During a nation-wide anti-conscription campaign by the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS), about 40 University of Queensland students planned to march in support of this initiative on 5th October, 1966. The demonstrators attempted to march the 8 kilometers from the university campus along the footpath (sidewalk) to Brisbane's city centre. Police prevented the protestors from marching forcing their return to campus. Many were arrested. Eye witnesses report the use of excessive police force (not photographed in this film record). After a public forum at the university to further discuss the issues and tactics, student protestors decided to drive to the city by car in order to continue their anti-conscription demonstration in central Brisbane. The demonstration was broken up by police with more arrests made. Twenty-seven people were arrested throughout the day (a majority of the demonstrators).
Early the following year, four of those arrested elected to go jail rather than pay their fines
1. Gail Salmon - $6 fine (incarcerated 3 days in Boggo Road Jail, 1-3 February 1967)
2. Barbara Jane Gaines - $16 fine (incarcerated 3 days in Boggo Road Jail, 1-3 February 1967)
3. Mitch Thompson (incarcerated 3 days in Boggo Road Jail in solitary confinement, 1-3 February 1967)
4. Brian Laver - $10 fine (incarcerated 6 days Boggo Road Jail, 10-16 January 1967)
Laver is seen briefly in the film at 00:21 seconds.
In a wide-spread campaign that followed, attention was focused on the issue of fundamental citizen's rights (free speech etc.), resulting in a historic march for civil liberties on 8 September, 1967, which was supported by over half the university population. Footage and a description of this march can be seen above.
Film courtesy of Bruce Dickson (Fryer Library collection)
In November 1964, the Australian Menzies Government introduced compulsory conscription, known as National Service.
All 20 year-old Australians males were eligible for selection in a lottery based on birth date. The conscripts were obligated to give two years continuous full-time service, followed by a further three years on the active reserve list. (Later, in 1971, the full-time service requirement was reduced to eighteen months.)
In May 1965, the Defense Act was amended so that National Servicemen could be ordered to serve overseas. Then in March 1966, the Australian Government announced that National Servicemen would be sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army.
The popular belief was that the National Service scheme was conceived specifically for the war in Vietnam. Although not the original intention of the legislation, the timing of events and Australia’s growing commitment to the war made it appear so.
Men who wished to avoid National Service could join the Citizen Military Forces and serve only inside Australia, claim a student deferment, or attempt a conscientious objection application. In order to be exempted on the basis of conscientious objection, an applicant needed to demonstrate objection to all war, not just one specific war. The ruling was decided in a hearing held in a court and the successful granting of exemption was an extremely difficult undertaking. This meant that the rate of success for conscientious objection applications was generally low.
To add to the unpopularity of conscription, the 20-year old conscripts that were being called up were not eligible to vote at the time.
Many young men refused to register and were supported by citizens opposed to conscription.
During the late 1960s, domestic opposition to the Vietnam War, and also opposition to conscription, grew in Australia. By 1969 public opinion was turning against the war. A Gallup Poll in August 1969 showed that 55 per cent of those surveyed favoured bringing Australian troops home, and only 40 per cent favoured them staying. This trend of general unpopularity continued for the remainder of the war in Vietnam.
In late December, 1972, conscription was ended as one of the first acts of the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government.
The next year, Australia's commitment to the war in Vietnam ended in June 1973 with the withdrawal of the last Australian Troops. Australia's military involvement in the Vietnam War was the longest in duration of any war in Australian history.
Between 1964 and 1972, a total of 804,286 twenty-year-olds had registered for National Service. Of that total number, 63,735 National Servicemen served in the military. 19,450 of those conscripts served in Vietnam, all with the army.
Between 1966 and 1971, Australian infantry battalions were typically comprised of an even mix of regular soldiers and national servicemen. Some 200 national servicemen lost their lives in Vietnam and over a thousand more were wounded.
The Vietnam War was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War.
Private Errol Wayne Noack was the first Australian conscript killed in Vietnam. He was shot dead at the junction of two creeks in thick jungle at dusk on 24th May, 1966. Noack was just 21 years old.
Much controversy still surrounds his death. The official version was that he was killed by a Viet Cong sniper as he prepared to fill a water bottle. However, the other Australian soldiers present at the time believe Noack was mistaken as enemy and shot by a soldier from another rifle company, unaware that another Australian patrol was in close proximity.
Since Errol Wayne Noack was a conscript and because he was the first killed on the first day of battle, for many Noack's death stands as a symbol of the tragic mistake of Australia's involvement in Vietnam.