Unknown Soldiers: Australian Jewish National Servicemen in the Vietnam War

In his history of the Scheyville Officer Training Unit (OTU), where conscripted junior army officers were mass-produced in haste during the 1964-72 national-service scheme, author Roger Donnelly quotes a Scheyville graduate named ‘Tub Matheson’ (actually Hector Munro Matheson) who recalls his thoughts upon learning he was to be called-up as, ‘The bastards! Why me? What about my Melbourne High School Jewish mates?’ Donnelly explains, ‘Between 15 and 20 per cent of the sixth form were Jewish, but not one of them was drafted. To Tub Matheson, this seemed like a system of selective National Service in action.’[1] It’s difficult to know what either Donnelly or Matheson actually meant by this. Conscription during the Vietnam War-era was selective. Nobody in government, the military, the press or the public ever claimed otherwise. Both Donnelly and Matheson were fully aware of the mechanics of the process: at six-monthly intervals, beginning on 10 March 1965 and ending on 22 September 1972, the birthdates of every 20-year-old male who had become eligible for national service were encoded onto so-called ‘marbles’, which were spun in a superannuated Tatts Lotto barrel and drawn in numbers commensurate with the army’s manpower requirements.

Every eligible Australian received a letter notifying him that he had been either called up or had his service indefinitely deferred. Matheson would have opened his letter of notification at the age of 20, when he was no longer at Melbourne High or even in Victoria. According to an oral history interview he gave in 1994, he was in fact working as a pilot in Wyndham, WA, one of the furthest towns from Melbourne in Australia.[2] It is unclear how he could have known, upon discovering his own fate, that all his Jewish classmates had avoided the same. Almost parodically, Donnelly explains, ‘Some of the Jews in his class were and still are friends.’[3] And no doubt some of his best friends are Jews. But, like so many stories about national service and the Vietnam War, Matheson’s ‘memory’ seems designed to illustrate a point – in this case, that Jews habitually avoided national service – rather than describe any event that actually occurred.

In this paper I will try to separate the folklore from the facts of the Jewish experience of national service in the Vietnam War. I will first illustrate the workings of the national-service scheme, particularly as they related to ethnic and religious minorities, then I will describe the results of my attempts to trace Jewish men who went to Vietnam as national servicemen. I will then give a brief overview of known sources relating to their individual service. Next, I will isolate the unique factors that may have coloured Jewish conscripts’ service in the Australian army in Vietnam – that is, the experience of anti-Semitism (or even philo-Semitism); and the possibilities for Jewish religious observance. I will then return to Scheyville to further examine Matheson’s ideas. In conclusion, I will canvass some theories as to why Jewish men were under-represented – as the undeniably were (although not to the extent previously believed) – among national servicemen in Vietnam. While this was partly due to opposition to the war and conscription among a certain segment of politicised Jewish youth (and their elders), I will argue that the significance of the so-called ‘New Left’ (and, indeed, the old left) has perhaps been overplayed and, although men such as Albert Langer may have provided a radical public face for Jewish youth and students, other young Jewish people were as conservative, apolitical or, indeed, excited by the opportunity for military service, as many others in Australian society in the overwhelmingly conformist Australia of the 1960s.

During the national-service years, more than 63,000 young men were called up and went into the army. Of these, about 15,200 served in Vietnam. This figure – once thought to be closer to 19,000 – has been downwardly revised over the years. While the majority of ‘nashos’ remained in Australia throughout their brief military careers, a small number were sent to Papua and New Guinea, and larger groups to Malaysia and Singapore. The scheme is often remembered as unpopular and socially divisive whereas, in fact, it was initially wildly popular and seen as a tool to build greater social cohesion. It was held by both the government and the Department of Labour and National Service, which administered the scheme, that the ballot was the only fair and equitable means of selecting conscripts for military service. There were no protected occupations – farm workers served alongside factory hands, police officers drilled with labourers, coal miners trained with scientists. Only ministers of religion, students of theology and diplomats (the latter category unlikely to include many 20 year olds) were automatically exempted. And yet pretty much every minority in Australian society – racial, sexual and religious – was under-represented in the national-service scheme. The call up of so-called ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal men was unlawful until 1967, and the administrative procedures necessary to facilitate their incorporation in the army were never subsequently implemented. This was due to practical considerations more than ideological concerns: aside from everything else, it was difficult to apply an equitable birthdate ballot to people whose birthdates often went unrecorded.[4]

Declared homosexuals were barred from service. Individual Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers and members of other esoteric or pacifist Christian sects regularly applied for, and were granted, exemption from service on religious grounds. While some possibly entered the army confined to non-combatant duties, it seems unlikely any were ever posted to Vietnam. But this exemption was not available to Jews, whose religion did not preach pacifism and whose nominal state, Israel, did not practice it. Non-British migrants who had not been naturalised were also excluded from the ballot until 1967. While Jews of British origin might expect to be drafted in the same numbers as any other British citizens, only very small numbers from any migrant community were caught up in the scheme. There were an estimated 154,000 non-naturalised migrants from Italy; 99,000 Greeks; and 51,000 non-naturalised Dutch in Australia in the mid-1960s.[5] When the prime minister asked what effect the changes might have on these population groups, he was informed that ‘as the intake of alien national servicemen is unlikely to commence before 1968, it appears fairly certain that there will not be any aliens, as national servicemen, serving in Vietnam before 1969.’ In addition, the DLNS had found the number of 20 year olds registering for national service was ‘progressively increasing’. This was thought to be due to ‘the higher birthrate after the war, immigration since the war and other like factors’, but once again seems to have come as a surprise to the authorities. But it was now clear that ‘the percentage of those registering who will be called up, will drop in the next few years’, and it was thought that only about 93 Italians, 73 Greeks and 55 Dutch might be conscripted in 1968, of whom about 15 Italians, 12 Greeks and 9 Dutch would serve in Vietnam.

It is unknown how many non-naturalised young male Jewish migrants were living in Australia in the 1960s, but none of them would have been called up before 1968 or, if they were balloted in, sent to Vietnam before 1969. Parenthetically, it seems unlikely that more recent migrants from any non-English-speaking background were ever proportionately represented in the army, as the DLNS recognised early on that a proportion of recently arrived ‘resident aliens’ from many communities would probably fail the army’s language and literacy tests (although this was unlikely to have had much of an effect on European Jewish migrants).[6]

Historically, both Jewish people and Vietnam veterans have sometimes been reluctant to declare themselves, but questions of Australian Jewish involvement in the national-service scheme and the Vietnam War have coloured two of my recent projects. The first, a popular military history book, The Nashos’ War, was published in 2014, and represented the fruit of more than 150 long, semi-structured oral-history interviews, predominantly conducted face-to-face with former national servicemen, most of whom were Vietnam veterans. I consciously sought out Jewish veterans to contribute to The Nashos’ War. My sampling process was desperately unscientific. I was simply looking for men with interesting – and, where possible, untold – stories, and I felt the narratives of Jewish veterans would probably meet both criteria. I spoke to three men: David and Loris Roubin, and David Wittner, whose sharply contrasting stories did indeed lend colour and depth to my narrative. I also interviewed Leon and Henry Nissen, twin Jewish boxers who were balloted in for national service but, in common with the great majority of conscripts, did not serve in Vietnam.

