by Rowan Cahill


On 23 April 1969, a youth and a teenage mate sat on the main line out of Wollongong, New South Wales (NSW), and delayed a train taking a conscript intake to Sydney. Photographs and television footage of the event made national news. So it was that Louie Christofides, a voteless working-class youth who had just turned 20 years of age, dramatically and metaphorically stuck his left foot in the door of history and announced that he was ‘coming in’.  

The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 08 August 1969

Born in Cyprus in 1949, Louie migrated to Australia as a youngster with his family. After a period in Sydney, the family ended up in the Illawarra industrial region on the NSW South Coast in 1952. Childhood was characterised by poverty, hardship and parental break up.  One of five kids, Louie was healthy, bright, and had academic potential. But he and schooling did not see eye to eye, and he quit school as soon as was legally possible at the age of 15.

For Australian male teenagers of the time, there were three certainties: Taxation, Death, and Conscription. The year Louie left school, the conservative and right-wing government of Prime Minister Menzies had sprung Conscription on the Australian adolescent male population. Cynically, this was a selective system that operated via birth-dated marble lottery draws. While all teenage males were involved on the cusp of turning twenty years of age, a year before they gained the right to vote, statistically, only 1 in 12 of the cohort was actually conscripted. 

The lottery system was a way of ensuring the workforce and the national economy were not seriously compromised and an attempt at diffusing the sort of opposition that had dramatically split the nation during World War I when attempts to introduce Conscription had been thwarted. On the heels of the introduction of the Menzies’ scheme, conscripts were dispatched to join the American War in Vietnam, in which Australia had been militarily involved since 1962.  

None of this went unchallenged, but initially, opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and to Conscription was not widespread. But during Louie’s late adolescence, this changed. The anti-war and anti-conscription movements, variously linked nationally, grew, became robust, dramatic, increasingly sophisticated, and a political force that could not be ignored.

Joining the Workforce

Post-school Louie variously laboured – in the plumbing industry, sanding floors, in the steel industry, in a car wrecking yard, and during a spell of hitchhiking out West, in the meat industry. Eventually and significantly, he ended up on the local Port Kembla waterfront doing the hazardous work of a painter and docker.  

Louie found it hard to be indifferent to either the Vietnam War or to Conscription. Anti-war and anti-conscription protests featured in the mass media, as did the Vietnam War. Oppositional sentiments and understandings were parts of the workforces Louie became part of, and in the music he listened to. The Illawarra region had a history stretching back to the beginnings of its industrial development for union solidarity and political action. During the Great Strike of 1917, trainloads of scabs were imported into the region and met robust confrontations, including the shooting of a scab railway fireman; names of people who scabbed during strikes were painted on walls and on rock faces and hostilities crossed generations; in 1938 Port Kembla waterside workers made headlines internationally for their dramatic and long-running ban on the export of strategic materials to Japan’s war machine, at that time churning its way through China. 

Louie came to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was an unjust one and determined to play no part in it. Ahead of the time he was due to register for National Service, as Conscription was euphemistically termed, he publicly announced his intention not to cooperate with authorities in any way. It was a declaration that, if carried through, would lead to a two-year prison sentence.


Thereafter Louie was variously featured and interviewed in the mass media, made contacts nationally with other non-compliers, and the trainstopping incident resulted in his first arrest. This resulted in a fine and the imposition of a ‘good behaviour’ bond. With legal assistance, he subsequently and successfully challenged the bond, and it was lifted. The case was bitter and controversial, and the presiding conservative Magistrate resigned during proceedings following allegations of bias and legal irregularities. As for Louie, he became a marked man, and would later be added to a ‘wanted’ list of high-profile fugitive non-compliers of the activist kind. 

When the Commonwealth threatened arrest and imprisonment for his non-compliance with Conscription processes, Louie went underground. With the help of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), a union that had led trade union opposition to the Vietnam War, he was smuggled around the coast to Adelaide, and later Tasmania, all the while making contacts within the anti-war movement. 

