The Safe House Project: An Oral History
Conscription, the Vietnam War and Safe Houses in Victoria
For six years from the late 1960s to 1972 the issue of conscription and the Vietnam War played a big part in Australian politics. Demonstrations, arrests and gaolings with ordinary women and men resisting the Menzies then Gorton then Holt then McMahon Government support for the US led war in Vietnam. The conscription of twenty year old men who were not eligible to vote to fight in what has been recognised as a’ dirty’ war consumed the nation.
Many who were called up resisted, some did not registers, together they became the Draft Resisters and disappeared ‘underground’. They were supported through a series of ‘safe houses’, a network of homes across Victoria where they could literally hide from the State and Federal Police.
This oral history captures the stories of some of those safe house providers who did not hesitate to offer, but who also did not know what the consequences would be if a draft resister was arrested in their house. And the stories of some of the draft resisters who with no jobs and no income, cut off from family and constantly aware that at any moment the Police could appear and arrest them relied on the kindness of fellow supporters to provide that sanctuary, the ‘safe house’.
The Victorian Labor History Foundation, initiated to capture and make public the history of the Labor and Trade Union Movement, has completed this project to capture this moment in our political history.
The Victorian Labor History Foundation undertook this project with the support of the Victorian Government and Public Records Office.
Roger moved from house to house, receiving a call with the message’ get boots tonight’. Then the car arrived and he was whisked away. Laying on the back seat with a blanket over him, to yet another safe house. If there were unknown cars outside of that house then he would not be delivered.
Richards family had a Draft Resister stay at their home for a short time, but fearing that the Police could raid Richard moved him to a cabin on land at Blackwood where he stayed for several months. Richard registered for the draft but his birthdate was drawn out.
Tony stayed with several people for short periods, and with one family for ten months, moving out after the Police had pulled over car he was travelling back there in after a night out with friends. It seemed to Tony that the cops were interested in pulling people up but not throwing everything into it.
Michael went underground on the 7th October 1970, initially staying with Ian Turner and Paul Fox then at a number of places, sometimes with his partner Fran and sometimes with other Draft Resisters. There were several people who played big roles in providing safe houses which were just arranged and provided. Two of those people were John Ryan from Catholic Workers and Jean McLean from SOS.
With a handwritten lists of drivers and safe houses which were scattered all over Melbourne Joan’s main job was ferrying the Draft Resisters to and fro. She did have one stay with her family for a short time risky because she was a high-profile activist and, living in a neighbourhood where most people supported the war, they could have been ‘dobbed in’. A founding member of Save our Sons, Joan was also one of the Fairlea Five, sentenced to fourteen days in Fairlea Prison at Easter 1972.
Jean was instrumental in setting up the safe house network and in ensuring that the Draft resisters were found safe accommodation. The Draft resisters were usually moved early in the morning and there was a rule that we didn’t lose anyone when we agreed to find somewhere for them to stay.
Fran was the partner of Michael Hamel-Green and spent much time travelling to where he was staying. A cat and mouse journey, sometimes in costume so that she would not be caught or lead the Police to Michael.
In late 1971 Bob received a medical notice and was prosecuted for not attending a medical. He was sentenced to 7 days in Pentridge. His birthdate had been pulled from the barrel in 1967 but had been deferred whilst he completed his University degree. Then in March 1972 after receiving a call at work about a Commonwealth Police arrest of an acquaintance Bob went on the ‘run’ staying at many houses, sleeping by day, walking at night and in between attending meetings to spread the word.
Ann and Giovanni lived with their children in Coburg. Giovanni was working as a house painter and Ann was at home with the children. They did not hesitate to take in a Draft Resister although Ann cannot remember who asked them but being active in the anti-conscription and the anti-vietnam campaigns they would have been known and been known to be sympathetic.
We recruited safe houses by just asking people at meetings. We knew that they would likely say yes as they were party members or supporters. There were no dramas, no problems, people that were asked to provide a safe house knew what it entailed and what was expected of them. My job was to drive the Draft Resisters to the safe houses and in April 1972 the Police did catch me with Bob Scates on board.
Mary Doyle is an historian and activist. She, with partner Val Noone, set up an open house which included homeless people and draft resisters in Fitzroy in late 1971. Together they made the feature of preparing an evening meal to which everybody was invited.
For more information on conscription have a look at our Background to Conscription.