The second of my works to deal with Jewish national servicemen is an as-yet-incomplete historical study of Jews in the Australian military, to be published by the Sydney Jewish Museum in 2016. For this volume, I hoped to track down every Jewish Vietnam veteran known to the community. I petitioned every extant Jewish ex-service-people’s organisation in every state, as well as independent researchers such as Ben Hirsch and Russell Stern, while advertisements and feature articles appeared in the Australian Jewish News, appealing to Jewish veterans of any conflict – or their family members – to come forward.

The only serious study of Jewish involvement in the Vietnam War is Philip Mendes’ admirable The New Left, the Jews, and the Vietnam War, which concentrates on the role of individual Jewish activists in the various anti-war and anti-conscription movements. In an endnote to the book, Mendes writes, ‘The only known Jewish Vietnam veterans are Andrew Varga, Captain Paul Cohen, Dr David Rothfield, Stratton Joel and Michael Cass. Henry and Leon Nissen, Alan Bloom and Alex Copperfield were apparently conscripted, but weren’t posted to Vietnam.’[7]

Of these men, Cohen was a regular soldier, and Rothfield a member of the CMF, a reserve force. While there was a regular soldier named Michael Cass, from Victoria, who served in Vietnam in both 9RAR and the Civil Affairs Unit, and may or may not have been Jewish, it’s possible Mendes confused him with Lance-Corporal Geoffrey Cass, a 9RAR veteran from Perth who is certainly Jewish. ‘Stratton Joel’ is actually Stretton Joel, a Perth-born national serviceman whose father was Jewish, and the first cousin of Rabbi John Levi.[8]

Mendes was unaware of the Roubin brothers or Wittner, but – even with the addition of their three names to Mendes’ total – it seemed unlikely to me that there would have only been five ‘fully’ Jewish national servicemen in Vietnam. In the 1960s, Jewish people made up about 0.6 per cent of the Australian population (an estimated 67,000 out of 10.4 million). If they had been proportionately represented among the 15,200 national servicemen in South Vietnam, there should have been a total of about 91 Jewish men in the cohort. This seemed unlikely too when, only 20 years after the end of the conflict, a researcher as careful as Mendes (whose primary concerns, admittedly, were elsewhere) only knew of two.

Unfortunately, there are certain difficulties involved in tracing Jewish Vietnam veterans, the first being the Australian army does not keep records of personnel categorised according to religion. Redacted versions of the service records of Vietnam veterans are publicly available, although each individual record requires a clearance period of several months before the National Archives will release it. The only way to be certain of the true number of men who declared themselves as Jewish and fought as national servicemen in Vietnam would be to examine the records of every one of the more than 16,000 national servicemen whose names appear on the Nominal Roll of Vietnam Veterans (some of whom appear to be have been regular soldiers misclassified as conscripts). Even then, this would not capture those who did not wish to reveal their Jewishness in the military. For the Sydney Jewish Museum’s book, I have made several attempts to isolate common Jewish names from the Nominal Roll of Vietnam Veterans, and call in the service records of Jewish-sounding men to identify their professed faith, but we live in a cruel world in which even men with names such Jack Jewry are Christian, and a man named Jim Vyner Isaacs somehow contrives not to be Jewish, whereas a Vietnam veteran called Warren Garth Austin belongs to a longstanding Jewish family in WA. Some men with common Jewish surnames could be ruled out simply by their first name. I investigated, for instance, the Roths, but judged that a man by the name Adolf Roth (born 1949) demanded no further probing.

In all, I have been able to identify only an additional seven national-service Vietnam veterans to those mentioned in The Nashos’ War or Mendes. These are Warren Austin, David Buckwalter, Graham DeVries, Robert Edelman, Ian Hayat, Dr Ian Isaacs, John Selan and Amic Schneider. All turned out to be known to members of the community either through their connections with ex-servicepeople’s organisations or the efforts of the independent researchers. Surprisingly, two other Vietnam veterans known within the community – Charles Matheson and Paul Kinney – are actually ‘Jews by choice’, men who had married Jewish women and converted some time after the Vietnam War.

It seems likely there should be more veterans. Austin, Cass, Edelman and Schneider (and Stretton Joel) are all from WA; the two Roubins from Queensland. It seems improbable that Buckwalter and Isaacs were the only national servicemen from NSW to end up in Vietnam – but perhaps not as unlikely as the fact that there were three eligible Roubin brothers, all of them were called up (although the third, Gary, who was training to be a veterinary surgeon, was able to defer his service until conscription was abolished) and two went to Vietnam.

In the US, about 30,000 Jews are thought to have served in the Vietnam War.[9] If this figure is correct, Jews accounted for about 1.2 per cent of the US military effort in Vietnam, whereas Jewish numbers in the population would suggest they should have made up 2.7 per cent. The US figure is not divided between draftees and regular soldiers, so it’s not possible to make an exact comparison with the number of Australian national servicemen. My own researches suggest that, although regular soldiers made up about two-thirds of the Australian army’s strength in Vietnam, national servicemen would have comprised the majority of its Jewish component. Specifically, to date, I have only been able to find two verifiably Jewish regular soldiers – Paul Cohen and Zev Ben-Avi – in the regular army in Vietnam.

My hypothesis at this stage of the study is that, just as both Australia’s Vietnam War and the development of its anti-war movement largely mirrored the situation in the US, the percentage of Jewish Australian national servicemen was roughly similar too, and the final figure might be closer to 35 men. Unfortunately, it would be virtually impossible conclusively to either prove or disprove this proposition. However, in an unpublished memoir held by his family, Rabbi Dr Alfred Fabian, senior chaplain to the Australian Army 1962-75, estimates there were no more than 100 Jews in the army at any time during his tenure, and no Australian Jewish army chaplain ever visited the troops in Vietnam. Rabbi Fabian wrote:

I was instrumental in obtaining, from time to time, lists of those serving in the Regular Army and passed them on to the local Chaplains, also dealing with them myself whenever necessary. – During the Vietnam War, I was in contact with the very few Jewish Army people serving there [and] also enlisted the help of USA Jewish Chaplains on the spot for their assistance to our personnel. My fellow Chaplains-General all made visits to Vietnam and made contact with Jewish members of the Forces at my request, but in my case it would have been completely unwarranted to apply for this expensive trip, just to see perhaps 2 or 3 people … I completely accepted this position and still think it wise not to have requested something which, I felt, was not justified and would have been rejected.[10]

(Rabbi Fabian uses the term ‘Regular Army’ to separate full-time soldiers, whether national servicemen or otherwise, from CMF men.)

