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A Brief History
of National Service in Australia


A Brief Outline

Between 1951 and 1972, a total of 287,000 young Australian men were called up in two separate schemes for compulsory training in the Navy, Army and Air Force. Of them, 212 died on active service in Borneo and Vietnam. National Service was part of Australia's defence preparedness for three decades.


The Background

National Service was a product of the post-World War Two global and regional conflicts facing Australia.  These began with the Berlin blockade by the Soviet Union in 1948, the first Arab-Israeli war the same year, Communist insurgencies in Malaya and Vietnam, Communist North Korea's invasion of South Korea in 1950, the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, Confrontation with Indonesia in Borneo in 1963 and the Vietnam War.  The threat of nuclear war hung over the entire world.

The outbreak of the Korean war in 1950, coupled with the Malayan Emergency and the Viet Minh uprising against the French in Vietnam, appeared to threaten Australia directly.  Recruiting for the regular Armed Services proving insufficient, the Menzies Government re-introduced conscription which had ended in 1945.  The legislation had bi-partisan political support.

National Service was in the Australian tradition since Federation in 1901 of volunteer forces for overseas service backed up by a pool of basically trained men in the Naval Reserve, the Citizens Military Forces and the Citizens Air Force.  In the first scheme from 1951 to 1959, National Servicemen could nominate a Service preference but in practice most were allocated to units near their homes.  The Navy and Air Force gave preference to family of former personnel or members of Cadet units.  Overseas service was automatic in the Navy and Air Force.

A major change for the Army was that National Servicemen were given the option, at call-up, to volunteer for service anywhere overseas if war occurred.  Most Nashos volunteered.  Further Corps training would have been needed.  World War Two militia had been restricted to Australia and territories in the south-west Pacific.  The Korean armistice was signed in 1953 and no new direct threats developed during that decade, so the basic role of National Servicemen was as reservists.

The second scheme from 1965 to 1972 for the Borneo and Vietnam wars involved two years full-time service integrated into expanded regular Army units, with overseas deployment where required.


The First Scheme 1951-1959

In the first National Service scheme between 1951 and 1959, all young men aged 18 were called up for training in the Navy, Army and Air Force.  A total of 227,000 served in 52 intakes.

Navy: A total of 6,862 National Servicemen did their training in intakes named after Australian pioneers or explorers at HMAS Penguin in Sydney, HMAS Cerberus at Flinders Naval Depot on Westernport Bay in Victoria, HMAS Lonsdale in Melbourne and HMAS Leeuwin near Perth.   Sea service was done on ships of the Fleet.


The Army was allocated the largest proportion of men - about 198,000 - and formed ten National Service Training Battalions.  The locations of the  Battalions were: Queensland, 11 Battalion at Wacol; New South Wales, 12 Battalion at Singleton and Holsworthy, 13 Battalion at Ingleburn and 19 Battalion at Old Holsworthy and Holsworthy; Victoria, 14, 15 and 20 Battalions at Puckapunyal and Watsonia; South Australia, 16 Battalion at Woodside; Western Australia, 17 Battalion at Swanbourne; Tasmania, 18 Battalion at Brighton.

The 11th Battalion, with 1500 trainees at its peak, was the largest.  It served Queensland and Papua New Guinea.  Trainees from the northern rivers of New South Wales from Tweed Heads to Newcastle and the New England tableland were sent north to Wacol or south to Singleton and Sydney as required.  Some National Servicemen from Canberra, Queanbeyan, Yass, Goulburn and other southern NSW centres trained at Puckapunyal in Victoria.  Northern Territory and Broken Hill National Servicemen trained at Woodside in South Australia.

Air Force:  About 23,500 National Servicemen undertook their training in National Service Training Units and were allocated to Flights, corresponding to platoons, at the major air bases and depots throughout Australia including Garbutt in Townsville; Toowoomba and Oakey on the Darling Downs; Amberley and Archerfield in Brisbane; Schofield, Richmond, Rathmines, Williamtown, Bankstown, Forest Hill and Uranquinty near Wagga Wagga in New South Wales; Fairbairn in Canberra; Point Cook, Laverton, Frognall, Tottenham, Ballarat and East Sale in Victoria; Mallala near Adelaide and Pearce and Merredin near Perth.  Trainees from South Australia and Tasmania also went to Laverton.

