Personal Stories: Serving Soldiers

There are examples of regular and conscript soldiers who developed conscientious beliefs whilst in the army and then applied for exemption from military duties under the National Service Act (NSA).

The story of Desmond Phillipson is one of perseverance, and an example of how the Government of the day attempted to mitigate bad publicity in relation to the NSA by a face-saving measures. Desmond was called-up for national service in February 1968. About six weeks later he made application to be registered as a conscientious objector. The army responded by placing him in detention at Holsworthy Military Correctional Facility for several weeks under court martial for refusal to obey orders. Des stated that whilst in detention he was subjected at times to brutal and inhumane treatment at the facility.  He was then granted leave without pay to prepare for his court hearing. His application for full exemption was dismissed by the Stipendiary Magistrate Bateman on 4 November 1968. The subsequent appeal was also dismissed by Acting Judge Staples in the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Des explained that his objection to killing was developed during the army training which he was required to undertake even though he was working as a clerk. Des described one training incident in graphic detail that had a particular influence on his strong aversion to killing. Human dummies were described as ‘yellow men who are vermin’ by the corporal in charge. Des further stated that in the first court case he believed that the magistrate was more concerned that Des was making difficulties for the army rather than the veracity of his conscientious beliefs. Des further claimed that at the appeal hearing Judge Staples did not take into account the development of his beliefs over the ensuring six months. He acknowledged that his conscientious objection to killing was recent development. He stated that rather than attempt a costly appeal to the High Court he had decided to make a second application to the lower court on 17 December 1968. Prior to a hearing of that application the Army gave him a medical examination and discharged him as unfit for service.

Peter John Hill was a school teacher of Mathematics from Croyden Victoria. By February 1968 Peter was already a member of the army but had decided to make an application for full exemption as a conscientious objector, which was not granted. He made a second application which was heard by magistrate N Thompson on 17 October 1968.  At the court hearing Peter explained that he sought exemption on the grounds that army philosophy was incompatible with his own belief in the individual’s right to make his own decisions, particularly on the issue of killing. He believed killing in war was wrong and immoral. Magistrate Thompson explained that Hill had not satisfied him that he had a conscientious belief sufficient to gain exemption. He further noted that the applicant was inconsistent in his disobediance of army orders. Peter then decided on a response of non-compliance. He refused his vaccinations and was sentenced to five days detention at Puckapanyal Army Camp. Upon release he refused an order to repair torn army clothing and was sentenced to a further seven days detention. Within an hour after his release he refused the same order and was sentenced to another seven days detention and was also fined. Peter was then transferred to Kapooka. He was court martialed and sentenced to eighty-four days at Holsworthy Correctional Facility. In justifying the court martial it was alleged he was away-without-leave between his first and second applications. As a response he went on a hunger strike for ten days continuing to refuse to obey orders. After two weeks he was discharged from the army as medically unfit.

Peter Kenneth Wall applied for full exemption but Magistrate Rogers exempted him from combatant duties only. His is a story that demonstrates the opprobrium which society has traditionally directed at conscientious objectors. He appealed Rogers decision and Judge Lewis of the District Court Sydney reluctantly granted him full exemption on12 March 1968. The judge commented that, Speaking quite frankly, I personally am reluctant to grant an application of this sort, mainly for the reason that excluding one able-bodied man is unfair to those who have to bear the burden and to do it cheerfully. However, I have to obey the law under which I am operating. Judge Lewis noted that his own views were irrelevant as he merely had to be convinced of the sincerity of the applicants conscientious beliefs even if these were expressed illogically. The judge concluded his judgement by stating, that on the whole I feel that I am compelled whether I like it or not to grant this application and to uphold this appeal, which I do. Peter informed his employer Swift and Co. Ltd. of Ashfield New South Wales of his exemption the following day. He was summarily dismissed. When he asked the reason for his dismissal he was informed that ‘it’s basically that you are not upholding your end of the job’.