Aside from Rabbi Fabian’s memoir – which says nothing about individual cases in Vietnam –primary sources are scarce, although the late Captain Ian Isaacs wrote home to his family from Vietnam almost every second day of his 1970-71 tour, and his wife has kept the letters. Conversely, there is a slightly higher number of secondary sources than might be imagined. David Buckwalter was interviewed for – and quoted fairly extensively within – Charles Mollison’s Long Tan and Beyond: Alpha Company 6RAR in Vietnam 1966-67. Robert Edelman’s memories of Tim Fischer at the Battle of Coral appear in Fischer’s authorised biography, The Boy from Boree Creek. An unfortunate incident involving Stretton Joel and an armoured vehicle is recorded in Paul Anderson’s When the Scorpion Stings: The History of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, South Vietnam 1965–72. The late Andrew Varga’s life both before and during Vietnam often intersects with his friend Frank Benko’s narrative in Benko’s self-published but sometimes cited memoir 730 and a Wakey. None of these books make any mention of the men’s Jewishness.

Philip Mendes interviewed Andrew Varga for The New Left, the Jews, and the Vietnam War, speaking to him both individually and in the company of Melbourne Jewish anti-war activist Dave Nadel. Mendes kindly gave me copies of the transcripts of both sessions. Shannon Maguire at the Sydney Jewish Museum had interviewed David Roubin for the museum’s permanent exhibition ‘Serving Australia: the Jewish Involvement in Australian Military History’, and the museum made the transcript available to me. Varga and Isaacs had passed away before my research began. However, I have interviewed Austin, Buckwalter, DeVries, Edelman, Joel, both Roubins (although the elder, David, has since died), and Wittner in person, and Selan, Bass and Hayat by telephone.

There appears to be only one published book that deals as a group with US Jewish Vietnam veterans – Eric Lee’s self-explanatory Saigon to Jerusalem: Conversations with US Veterans of the Vietnam War who Emigrated to Israel. In a piece for Vietnam magazine, Lee wrote:

One of the subjects which came up repeatedly in the interviews was the question: was there a uniquely Jewish experience in the Vietnam war? Most of the nineteen men I spoke to said that there was not.… Nevertheless, a number of the Jewish veterans I spoke with did recall some of the Jewish holidays and even the June, 1967 Six Day War in which Israel swiftly defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria. ‘We were in Vietnam when the Six Day War broke out,’ recounted journalist William Northrop, a Special Forces officer who was wounded at Lang Vei in 1968. ‘We didn’t hear anything. All we knew was what the Arabs were saying. The Israelis were quiet; they weren’t bragging about anything. I remember listening to Armed Forces radio. There was nothing coming out of Israel. ‘Hell, all of a sudden, three, four days later, the Jews were sitting on the [Suez] canal. I mean, it was over. I thought it sure would be nice to win a war in six days.’[11]

Unfortunately, Lee’s hard work in tracking down 19 subjects for his study was undermined when it transpired that he’d apparently been taken in by an example of that curiously ubiquitous figure, the fake Vietnam veteran. ‘Special Forces officer’ Northrop, who claimed to have served in both the US Army in Vietnam and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was revealed in a later work, B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley’s Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History, to have been a member of neither, and is highly unlikely to have been in Vietnam at the start of the Six Day War. (Despite this, after Saigon to Jerusalem was published but before his deception was revealed, Northrop felt able to stand up at the first ever meeting of Vietnam veterans in Israel and proclaim, ‘Because of this book, we’re all feeling a little prouder, and standing a little taller.’[12])

Interestingly, Lee tried to find any Australian Vietnam veterans who might have settled in Israel but said later that ‘despite the great help of the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv – and they were much more helpful than the American embassy – the closest I came was an Israeli who had claimed to serve for a couple of weeks with Australian forces. I decided not to interview him.’[13]

The national scheme of 1965-72 was a product of the Menzies’ government’s apprehension that the Australian army, which had languished neglected for many years under Menzies’ watch, and been stretched to near breaking point by an earlier ‘universal’ national-service scheme, might be called upon to fight simultaneously on three fronts. The worst projections had Australia at war with Indonesia in Malaya, battling Indonesian-inspired subversion in New Guinea, and fulfilling its SEATO commitments to defend South Vietnam, all at the same time. In order to quickly expand the army to a size able to cope with these potential commitments, the government deemed it necessary to introduce a selective national-service scheme, with candidates selected by the birthday ballot described earlier in this paper. National service applied to the army alone. Men served for a two-year period, which was eventually reduced to 18 months. At three-monthly intervals, an average of about 2100 fresh national servicemen was marched into Recruit Training Battalions at Puckapunyal, Kapooka and, later, Singleton, for ten weeks of basic training. The most able and educated candidates were given the chance to apply for the gruelling six-month programme at Scheyville, the rest were posted for further training among every corps in the army, from the service corps to the engineers, the medical corps to infantry. A man could defer until he had completed his apprenticeship, his university degree, his school-teaching practice, or his medical or law degree and associated probationary period before he obtained his professional qualification. A 20-year-old man called up in 1945, in the earliest stages of a medical degree, might have five more years of study to go, and therefore not join the army until 1970, as was the case with Dr Ian Isaacs. As no Australian soldier was sent directly to Vietnam, without having had some experience within his own corps in Australia, a doctor – or lawyer, or dentist – who was drafted in early 1970 might not be posted to Vietnam until late 1970, by which time the drawdown of Australian troops had already begun. As the majority of national servicemen had been withdrawn by the end of 1971, there was little more than a one-year window in which medical or legal professionals would have been most likely to go to Vietnam as conscripts, and those born after 1947 would probably never be posted overseas. Similar, less extreme calculations apply to men undertaking apprenticeships, undergraduate degrees, certain post-graduate courses, and teacher training.
As stated above, I have interviewed 11 of the 13 identified Jewish national servicemen. This might comprise anywhere up to 100 per cent of living Jewish national-service Vietnam veterans. Whatever the case although the number is small, the proportion of the sample in relation to the known cohort is huge. Of the three men I was not able to interview, I have been able to gather a small amount of information from public sources, including service records.

Of the full sample of veterans, six (46 per cent) were born in 1945 and a further 4 (31 per cent in 1946. None were born in 1947, two (15 per cent) were born in 1948, two (15 per cent) in 1949, and none in 1950. The first Jewish national serviceman to enter the army and subsequently go to Vietnam was David Roubin, who was also the only Jewish officer cadet in the first intake at Scheyville. David Roubin was born in May 1945, entered the army in June 1965, and had to extend his national service to get to Vietnam in October 1967. David Roubin was working as a trainee manager in a retail store, and was therefore not eligible for any deferment. This makes him a rare case among the sample. Graham DeVries was born on the same day as Roubin, but was studying for a law degree and was not posted overseas until October 1969. Dr Ian Isaacs, mentioned above, was born in February 1945, but did not arrive in Vietnam until October 1970. David Buckwalter, also born in February 1945, was the first of the sample to reach Vietnam, as a private soldier with 6RAR in August 1966. Warren Austin, born in October 1945, was more typical, having deferred until he completed his nursing training and reached Vietnam in June 1968. Bob Edelman, a cabinetmaker, was born in September 1945, but also deferred, and did not reach Vietnam with 1RAR until March 1968. This data demonstrates both the range of possible march-in and deployment dates for national servicemen born in 1945, whose eventual period of service might span almost all of Australia’s Vietnam War. Dr Isaacs, who was called up in the first ballot, which had been held in 1965, before Australia had even sent its first battalion of regular soldiers to Vietnam, did not leave Vietnam until October 1971, when Australia’s part in the war was all but over.