National Service instructors were drawn from all three Services and most had World War Two, Korean, Borneo or Vietnam combat experience.  In certain cases, equivalent training was recognised as National Service.  There also were a number of voluntary National Servicemen.


Service Numbers

Navy National Service numbers were followed by NS (i.e.  4382NS) in sequence from the first intake.   An A preceded Air Force numbers.  In Army and Air Force numbers, the first digit (i.e.  2/771128 or A111409) usually indicated the State in which the trainee was residing at call up:  1 Queensland, 2 New South Wales, 3 Victoria, 4 South Australia, 5 Western Australia, 6 Tasmania and 1 (later 8) Papua New Guinea.  In Army National Service numbers the second digit was always a 7.  Some first scheme trainees from southern New South Wales had 3 prefixes.  Some voluntary National Servicemen had regular Army or CMF numbers.  First scheme Army numbers had an oblique, Vietnam-era numbers did not.


Training Period

Under the National Service Act 1951, all young men turning 18 on or after l November 1950 were required to undertake 176 days standard recruit training in the Navy, Army and Air Force, followed by five years in their respective Reserves.  The first call-up notices were issued on 12 April 1951 and the first National Servicemen, for the RAAF, marched in to Garbutt Air Force Base, Townsville, in July.

The Navy required its National Servicemen for 124 days continuous training and then thirteen days training each year for four years in the Naval Reserve.  Army trainees initially were required to serve 98 days continuous basic training followed by 78 days training in the Citizen Military Force over three years.  Army Nashos without a unit near their home, if required, returned to the nearest base to complete their obligation.  The Air Force required its trainees for a continuous 176 days.

Australians resident in Papua-New Guinea could fulfil their obligation in Australia or by six years service in the Papua-New Guinea Volunteer Rifles.  In 1955 the Navy and Air Force reduced training to 154 days and discontinued National Service in 1957.  In 1957, the Army reduced initial training to 77 days and part time service in the CMF to 63 days over two years.  It also reduced the call-up through a birthday ballot from the second intake of 1957.  The last intake of the first scheme was in August, 1959.

The Australian Government decided on 24 November 1959 to discontinue National Service and on 30 June 1960 all National Servicemen were declared to have honourably discharged their obligation.

Those in the first scheme did not see active service, except for those who enlisted and fought in Malaya, Korea, Borneo and Vietnam.  National Servicemen were on Naval ships that visited Korean waters during hostilities.  They also were at the atomic bomb tests in 1952 at the Monte Bello islands in Western

Australia and in 1956 at Maralinga in South Australia.  RAAF National Servicemen worked on aircraft that had flown through atomic clouds.  National Servicemen were placed on alert as part of a wider standby for active service during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 but the crisis passed.


The Second Scheme 1965-1972

With the outbreak of Confrontation with Indonesia between 1962 and 1966 and the Vietnam War, recruiting again was insufficient and the Government introduced the National Service Act 1964.

Men aged 20 were selected by a birthday ballot for the Army.  The Navy and Air Force did not use National Service for Vietnam.  An alternative allowed those liable to conscription to elect, a year before the ballot, to fulfil their National Service obligation by six years service in the CMF.  Some 35,000 did so until this option was abolished.

Between 30 June 1965 and 7 December 1972, a total of 63,735 were called up for two years fulltime service integrated into regular Army units.  This was reduced to 18 months in 1971.

After twelve weeks initial training at 1 Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka, NSW; 3 R.T.B.  at Singleton, NSW; or 2 R.T.B. at Puckapunyal, Victoria; National Servicemen were assigned to the many different Corps.  Most National Servicemen were allotted to the Infantry, enabling the Army to increase the Royal Australian Regiment to nine Battalions.

Of them, 150 served in Borneo in  21 and 22 Constructions Squadrons and 4RAR. 3787078 Sapper John Blacket of 21 Construction Squadron was the first National Serviceman to serve in a combat zone.  Another 15,381 served in Vietnam.  The remainder served in support units in Australia, Malaysia and Papua-New Guinea.

A total of 1,688 completed officer training at Scheyville in Sydney and were commissioned as second lieutenants.  Another 600 who were teachers were promoted to sergeant and posted to Papua-New Guinea for 12 months to educate soldiers of the Pacific Islands Regiment at Port Moresby, Goldie River, Lae and Wewak.  National Servicemen also served in PNG in Signals, Ordnance, RAEME, Small Ships, Surveying and other units.

