lives unmolested.

All shared recruit training at Singleton, Puckapunyal or Kapooka depending on their state of origin, but once posted to corps, they had very different experiences. Their postings frequently had them sent to bases great distances from their homes on the Australian mainland, and in many instances overseas. 

These overseas postings included Borneo (where two died) and Papua New Guinea (serving as 'Chalkies" - teachers) in Education Corps. Service in Borneo and PNG is not considered "warlike", so these men have no entitlement to benefits accrued through active service.

Towards the end of the Australian commitment, the period of the National Service obligation was reduced from two years to eighteen months. The National Service Termination Act 1973 used the "exceptional hardship" expedient to legally process this. Towards the end of the period of National Service, these soldiers had almost become an embarrassment. 

During my Vietnam service with 7 RAR in 1970, I was posted to Saigon for about ten days late in my tour to be part of a Saigon guard. My normal situation (when not patrolling on operations) was the ATF base at Nui Dat. These guards were routine, and involved serving Infantry personnel providing security at the Australian billet in Saigon, called the "Canberra". Infantry soldiers were flown to Saigon from the ATF base at Nui Dat. The billet was attacked  during the 1968 Tet Offensive when coincidentally 7 RAR was providing security during its first tour of Vietnam.

During that quite pleasant interlude, I learned a little about the conditions of those ADF members serving in Saigon. They slept in a comfortable bed in what was a middle class Vietnamese hotel, had their laundry done by Vietnamese workers, and ate food prepared for them in the hotel kitchen. They also received a Saigon allowance meant to cover the expense of living in a comparatively expensive environment. 

Compare this experience with a national serviceman posted to an infantry battalion in Borneo. For much of the posting this soldier would be sleeping on the ground, patrolling through jungle with weapon and full kit, and completing piquets at all hours of the night. The Chalkies serving in PNG would have experienced more comfortable conditions, but were still serving in challenging tropical conditions.

Yet the soldier who served in air conditioned ATF headquarters in Saigon and slept nightly in a secure guarded billet is entitled to all the benefits accruing to a soldier on operational service. 

Those who served in Borneo, Malaysia, New Guinea and at home in Australia do not.

That is, to say the least anomalous. 

It's time it was fixed. There's not much time left. These men, like me, are in their seventies.


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Check your numbers Robert...
https://www.naa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/fs-164-national-service-1965-72.pdf

1735099 said...

The NAA numbers are wrong. Read my thesis. Any number of references (see bibliography) give the real number -https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vRTTb1LyVo2LN9xh8LOPkEXmg5TAJn-aOakK91ZIM1phDeRMRt0dRAjpQoXdHP-Ag/pub

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