Of the full sample, four (31 per cent) were born overseas, in a spread of locations that demonstrate the range of origins of post-war Australia’s Jewish community. Edelman was born in Russia; Schneider in Palestine; Varga in Hungary; Selan in Germany. Only two (15 per cent) were officers – Roubin was a second lieutenant, Dr Isaacs a captain.

Three men (22.5 per cent) served in infantry battalions, including Buckwalter, who was Mentioned in Dispatches. Other troops in combat units included Schneider who, although a medic, was one of the few national servicemen ever posted to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) and who spent much of his time in villages outside the Australian bases; and Varga who, both by his own account and the more reliable testimony of his friend Frank Benko, while posted to 17 Construction Squadron in Vung Tau, chose to go out on patrol at times with the field engineers. Dr Isaacs, while posted to two different artillery regiments, actually served as a doctor in those units. The other six Jewish soldiers (45 per cent) were with support units. DeVries served in the Royal Australian Army Service Corps (RAASC); David Roubin and Hayat in the Royal Australian Army Ordnance Corps (RAAOC); Loris Roubin, David Wittner and Warren Austin in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (RAAMC) (although Austin was posted to Nui Dat); and John Selan in the Royal Australian Army Dental Corps (RAADC). Aside from the over-representation of the RAAMC, these figures are not too far off what might be expected from any sample of 13 national servicemen. According to the most complete source, which relates to the years 1969-70[14], 25 per cent of trained national servicemen – by the far the largest proportion – belonged to infantry battalions, and infantry numbers were more or less two-thirds larger than engineers and artillery. The RAASC employed by the far the largest number of support troops. But the RAAMC took only about 3 per cent of all conscripts, as opposed to 22.5 per cent of the known Jewish conscript cohort.

The army sometimes made use of national servicemen’s civilian training when allocating their postings. For example, a police officer in civilian life might become a military policeman, and a civilian engineer was likely to serve as an engineer. However, the army’s manpower requirements did not reflect the occupational spread of civil society. The army had little idea how to usefully employ, for example, the large number of freshly trained schoolteachers who flooded the first annual national-service intake once every year from 1967. But there was a reliable demand for trained medical staff in Vietnam. Dr Isaacs was employed as a doctor; Schneider at the AATTV was a civilian-trained nurse; Wittner was a radiographer who worked as radiographer in Vietnam; and Selan was a dental technician both in civilian life and the army. Only Loris Roubin, a former business student, and Austin, a time-served printer, received as their only medical training the army’s own three-month medics course. Therefore, the over-representation of Jewish national servicemen in medical postings probably reflected an over-representation of Jews in medical employment in civilian life.

It’s worth noting these medical positions generally carried a rank of at least lance-corporal, as did most RAASC jobs. DeVries, Austin, Schneider, Wittner, Selan and Hayat were all NCOs by virtue of their role; and Cass, a sometime forward scout, was promoted to lance-corporal while serving in the infantry. Therefore, a full 52.5 per cent of known Jewish national servicemen were NCOs, in addition to the 15 per cent who were officers noted above. This does not reflect the spread of ranks among national servicemen in the army more broadly, where only 10.1 per cent of conscripts gained non-commissioned rank.[15]

If there was a distinct experience for national servicemen in the Australian army – that is, if they endured or enjoyed conditions that might differ from those of non-Jewish conscripts – it could probably only be divided into two categories: (1) the experience or otherwise of anti-Semitism (or, for that matter, philo-Semitism) in training or on active service, in Australia or in Vietnam; (2) the provision or otherwise of facilities and opportunities for religious observance, particularly on the high holidays.
Of the 11 men I interviewed, David Roubin spoke of a kind of benevolent curiosity in office training, and Ami Schneider described a largely pro-Zionist atmosphere in the Australian army. Three men (27.25 per cent) reported anti-Semitism in recruit training.

Roubin recalled at Scheyville:

I was the only Jewish boy … I can remember being visited by so many different chaplains – they’d come and knock on my door and most of them had never seen a Jew before, particularly not in the army. They’d want to know how I was, was I having any difficulties, did I need any special food, all that type of thing. They all came to have a look at me. They were amazed I didn’t have horns growing out of my head or a long beard.[16]

Schneider said:

I never advertised my religion, but I was very proud to be known as an Israeli. People don’t walked around saying, ‘I’m a Catholic, I’m an Anglican, I’m a Muslim,’ but they’ll say, ‘I’m an Iraqi, I’m English, I’m Australian.’ But, then again, as soon as I said I was Israeli, everybody assumed straight away that I’m Jewish. [Their reaction was] good, good, very good. It was just after one of the wars, and all the guys in the platoons hated the Arabs. Wow. You’ve got no idea how much the Australian population hated the Arabs – not so much the Muslims but the Arabs – in 1970. God, I was so happy. I was at home. I’ve never had any problems whatsoever. I was Jewish, but I never told anyone I was Jewish. [17]

John Selan said he had problems with an NCO at Puckapunyal in 1970:

On the first day that they lined us up in the barracks, they called the roll and he called out, ‘Selan! Where’s that from?’ Defensively, I said, ‘Poland.’ And he said, ‘What is it? Where’re you from?’ I said, ‘I was born in Germany.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re German.’ I said, ‘Not exactly.’ This questioning went on and, of course, he had on the registry, written next to me, ‘Jew’. I said, ‘What do you want to know? I’m Jewish, is that want you want?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I just wanted you to say it.’ So already there was a hundred guys standing to attention he wanted to know I was a Jew. He said, ‘You’re Jewish, are you? I’ve got a job for you.’ The huts are about a foot or two off the ground, and you can see underneath them. They’re on stumps. They used to drink, and throw the beer bottles underneath the hut. He said, ‘I want you to crawl under the hut and get all the empty beer bottles and take them to the canteen.’ In those days, you used to get money back for the empty beer bottles. ‘You can go and do that, and you can keep the money.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re one of those rich Jews, are you?’ Through basic training, he rode me the whole time about the fact I was Jewish. This guy’d probably never met a Jew, but he was an anti-Semite. When we went to weapons training, he’d pull me up and, if you were running behind someone with your weapon: ‘You would’ve killed him. Ah, you wouldn’t have cared because you’re a Jew, aren’t you?’