Returning to Wollongong, he continued his non-compliance and was arrested, charged, fined, and jailed for seven weeks after refusing to pay the fine. Before incarceration, fellow unionists who had done time briefed him on prison culture and how to cope. As it turned out, he didn’t do the full stretch and was given early release. Contributing to this were actions by the Port Kembla maritime unions, which held a twenty-four-hour stoppage in support of Louie, and for every day he was in prison, the Port Kembla Branch of the SUA slowed down ship movements in the busy port, a strategic site in the Australian national economy.  

The Age, Friday 12 June 1970

Upon release, he faced charges again and went back inside for a second time. He found this prison term more difficult than his first. So when it came to the prospect of a third and much longer prison sentence, he decided to go underground again. With the help of the SUA and the Painters and Dockers union, he was spirited north to Newcastle, provided with an alias and work. Back home in the Illawarra, disinformation kept authorities on the lookout for him locally in a fictional network of safe houses. 

Louie returned home freely following the election of the Whitlam Labor government at the end of 1972 and its ending of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the end of Conscription, and the declaration of amnesty for the era’s political prisoners and non-compliers. 


In subsequent life, for Louie, there was family and lifelong involvement in the trade union and peace movements. He died in hospital on 13 December 2023 following a long respiratory illness. According to his sister-in-law Robyn, “he approached his illness with the same courage, stoicism and tenacity with which he lived the rest of his life”. 

Louie’s story is important in an historiographical sense. The bulk of Australian historical and journalistic accounts of the 1960s and 70s and the protest movement tend to be centred on the metropoles and are weighted in favour of middle-class and university-based rebellions. Accounts of working-class resistance and opposition and rebellions and protests outside the metropoles tend to be missing in action. It is salutary to remember that the first Australian conscript killed in the Vietnam War was a working-class lad who never wanted to be there and was killed by ‘friendly fire’. 

Louie’s story is a symbolic wake-up call to historians ‘from below’: ‘Yes Virginia, there was working class opposition’. He was never alone, even when incarcerated. At all times, he had organised support from within his region from a robust peace movement, dissident clergy, rank and file unionists, union leaders, and in State parliament, the doughty independent leftist local parliamentarian George Petersen. Louie was never going to disappear into the prison system, to become a chess piece moved between prisons as other non-compliers were to thwart solidarity actions.  Whenever he was in prison, there were demonstrations in support of him. And when he went underground, the Painters and Dockers had his back, and that was an outfit you did not cross or mess around with lightly. There will always be Australian war mongers who are enchanted by the martial spirit and detestables who praise war but never participate in it, all the while urging others to do so. And Louie will be there too, in the pages of history and in its footnotes, an example and an inspiration for others who take seriously the old wisdm about the blessedness of peacemakers. His story serves cautionary notice too on future strategists who might toy with Conscription, that if you sow this seed, there will be a bitter harvest. Venceremos.


On Wednesday, 24 January 2024, I contributed these words to the Memorial Function for Louie Christofides.


I speak today as an historian, and as one of the 1 in 12 Australian males conscripted in 1965 by the draw of a lottery marble a year before we got the right to vote, and as one who went on to help make things difficult for the Australian government. 

In 1995, former US Defence Secretary during the Vietnam War Robert McNamara declared US involvement in the Vietnam War had been a disaster and that he and his advisors had misunderstood and misjudged and been mightily wrong in their reasonings for advocating and supporting the escalation of the American war effort in Vietnam. In Australia, he was followed with a backflip by former Vietnam-era Prime Minister John Gorton, who reckoned Australia’s involvement had been unjustified. 

Eventually bringing up the rear was Malcolm Fraser, Vietnam-era Minister for the Army and later Defence, who also repudiated the war he had helped run. But all had been beaten by former Australian Vietnam-era Minister for the Navy Don Chipp, who back-flipped much earlier in 1987. 

