Reginald (Reg) Saunders
I knew then I was going to the war ... It was a sense of duty to the country. Australia is my country and I'd merely followed in the footsteps of hundreds of other Aboriginals in World War 1.
Reginald Saunders, interviewed by Peter Read, 13 January 1989 AWM S00520
On the day before Anzac Day 1940, a young Victorian and Gunditjmara man joined his mates on a troop train to Melbourne. They were leaving their country town to join the war against Germany. Reginald 'Reg' Saunders would become Australia's highest-profile Aboriginal soldier. He would also be one of the first Indigenous commissioned officers in the Australian Army.
Saunders was a timber contractor and a keen sportsman from Lake Condah. His family had a history of military service. Both his uncle and father were World War I veterans. His uncle, William Rawlings, was awarded a Military Medal for bravery, while serving in the 29th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in France. Saunders' father, Chris Saunders, was also an AIF veteran.
Saunders grew up hearing stories of the Great War from his father and other Aboriginal men from the Lake Condah district. When Menzies declared that Australia was at war on 3 September 1939, Saunders listened to the Prime Minister's speech with the family of a local Aboriginal World War I digger. After talking with his father, he decided to enlist.
After 6 months of training at Puckapunyal outside Melbourne, Saunders was sent to North Africa with the 2/7th Battalion. His first experience of active service was an attack by three Messerschmitts.
You couldn't have a more terrifying experience than have a bloody aero – three aeroplanes – coming straight at you, you know about 200 yards off, firing. You could see the bullets coming – zip – dirt – little puffs of dirt – and you knew bloody well that they were bullets hitting the ground coming towards you – about 250–300 miles an hour. Hell of an experience.
Reginald Saunders, interviewed by Peter Read for the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939-1945, 13 January 1989
In April 1941, Saunders accompanied the 2/7th Battalion to Greece. Their role was to support Allied forces against the coming German invasion.
The Allied campaign had little chance of success. The Allies were outnumbered by better-trained and better-equipped German infantry and armoured divisions. Their campaign was also hindered by poor planning, difficult Greek terrain and poor communication between Allied commanders. In late April, many of the Australians in Greece were withdrawn to Crete.
Saunders' battalion was involved in heavy fighting against the Germans on Crete. Along with a New Zealand Maori division, the 2/7th Battalion helped 15,000 Allied troops retreat for evacuation from Suda Bay.
Saunders was one of about 3000 Australians left behind on Crete. With the help of local Cretans, he evaded capture by the Germans for 12 months. Saunders escaped Crete on a trawler and reached Bardia in Libya. From there, he returned to Australia.
In August 1942, Saunders rejoined the 2/7th Battalion in New Guinea. Then in 1944, his commanding officer nominated him for officer training.
Saunders completed his officer training at Seymour, Victoria, and graduated as lieutenant in December 1944.
For the rest of the war, Saunders commanded the battalion's No 10 Platoon in New Guinea before returning to Australia in September 1945.
Saunders held a variety of casual jobs in the post-war years. But, according to his daughter, Glenda Humes, he was unable to find anything permanent or long term.
Back home, both government policy and public attitudes still discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Saunders wasn't eligible for a soldier settlement block or returned soldiers' education courses.
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he re-enlisted. Saunders was posted to the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. He was promoted to Captain and given command of C Company. He took part in the Battle of Kapyong in 1951.
Saunders left the regular army in 1954. He advocated for Aboriginal peoples' rights on many occasions. In 1969, the Australian Government made Saunders a liaison officer for the newly formed Office of Aboriginal Affairs.
Saunders was a highly respected soldier and spokesperson for Indigenous rights. In 1971, Queen Elizabeth II recognised his services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, awarding Saunders a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
In July 1985, Saunders was appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial.
Reg Saunders died in Canberra on 2 March 1990. After cremation, his family returned his ashes to his country at Lake Condah.
Saunders' legacy is not forgotten.
The Australian War Memorial commemorated his service by opening the Reg Saunders Gallery and Courtyard in 2015. Streets are named after him in Brisbane and Canberra.
The RSL awards the annual Captain Reg Saunders Memorial Scholarship to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
- ANU (Australian National University) 2015. 'Glenda Humes', Yarn Ups, Australian National University, Canberra. http://ourmobserved.anu.edu.au/yarn-ups/yarn-participants/glenda-humes accessed online 21 September 2019
- Darryl McIntyre, 'Saunders, Reginald Walter (Reg) (1920–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Canberra. http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/saunders-reginald-walter-reg-15909/text27110 accessed online 19 September 2019.
- Saunders, RW and Read, P 1989. Reginald Walter Saunders (Reg), as a Captain, (337678/VX12843), Aboriginal serviceman 2/7th Battalion, interviewed by Peter Read for the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939-45, 13 January 1989, Tape 1 Side 1, AWM Accession Number S00520. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C87890 accessed online 19 September 2019.
- DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) 2019. Saunders, Reginald Walter, World War Two Service Nominal Rolls, Department of Veterans' Affairs, Canberra, ACT. https://nominal-rolls.dva.gov.au/veteran?id=789823&c=WW2 accessed online 25 September 2019.
- Wikipedia contributors 2019. Reg Saunders. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Reg_Saunders&oldid=960656770 accessed online 19 September 2019.