I was lucky because at Puckapunyal there was a dental unit, and they found out I was a qualified dental technician, and they pulled me out of basic training and said, ‘You’d better come to the laboratory. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Can you help out?’ He wasn’t too happy about that, because he perceived that as a Jew I had some sort of contact to get me out of some of basic training.[18]

David Wittner faced mild name-calling by an NCO at Puckapunyal:

There was hundreds of us, all lined up in one line, and they made an announcement for any Muslims or Jews to take a couple of steps forward, so I did that, and one other guy took a couple of steps forward. They came up to us and said, ‘Do you want to see a rabbi?” I said, ‘No’ ‘Do you want any dietary considerations?’ I said, ‘No,’ They said, ‘Okay, step back in the line.’ And then, for the ten weeks I was at Puckapunyal one of the NCOs called me ‘Pork Chop’ but I just regarded him as an ignorant sort of dickhead anyhow. That didn’t worry me. He was a lance corporal and when I was in Vietnam he actually came in as a patient, and he noticed I had the two stripes. He acknowledged that and said, ‘Well done.’ He was harmless enough.

Loris Roubin said he was ‘singled out’ for being Jewish both in recruit training and Vietnam. He is the only national serviceman to have mentioned anti-Semitism among Australian troops in Vietnam.


Loris Roubin’s experience of anti-Semitism relates to the most moving episode of religious observance related by any of the sample. Roubin said an army chaplain came to visit him in Vung Tau in April 1971:

He said, ‘I believe your Passover is coming up in two days, and I was wondering if you’d like some special food.’ I hadn’t asked for kosher. I was eating whatever they served. I said, ‘No, look, it’s all right.’ He asked, ‘Is there anything else I could do for you?’ The next thing I knew, he had told me to go to the airport at Vung Tau and find my way to Nui Dat. From Nui Dat I could hitch a lift to Saigon, and in Saigon there was a Passover service happening with some Americans in the Free World Building. I hadn’t been to Saigon, I hadn’t been to Nui Dat. I thought the Free World Building would be a hut somewhere, an American PX. But it was one of the biggest buildings I’d ever seen in my 21 years of life – I hadn’t been very worldly anyway.

I found the door and it was just on dark. I’d been running late, and I was wearing my Australian uniform with my slouch hat. I opened the door, and all I could see were lots of people sitting at tables. I felt really shy and intimidated, and I wasn’t quite sure if I was even in the right place, and I could hear some Hebrew being sung. They were just about to do the Kiddush. And as I walked in, a couple of Americans closest to the door stood up and patted me on my back. And then some more stood up, and a couple started clapping, a slow clap, and then I realised I was the only Australian there. An Australian Jew at a Passover service in Vietnam! This was, like, mind-boggling. They were pushing me along and I was looking for a spare table to sit down on a seat and hide, and there wasn’t one. They were pushing me further and further forward, and eventually everyone in this building was standing up and clapping me. The tears started rolling down my face, because Passover is a festival of freedom . . . All of a sudden, I was feeling Jewish for the first time in my life. I was feeling a unity with other people which I’d never felt. I grew up in the country, in Brisbane, and my Jewishness was really non-existent. There was this table of rabbis and all my life, I’d only ever seen one rabbi, and that was when I was being bar mitzvahed. People had come from the Philippines, Korea, all of Vietnam and Thailand. It was like I wasn’t alone. It was the most amazing thing.

I sat at the table with all the rabbis. I had really nice food, a great Seder service, and a lift back to the hotel where I stayed the night. Some of the Jewish officers I’d met showed me around. They came down to Vung Tau later on and they visited me. I went off to different places with them, and life was sort of different, but then the bastardisation increased, because I had alienated myself in the group dynamics of the unit by being Jewish and going to the Passover service and having a couple of days off when the others didn’t.

Another Jewish Australian national serviceman, Dr Isaacs, attended the same Seder, and described it – and the following night’s Passover dinner – in a letter to his family.[19] Private Bob Edelman also had a surprise Pesach. He arrived in Vietnam as a signaller with 1RAR on 27 March 1968, at the tail end of the first Tet Offensive:

We did a search and destroy in a village, and then I relieved one of my mates who was a Sig for B Company. He got R&R. I had to go out on a patrol with B Company. We’d been out for two days – I think it was a four-day manoeuvre – and I’m on the radio, of course, and I get an instruction to get all my gear together; they’ve cleared a helipad, a helicopter came in to take me out and take me to a US Army base called Bearcat for a Passover service. It wasn’t a Passover really. All they held was a little service amongst the boys in the American army. It was Passover eve. And that was it. Then I got flown back into Nui Dat.[20]

John Selan rejected a similar chance in 1971.

When I was at Nui Dat, I was called back to Vung Tau. I was told, ‘There’s an American officer flying in, wants to talk to you.’ It was a Jewish chaplain. He must have looked it up and saw that I was Jewish, and he said that I could go to some American air-force base for Yom Kippur. I said, ‘No, I’d rather not.’ He said, ‘I can fix it up with your commanding officer.’ I said, ‘No, don’t worry about it, I’m not that religious.’ That was the only contact I had with anyone Jewish.[21]

If, as William B. Rubinstein demonstrates[22], contemporary Jewish religious orthodoxy is a predictor for conservatism – and if, historically, conservatism was a predictor for enthusiasm for one’s own Vietnam-era conscription, rather than that of others (a dubious proposition at any time in history) – it might be thought that orthodox Jews would be more likely to serve in the military and, subsequently, Vietnam, than their less observant brethren. In fact, it seems religious life for a fully observant Jew may have been impossible in the Australian army in Vietnam, as the military system did not provide kosher rations in the field.

The late Anthony Varga, who proves a less than reliable witness on several counts, was probably correct when he told Mendes:

Two years of national service did not mean you are going to Vietnam. And if you went in the Army, you are given the option of eating kosher food. They would supply it. They would not ever have sent you to Vietnam because they couldn’t supply it there.[23]

Once again, it would be close to impossible to determine how many Jewish men performed national service but did not go to Vietnam, but, as only one in four national servicemen went to Vietnam, there are likely to have been at least 42 – and perhaps closer to 120 – Jewish national serviceman who remained in Australia or were posted to overseas locations other than Vietnam. It is unclear if men in more exotic postings in Australia would have been able to obtain kosher food, but provisions were certainly made for observant Jews in the recruit training battalions.