During Confrontation with Indonesia between 1963 and 1966, the Government committed 3 and then 4 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, plus support units to Borneo All Battalions were rotated through Vietnam between 1966 and 1971.  Most but not all units gave National Servicemen the choice of active service and most volunteered.  Of them, two died in Borneo and 210 in Vietnam.  They included those who enlisted on or during call-up or re-enlisted and voluntary National Servicemen.

The McMahon Government withdrew Australian units from Vietnam in 1971.  In 1972, the Whitlam Government, using  the expedient of 'exceptional hardship', discharged National Servicemen from the Army and passed the National Service Termination Act in 1973.  The Defence Legislation Amendment Act of 1992 repealed the National Service Act 1951 but the then Labor Government retained conscription in a time of war with prior Parliamentary approval.


National Service in Review

Australia has had compulsory training in the Citizens Military Forces at various times between 1910 and 1945.  The 1951 and 1964 National Service Acts revived this with National Servicemen, after their full time service, completing their obligation in their respective Reserves.

In 1974 the CMF was reorganised as the Army Reserve.  The Citizens Air Force was absorbed into the Air Force Reserve.  The Naval Reserve remained virtually unchanged.  In 2001 the Defence Act was amended so that Reservists could be called up for overseas service.

Despite the compulsion, National Servicemen of both schemes did their training, active and reserve duties well and honourably and most regarded it as a rewarding part of their lives.

In 2001, the Australian Government recognised the contribution of National Servicemen to Australia's defence preparedness with the award of the Anniversary of National Service 1951-1972 Medal.   The bronze medal is of double-sided design with the recipient's service number and name engraved on the rim.  The front depicts the tri-service badge surmounted by the Federation star and the words 'Anniversary of National Service 1951-1972' and the other side the Southern Cross on a field of radiating lines inside a cog whee0l representing the integral role of the armed services in the Australian community.  Both sides are surmounted by the Crown.  The ribbon uses the colours of the three Services during the National Service era - Navy white, Army jungle green and RAAF light blue - and Australia's then national colours of blue and gold.  The ochre strip represents the land.   In 2006, National Servicemen, along with all other servicemen and women, were awarded the Australian Defence Medal.

Because National Service was drawn from the entire community, many National Servicemen from both schemes later rose to high positions in politics, business, the professions and the community.  They include Governors-General Bill Hayden and Dr. Peter Hollingworth; three Tasmanian Governors Sir Guy Green, William Cox and Peter Underwood; deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer and Federal Minister Wilson Tuckey; Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett; Queensland deputy Premier, Sir Llew Edwards; Major-General Rod Fay, businessmen Lindsay Fox and Sir James Hardy; television personalities Clive James and Graham Kennedy; entertainer Normie Rowe, tennis player Lew Hoad, cricketer Doug Walters and car racing legends Peter Brock and Dick Johnson.  There were Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Pacific Islander National Servicemen. 

However, the domestic divisions over the Vietnam War saw National Servicemen, particularly those who had active service, in the invidious position of not only being conscripted by a selective ballot but also subjected to public derision by some of the Australian public.  This has made both sides of politics reluctant to consider National Service to supplement chronic shortfalls in voluntary recruiting.

All National Servicemen are ex-servicemen.  They march on Anzac Day, Remembrance Day, National Service Day and Borneo and Vietnam Veterans' Days in their own right.  No women were called up for National Service.  National Servicemen marched as a contingent in the Army's Centenary Parade in Canberra in 2001.  They wear a wide variety of Service and Corps badges on their hats, caps and berets.

The late Barry Vicary founded the National Servicemen's Association of Australia in Toowoomba, Queensland, on 28 November 1987 to seek a better deal for Vietnam-era National Servicemen and a

medal recognising National Service.  When Barry learnt of the earlier and larger National Service scheme he immediately widened the organisation to include them.

The Association now has branches Australia-wide and is the second-largest ex-service organisation after the RSL.

National Servicemen added a new word to the Australian language Nasho.  National Service Day, 14 February, marks the day the last Nasho completed his Army obligation.

Amended:  January 20, 2015
Allen Callaghan - July 2009