While I welcomed these backflips at the time, I did not forgive these warlords. Their tears were stale. They and their kind had fed my generation of young people into the abattoir of the Vietnam War, and had unleashed incalculable carnage and destruction upon the people of Vietnam. So here’s a historical question. How was it that Louie Christofides, a voteless working-class bloke from the Illawarra, who had left school around the age of fifteen, could understand the wrongnesses of the Vietnam War when these privileged and powerful warlords of the time could not? This is not the time or place to offer answers; I merely put this out as a point to ponder. 

Premature rightness

Obviously, Louie was on the right side of History. But prematurely so. For saying what McNamara, Chipp, Gorton, Fraser and others eventually said, but prematurely in the late 1960s, early 1970s, he was variously vilified, criminalised and imprisoned. 

When journalists and historians write about dissidents like Louie and his kind, they tend to do so in a matter-of-fact way. Their versions come across as something relatively easy to do, like getting up in the morning and changing your underwear, as though facing down warmongers and the power of the State comes without human cost. 

Absent from accounts tends to be the human element: the emotional strain such dissidence takes, the self-questioning that goes on, the courage and resolve it takes; and despite the love and support one may have, the loneliness and vulnerability one can feel, particularly when the cell door closes. No; standing against the warlords as Louie did was not as simple as just listening to the answers “blowin’ in the wind”.  

Working-class resistance

Australian accounts of anti-Vietnam War activism are based on journalism produced at the time, and either then or later interviews with, and memoirs by, participants. Mostly, these are focused on the major cities and on activists who were university-based in the 1960s and 1970s. It was in these geopolitical spaces that the hugely visible and dramatic protest actions occurred, ones that easily lent themselves to media attention. 

University students who were conscripted at the time, people like me, had an advantage over working-class youths. For us military service was deferred until the completion of our first degree, so long as there were no failures along the line. 

Conscripted working-class youths in the workforce had no such time to figure things out, to organise, to work out how to deal with the authorities. If their marbles were drawn in the death lottery, then military service quickly followed. It is salutary to recall that the first conscript killed in Vietnam was a Tuna fisherman from South Australia. He died ten days after arriving in Vietnam following a firefight between Australian troops, the result of poor military leadership, and an incident military authorities tried to cover up. Louie’s story is important because it breaks the big city, a university-based mould of much anti-Vietnam War historical remembering. It is a working-class story and one that takes place in a geopolitical space beyond the metropoles. Yes, there was working-class resistance, and yes, resistance took place all over Australia.

Was it worth it?

Finally this. Was what Louie did worth it? Well, unfortunately, the warlords and bloodless warriors who encourage and create wars, most themselves never having engaged in military service and taken human life, are always amongst us. No doubt they will at some future time be in the driving seat of Australia’s foreign policy and they will let loose the dogs of war, and maybe compel another generation of young people to herd into another abattoir. But so long as stories of Louie and his kind continue to be told, continue to have places in historical accounts, these will be beacons for future youths who may question the martial politics of their day, recognise as the castle guard in Hamlet did that something rotten is going on, emphatically say No! and act upon that with courage and resolve. And in doing so help bring another wrongness to an end.  

So thank you, Louie. It was a pleasure and an honour to have known you. 


NOTE. First published in two parts on Rowan Cahill: Radical Historian, Author, Educator website on 17 December 2023 and 24 January 2024. Among sources used, I am indebted to Mike Donaldson, South Coast Comrades: Lives of Communists in Wollongong, 1920-1991, Gramsci Society, Wollongong, 2022; Louie Christofides, My Story, 2023 (this is a family history Louie prepared with the assistance of his sister-in-law Robyn Christofides not long before his death and is one of the few Australian working class accounts of its kind); Tony Duras, “Trade Unions and the Vietnam War” (https://www.sa.org.au/interventions/workers.htm) is a useful overview of Australian trade union actions against the Vietnam war, based on its author’s honours thesis.