According to Rabbi Fabian, national service:

brought quite a few orthodox young men into the Army [and] after very long and extended negotiations with the relevant authorities which showed great understanding and a remarkable degree of cooperation, a new system was evolved and finally embodied in Army regulations which provided, for the first time, special Kosher rations for those who would request such food (on a bona fide basis). These rations were based on the type of pre-packed meal provided for Air travellers by Kosher caterers. In addition, other permissible foodstuffs were listed and could be obtained for Camps etc. through Army channels by application. These arrangements worked quite well, both on an individual and particularly on a collective basis for National Service trainees in Camp … We visited Camp from time to time and found that there where proper request had been made – these were, of course, necessary –  the Army had always done the right thing, in spite of high expense and considerable technical difficulties.[24]

Perth-born Warren Austin did not eat pig meat or shellfish in the army but, he said, ‘To actually eat completely kosher was fairly hard. They would give you one kosher meal a day in Australia, that came sealed, in the evening.’ Austin took the kosher rations at Puckapunyal but then abandoned the practice, as he felt he was putting the army to too much trouble. In Vietnam, he was posted to Nui Dat where, but said:

I never suffered from any discrimination at all. In fact, some of the things that people did for me were quite nice. An example: I walked over to the mess one day. We used to have two cooks. I said what’s for dinner? ‘Egg and bacon pie.’ I said to him, ‘Oh, that’s not much good for me,’ and I walked off. I thought I’d just go and get some bread and have a tomato sandwich or whatever. When I went in to get bread, he called out, ‘Warren!’ and he’d made me two vegetarian pasties.[25]
Jewish men would appear to be have been substantially under-represented at Scheyville OTU, where this paper began. The Officer Training Unit graduated 1803 national service officers, of whom about 328 served in Vietnam. If Jews had been represented in every intake according their proportion in the general population, there should have been about 11 Jewish officers, of whom two served in Vietnam. In my researches, I have only been able to find two Jewish Scheyville graduates, of whom one, David Roubin, went to Vietnam. It is unknown how many Jews began but failed the officer training course. The general failure rate hovered at about 30 per cent, so proportionately there should be three or four Jews among failed candidates. Former SAFL star, Scheyville cadet and 7RAR veteran Graham Cornes wrote in the Adelaide Advertiser in 2012: ‘I was in an army unit once with a brilliant young national serviceman, an Orthodox Jew, who religiously practised his faith. Unfortunately, the army wasn’t equipped to handle his dietary disciplines and his observance of the Sabbath and he was virtually run out of the unit.’[26]

In a later interview, Cornes told me he was talking about the OTU in 1969:

Did I say he was hounded out? Well, maybe – because you were dealing with hard-nosed regular soldiers, who were your officers; and the routine; plus his peers didn’t really understand him, because he was so different. We were in those early stages of training, where you’ve got to adapt and comply, and he didn’t. He was smart enough to do the academic things, and he did the drill training and the physical stuff pretty easily.

He couldn’t really settle into the routine of mateship that most of us were able to do. There were always guys who were different in there, and you don’t get on with everyone, but he was so different, he couldn’t really establish friendships, and he couldn’t always comply with the routine. He had to have the little hat on. He had to have different food. And on the Sabbath, he can’t even turn a light on. He was one of the first to go.[27]

I have not been able to establish the identity of the officer cadet and, interestingly, Graham DeVries, a (definitely not orthodox) Jewish contemporary of Cornes at Scheyville, does not recall the man. The anonymous orthodox cadet and DeVries are the only Jews I have located who partially completed the Scheyville course. However, the potential plasticity of Jewish identity is illustrated by the experience of Scheyville graduate (and Vietnam veteran) Noel Turnbull, whose father was Jewish ‘when it suited him’, as his mother (Turnbull’s grandmother) had married out. At Puckapunyal, said Turnbull:

We all had to go and see a chaplain, and I said I wasn’t religious, which was a terrible mistake in the army. I said, ‘Well, my grandmother was Jewish,’ so they sent me to the Rabbi. The Rabbi said, ‘My son, you’ll get yourself into a lot of trouble into the army if you don’t have religion. It’s a bit hard for you to become a Jew at this stage. What is suggest is you become an Anglican.’ And I was very thankful for him: missing church parades was not fun, because they always found some shit job for you to do.[28]

It may have been a little more difficult for Jewish cadets to get through the course, as they lacked the networks instantly available to men from other denominations. Henry Neesham, a contemporary of David Roubin in the first Scheyville intake, told me he struck up friendships with fellow cadets John O’Halloran and Gordon Sharp ‘because we were all Micks, Catholics, and so when you go into a group like that, of 110 people, it’s the normal one-third Catholics, so we’d all go to Mass together – and, in our case, O’Halloran, Sharp and myself had all been taught by the Christian Brothers’[29]. In Australia, a random group of 110 would, statistically, include only a fraction of a Jew, and the odds were against any two Jews training simultaneously at the OTU.

Aside from David Roubin, the only Jew I have found to have graduated from Scheyville was Congo-born Nissim ‘Nick’ Israel, who completed the OTU course in 1970, requested a posting to infantry or armour and hoped to fight in Vietnam. However, as a former trainee hotel manager, he was allocated to the catering corps and ended up among the small number of Australian national servicemen in New Guinea. It is not known how many conscripts served in New Guinea, but the great majority appear to have been teachers (or ‘chalkies’) at least two of whom – Graham Lindsay and Norm Isenberg – were Jewish. This is at least a 100 per cent over-representation of Jews, a figure that speaks more of the tiny numbers involved than any other factor.

As a footnote to the Scheyville experience, it’s worth recording that one of the tiny number of Jewish regular soldiers I have found in the Australian army during the 1960s was Paul Cohen, an engineer who eventually went to Vietnam, where he served as Andrew Varga’s commanding officer at 17 Construction Squadron. Prior to this, in 1966-67, Cohen served on staff at the OTU.

Andrew Varga is not a reliable narrator. In his interview with Mendes and Nadel in 1990, he makes a claim, which became common among Vietnam veterans in the 1980s but was unheard of in the war years or their immediate aftermath, that he was spat upon when he came home from Vietnam. He says he was in Vietnam for sixteen months, when his service record shows he actually served 366 days. He claims to have been wounded in action, although there is no mention of this in his service record. He believes there was a mail strike inspired by the anti-war movement which prevented the delivery of mail to Australian troops in Vietnam for three months. Although large numbers of veterans apparently believe otherwise, there were never anything more than sporadic industrial disputes about pay and conditions in the postal service during the Vietnam era. Varga says, ‘At the Anzac Day March in 1969, there was a group of anti-war protestors waiting for the Vietnam veterans at Princes Bridge to throw us in the river. We got warned and they got thrown in the river.’[30] This is an urban myth and Varga, who left Australia for Vietnam on 14 May 1968 and returned on 14 May 1969, would have been in Vietnam on Anzac Day 1969 anyway.

Varga was born on 26 July 1946. His birthdate was never drawn out of the barrel. He was among a large number of Australian youths who chose to enter the army as national servicemen for two years, even though they were not balloted in. These volunteer national servicemen have been largely forgotten, their action eclipsed by the more public stance taken by draft resisters. However, Varga offers theories as to how Jewish men might privately have avoided national service and stayed out of Vietnam. He says, ‘There were quite a lot of Jewish people who used bribes, false medical records and histories, getting married, going to Israel et cetera to get out.’[31]

Other Jewish people nurse similar stories, but so do many of the non-Jewish veterans with whom I spoke during my research for The Nashos’ War. It is not at all unusual for a man to believe he was the only youth in his community to have lacked the resourcefulness or motivation to avoid national service. This is probably a reflection of both the level of actual draft evasion and the small numbers of national servicemen required of any community. Of the 804,286 men who registered for national service when they were about to turn 20 years old in the years 1965-72, only 63,735 ever went into the army, and only 15,381 of these served in Vietnam.

