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Valley Veterans - National Servicemen's Day, February 16

There are nearly 30 countries across the globe that still have various forms of mandatory military service.

In this day and age most Australians would not accept that our government could legislate for citizens to spend a period of time training to fight in defence of the nation.

In reality it was not that long ago that such legislation existed in this country and Australians could be called-up to conduct what was known as National Service.

SERVICE: The photo depicts the Anniversary of National Service 1951-1972 medal which was introduced in 2001. Photo: courtesy of the Department of Defence

SERVICE: The photo depicts the Anniversary of National Service 1951-1972 medal which was introduced in 2001. Photo: courtesy of the Department of Defence

The government of the day introduced the National Service Scheme in 1951, the scheme came and went in its various forms until 1972.

It only applied to men and the 1951-59 version required those selected to undergo 179 days of military training in either the Army, Navy or Air Force.

Those who chose the Army had the option to split their training between the regular Army and the Citizens Military Forces (CMF), the forerunner to today's Army Reserve. While not all 18-year-old men were selected, they were all required to register.

This scheme was introduced at a time when the government of the day saw a strategic need to increase numbers in the Defence Force, however this was at odds with defence planners who considered the post WW2 defence needs of the country did not require large troop numbers but rather smaller, better equiped and more skilled military forces. National Service in this form was binned in 1959.

The world in the early 60s was seemingly being divided up into the free world and the communist world.

Australia was aligned with the US in its fear of the spread of communism plus the level of instability in the region saw National Service come back in 1964.

The Coalition Government even legislated that National Servicemen could be sent overseas. At the time Australia was involved in tensions with Indonesia, known as Konfontasi, and drawn into supporting South Vietnam and the US in fighting against communist forces in Vietnam.

This iteration of National Service saw the requirement for all 20-year-old males to register with the Department of Labour and National Service. Men were selected using what was called the "birthday ballot", in which names were randomly selected for service by their date of birth.

This time the men were required to serve for two years in the regular army and three years part-time in the reserves.

Australian Regular Forces were heavily bolstered by these National Service men during the Vietnam War with over 15,300 of them required to serve in the war zone. Of the 521 Aussies killed in Vietnam, 202 were National Servicemen and nearly 1,300 Nashos were wounded.

I would suggest that thousands more likely carry wounds of the soul that we will never hear about. The issue of National Service generated debate among the Australian public and added ammunition to the anti-Vietnam War movement.

National Service was abolished in December 1972 as an election promise by the Whitlam Government.

A few weeks ago I spoke to the President of the Australian National Serviceman's Association, Nambucca Branch, Mr John Eather about his time as a serviceman.

He was called into National Service in 1952 and recalls there were a number of blokes from Nambucca Valley called up around the same time. John served out his time at Ingleburn training as an infantry soldier. He had no reservations about showing up for service and assumed they may be shipped off to the Korean War.

Many former National Servicemen I have spoken to from the Vietnam era have relayed to me just what a difficult time it was. On the other hand, if you ask John and and many others, they will tell you they enjoyed every minute of it.

He went on to tell me of the importance of National Servicemen's Day, a day where we as the nation honour those who served as they were legally obliged to do.

For John getting together to share the camaraderie of those that went through a common experience and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, is what the day is all about.

  • On February 16, 2020 at 11am come to the commemorative service at the Nambucca Heads Cenotaph (RSL carpark) and remember the Nashos. Lest we forget.

Author Mick Birtles is a Distinguished Service Cross recipient who served over 30 years as an officer in the Australian Army before retiring to Nambucca.

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