However, the only sure way to avoid conscription – aside from studying for the rabbinate – was to join the part-time reserve Citizen Military Force (CMF), Citizen Naval Force or Citizen Air Force prior to the ballot. Any man who enlisted in the reserves before he knew whether his birthdate had been drawn from the barrel, and performed six years effective service on evenings and weekends in Australia, was exempt from national service and could not be compelled to serve overseas. Anecdotally, it seems many Jewish university students, in particular, might have taken up the CMF option. Mendes quotes Harry Reicher, who says he signed up for the Melbourne University Regiment before his 19th birthday: ‘Suddenly for the Jewish community, the citizen military forces became a very attractive option and you got these hilarious scenes of Jewish kids signing up in droves who spent months at the beach at Surfers and came along with doctors’ certificate saying they weren’t allowed to be exposed to the sun.’[32]

Once again, this seems to be a story told to illustrate a point, in the extravagant language of coffee-shop conversation, rather than a remembrance of an actual thronging of suntanned young Jews – whose numbers can barely have constituted ‘droves’ – armed with quasi-mythological certificates whose unlikely provisions fitted them only for service in Australia, a nation hardly noted for its paucity of sunshine.
Nonetheless, my studies suggest that Jews were substantially under-represented among national servicemen in Vietnam, and did not serve even in proportion to the very small figures that might be expected. One possibility is that there are a further 78 veterans whom I have been unable to discover, but Australian Jewish communities are small, and large parts are tightly knit, and this seems like a great number to go missing.

One explanation would be large-scale draft evasion, made possible in a small community with a high proportion of medical professionals, who might be willing to declare young Jews unfit for military service (rather than unsuited to exposure to the sun). During the course of the war, the proportion of the general population that failed the national service medical examination rose from 37.7 per cent in 1965 to 51.2 per cent in 1970. The Official History proposes three possible factors that might explain the increase:

First, it has been suggested that the increase was due to exploitation of the system. Several doctors in Victoria believed that a growing number of young men sought outside medical advice, such as that given by groups opposed to national service, and took ‘various tablets and potions’ to become unfit. Secondly, it is also possible that a growing number of civilian doctors on medical boards sympathised with men who were unwilling to undertake national service. Thirdly, the examination became more rigorous as a consequence of the rising number of national servicemen killed in Vietnam.[33]

There is a colourful cannon of folklore and oral tradition dealing with draft evasion in Australia, both within and outside the Jewish community, and it seems unlikely that the facts will ever be fully established.

The preponderance of young Jews among the leadership of the anti-war movement might point to the conclusion that the Jewish community as a whole was opposed to the commitment and/or the draft, and therefore less willing to participate in the enemy than a more ideologically committed population might be. There were important Jewish intellectuals – among them Frank Knopfelmacher, Quadrant publisher Richard Krygier, and the Jewish shock-jock Eric Baume – who aggressively prosecuted the case for Australian involvement in Vietnam. But, as Isi Leibler, a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, told Mendes, ‘The conservatives who went along with the American policies did so on a low profile. If there was any passion or idealism about these things, it was on the Left.’[34]

However, the organised Jewish community never made any kind of stand against the Vietnam War, and liberal rabbis did not speak out with the frequency or ferocity of their leftist counterparts in sections of the Catholic priesthood. Even as late as June 1972, when the bases at both Nui Dat and Vung Tau had been abandoned, and Australia’s commitment to South Vietnam was all but over, the anti-conscription campaign faced a particular disdain from the Jewish religious establishment. When in June 1972, Melbourne Presbyterian church leaders gave a dinner for the prominent draft resister Michael Hamel-Green, Rabbi Rapaport of the Toorak Road Synagogue protested:

The government is entitled to the support of the people. For a community to support draft resisters is completely wrong. The Jews feel that defence of the country is national priority number one. Personally I feel that the Vietnam war would come into the program of Australian self-defence … under no circumstances would most Jews support the campaign to raise money for draft resisters. [35]

It may not be how the community is remembered, or remembers itself, but Australian Jewry as a whole actually moved to the right during the Vietnam War. While public opinion in Australia was shifting to the left by 1969, the Jews of NSW, as Encel records, expressed majority support for the Liberal Party for the first time. Subsequent surveys of Jewish voting behaviour have seen this conservative swing repeatedly consolidated across the eastern states.[36] It could be, of course, that this rightward-shift was most pronounced among older Jewish people, and the majority of the youth opposed conscription and war; or that Jewish conservatism was not delivered as a package, and a commitment to economic liberalism was accompanied by a distance for militarism and foreign adventures. But I would argue that the roots of Jewish under-representation in the national-service scheme may be buried less deeply in ideological considerations, and more in the social composition of an overwhelmingly middle-class community.

As we have seen, insofar as participation in education or training can be taken as indicators of social class, the national-service ballot actually drafted youth by class. Broadly speaking – and allowing for numerous exceptions – the unskilled were taken in the first year of the scheme, to be augmented by skilled tradesmen from the second year, university graduates from the second or third year, and professionals such as doctors and lawyers from the third or fourth year. As a man had to serve a certain amount of time in the army before he could be posted overseas, a medical professional such as Dr Isaacs, balloted in in 1945, might not find himself in Vietnam until late in 1970, the year before the majority of Australian troops were withdrawn. Men in a similar position born later than 1945, Jewish or otherwise, would have only the smallest chance of serving in Vietnam.

The question then is: how many Jews were in such positions? A survey of Melbourne Jewry in 1967 showed a full 22.2 per cent of the working community were engaged in ‘professional and high managerial’ occupations, as opposed to 4.4 per cent of the Victorian population. While 29 per cent of Jews (among only 3.7 per cent of Victorians) were involved in small business (a protean economic category which might involve years of professional training or none at all), 33.9 per cent were white-collar workers (as against 24.1 per cent in the general population). Only 8.9 per cent of Jews were skilled workers (as opposed to 32.3 per cent of the general population), and unskilled and semi-skilled Jewish workers numbered a meagre 4 per cent (although the national average was 24.2 per cent). There were no Jewish farmers and farm labourers recorded at all (and their numbers in the general population were, in any case, small), and unemployment was negligible in the Australian population.[37]

The default preference of the earliest drafts for unskilled and semi-skilled workers effectively excluded all but a very small percentage of the Jewish population from immediately undertaking national service. The effect of academic deferments meant the entrance into the army of those graduates and professionals whose birthdates were drawn in earlier ballots could be delayed for up to four years. The national-service scheme was operational in bringing men into the army from June 1965 to December 1972, a total of six-and-half years, but only a tiny number of men were newly posted to Vietnam during the early months of 1972, before the great majority of Australian troops pulled out. The workings of the draft and the length of the war and the scheme could hardly have been better designed for the convenience of an overwhelmingly middle-class community which, in 1967, had more than 50 per cent of its university-aged youth engaged in full-time study.[38] Draft evasion would not have been an issue for many Jewish youth: even if they were balloted in after 1969, and eventually entered the army, the odds against them ever having to serve in Vietnam were high. Rather than thronging with certificates for fraudulent dermatological conditions, they could simply have completed their education as planned.

There is a great deal that we can never know about the national-service scheme until such time as every man’s service record can be accessed and analysed, and the true social-class breakdown of the national-service cohort be ascertained. Even if this should happen, we will never know for certain how many Jewish men served. All that can be said with confidence is that there were several more than first thought and several dozen less than might be expected if Jews were distributed evenly along class lines in the Australian population. Since they were not, the only meaningful comparison to make would be the rate of Jewish non-participation set against the rate of non-participation of the professional and upper-middle classes as whole.

Among those Jews who served in Vietnam, a disproportionate number had medical roles but a roughly proportionate number were in the infantry. A minority experienced anti-Semitism, but most were given some chance to observe their religion, if only on high holidays.

The Vietnam War is often remembered as a turbulent event for Australians, sparking a political crisis which supposedly split the nation. In the Jewish community, it affected those who were drafted and their families, those who protested, and those who might have found themselves rather haplessly in the CMF. But among the increasingly conservative, comfortable, educated adult majority, its effects were barely visible.

The national servicemen with whom I spoke varied widely in their attitudes to conscription and the war. Loris Roubin and David Wittner were particularly vociferous in their objections, and Wittner campaigned energetically not to be sent to Vietnam but, as documentary evidence clearly shows, he was forced by the army to go.[39] Nonetheless, those searching for exclusively political reasons for Jewish under-participation will be disappointed by the facts. Even those convinced of widespread Jewish ‘shirking’ have to explain how it could be that, as the number of national servicemen failing their medicals went up, the number of known Jewish soldiers in Vietnam actually rose – to reach its peak in August 1971, when Wittner, Loris Roubin, Dr Isaacs, Selan, Hayat and Schneider (45 per cent of known Jewish national servicemen) were in Vietnam at the same time, even though the Australian military commitment was already drawing down and the majority of the Australian population no longer supported the war. Lower Jewish numbers up until then were no doubt due to a combination of political and social factors. But the fact that a broadly educated, middle-class community only came to be drafted in anything like significant figures at the point when every deferment had been exhausted, points squarely to what ‘Tub’ Matheson, accurate by default, described as ‘a system of selective National Service in action’.


[1] Donnelly, Roger, The Scheyville Experience: The Officer Training Unit Scheyville 1965–1973, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2001), p. 85.

[2] Willis, Rob, sound recording of Tub Matheson interviewed by Rob Willis in the Rob Willis folklore collection, National Library of Australia, (Caloundra, 14 February 1994).

[3] Donnelly, Roger, op. cit, p. 85.

[4] Jordens, Ann-Mari, ‘An Administrative Nightmare: Aboriginal Conscription 1965-72’, Aboriginal History, vol. 13, nos 1-2 (1989), pp. 124-34.

[5] NAA, A1209 1975/2165, ‘National Service Training Scheme policy 1969’, pp. 53-4.

[6] NAA, A4940 C162, Part 2, ‘National Service – Policy, 1964–1967’, from Department of Labour and National Service, ‘An Account of the Administrative Processes involved in the National Service Scheme up to the Stage of Call-up’, 15 April 1966.

[7] Mendes, Philip, The New Left, the Jews, and the Vietnam War, 1965-1972, (North Caulfield: Lazare, 1993), p. 191.

[8] The example of Stretton Joel points to the artificiality of studying a specifically Jewish military history. Although only Joel’s father was Jewish, Joel was a first cousin of Rabbi John Levi, who served as reserve chaplain to the army in Victoria during the Vietnam years. Rabbi Levi was also a national serviceman under an earlier scheme, before he began his rabbinical training. After his ordination and before his cousin’s thirteenth birthday, Rabbi Levi told me, he contacted Joel to ask if he would be interested in taking bar mitzvah lessons, with view to conversion. Joel demurred, but his personal history remains a part of Rabbi Levi’s personal and religious history, which in turn informed Rabbi Levi’s military history, and the life of a non-Jewish son is nonetheless a part of the life of his Jewish father, and inter-marriage is a significant part of the Australian Jewish story.

[9] See Rausch, David A., Friends, Colleagues, and Neighbors: Jewish contributions to American history (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996).

[10] Fabian, Rabbi Dr Alfred, A Tale of three Cities: Autobiographical Record of an Australian Ministry, vol.3 (unpublished),  p. 40.

[11], accessed 14 September 2015.

[12], accessed 14 September 2015.

[13], accessed 14 September 2015.

[14] Army Manpower Review, quoted in Ross, Jane, ‘Australian Soldiers in Vietnam’, in King, Peter (ed) Australia’s Vietnam: Australia in the Second Indochina War, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983), p. 75.

[15] Ross, Jane, op. cit, p. 75.

[16] Roubin, David, interview with the author.

[17] Schneider, Amic, interview with the author.

[18] Selan, John, interview with the author.

[19] Isaacs, Ian, Letter to Mum, Dad & Morris, 12 April 1971.

[20] Edelman, Bob, interview with the author.

[21] Selan, John, interview with the author.

[22] Rubinstein, William D, ‘Political Conservatism and the Australian Jewish Community’ in Brahm Levy, Geoffrey and Mendes, Philip, Jews and Australian Politics, (Brighton: Sussex Academy Press, 2004), p. 96.

[23] Mendes, Philip, op. cit, p. 138.

[24] Fabian, Rabbi Dr Alfred, op. cit, p. 31.

[25] Austin, Warren, interview with the author.

[26] Cornes, Graham, ‘Put faith in good sense’, Adelaide Advertiser, 21 April 2012.

[27] Cornes, Graham, interview with the author.

[28] Turnbull, Noel, interview with the author.

[29] Neesham, Henry, interview with the author.

[30] Mendes, Philip, interview with Andrew Varga and Dave Nadel, transcript (unpublished,) p. 1.

[31] Mendes, Philip, op. cit, p. 138.

[32] Mendes, Philip, op. cit, p. 132.

[33] Langford, Sue, appendix from Peter Edwards, A nation at war: Australian politics, society and diplomacy during the Vietnam War 1965-1975. The official history of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts 1948-1975, volume VI (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 1997), p. 362.

[34] Mendes, Philip, op. cit, p. 133.

[35] ‘Rabbi raps Presbytery over NS Act’, Melbourne Herald, 30 June 1972.

[36] Encel, Sol, ‘Jews and the Australian Labor Party’, Jews and Australian Politics, pp. 53-54.

[37] Medding, Peter, ‘Factors Influencing the Voting Behaviour of Melbourne Jews’, in Medding, Peter (ed), Jews in Australian Society (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1973), p. 145.

[38] Taft, Ronald, ‘The Impact of the Middle East Crisis on June 1967 on Jews in Melbourne’, in Medding, Peter (ed), op. cit, p. 140.

[39] See Dapin, Mark, The Nashos’ War, (Melbourne: Viking Penguin, 2014), pp. 392-6.