Reginald Saunders: Stories of Service

Running time
6 min 45 sec
Date made
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory

Department of Veterans' Affairs 2020

Reginald Walter Saunders was from the Gunditjmara people of southern Victoria. His father and uncle had served in the First World War, which motivated Reg to enlist in the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1940. This tells the story of Reg's service in North Africa, the Mediterranean and New Guinea during the Second World War. His experience was a blend of frontline fighting, survival in hostile territory and leading soldiers into battle. It also tells how Reg served again in the Korean War and made his mark as a campaigner for Indigenous equality in post-war Australia.

Student inquiry activities

  1. Reg Saunders' battalion was involved in the fighting on Crete at a place nicknamed '42nd Street'. The battalion's actions there briefly held up advancing German forces. Why was it important for the battalion to slow down the German advance?
  2. Other First Australians served with distinction in World War II. One example is Len Waters, who went on to become the first and only Indigenous Australian fighter pilot of the war. Read about Len Waters. Then discuss the similarities and differences between his World War II experiences and those of Reg Saunders.
  3. Reg Saunders managed to evade capture by the German forces on Crete for 11 months as he lived among the Cretan people. How was Reg able to avoid capture for so long? Think about the challenges of not only blending in with the Cretan people, but also the strategies he used to avoid the German troops.
  4. Reg Saunders left the Australian Army at the end of World War II. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he re-enlisted in the Australian Army and served in Korea. Read about Reg's service in the Korean War. What might have motivated him to re-enlist, considering he'd already served in World War II?
  5. What was Reg Saunders' response to the problems he saw for himself and other Indigenous Australians after he came home from the Korean War? Read about Reg's work after the Korean War.


Opening credits and warning: 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program contains images and voices of people who have died'; collage of drawings - soldiers, fighter aeroplane; video title 'Stories of Service: Second World War'; cartoonist drawing male soldiers charging with bayonets on their rifles.

[Music plays]

Presenter Warren Brown sitting on a log by creek with a sketch pad on his lap, presenting to the camera. He wears a light-coloured long-sleeved shirt, dark trousers and shoes.

'How long do you think you could survive in the bush on your own without water, without food – without a phone? A day? A week? A month maybe?'

A collage showing old photographs of Reg Saunders and his father, both in military uniform, and an image of the medal awarded to Reg's uncle.

'Reginald Saunders was 19 years old when the Second World War broke out in 1939. He was destined to be a soldier. His father had fought as a machine gunner in the First World War and his uncle, who Reg was named after, had been posthumously awarded the Military Medal for his bravery after being killed during the fighting in France.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting by a creek, in a 'head and shoulders' shot, presenting to the camera.

'Reg was a member of the Gunditjmara People; he was often in the company of his father's wartime friends. He described them as 'great fellas' who inspired him. Whenever his Dad spoke about the war, Saunders listened with 'ears as big as footballs'. On April 24 1940, Reg Saunders walked about 115km from his home at Purnim, Victoria, to Portland to enlist in the Second Australian Imperial Force.'

Collage of Second World War-era posters encouraging men to join the Australian military forces.

'But wanting to join up wasn't as straight forward for Reg as it would be for others. The law in Australia at that time made it difficult for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enlist in the armed forces.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting by a creek, in a 'head and shoulders' shot, presenting to the camera.

'But this wouldn't deter him - Reg was determined to fight for his country and honour his people.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting by a creek, in a 'head and shoulders' shot, presenting to the camera; collage of old photographs showing male soldiers in uniform standing to attention in ranks; old photograph of Reg Saunders and other soldiers in uniform standing and sitting next to a train - other soldiers are in the train.

'Now fortunately for Reg, the Army's need for manpower meant it loosened its restrictions as to who could volunteer, so he, like hundreds of other Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, were able to join up. They were all eager to make a difference; some may have hoped that this commitment to Australia would give their people equality and a chance for a better future. Life in the Army suited Reg, and it was soon clear he was an extraordinary leader - even during training he was promoted to acting sergeant.'

A map showing the route taken by the ship transporting Reg and the other soldiers from Australia to Libya, via the Suez Canal; the map then shows the location of Greece and Crete.

'He soon sailed for Libya in the Middle East to join other Australian soldiers in the second seventh Infantry Battalion. It was here he gained his first experience of battle, fighting Italian units in the desert at a place called Benghazi. Shortly afterwards his battalion sailed with British and New Zealand soldiers to fight the German army in Greece.'

Collage showing old photographs of ships that have been bombed and are billowing smoke from the bomb damage; map showing the location of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea; moving image of a bayonet being fitted to a rifle.

'The German army was too strong and the allied soldiers were trying to withdraw from Greece when the ship on which Reg was sailing was hit by a bomb and began to sink. Reg and the other survivors were picked up by several British warships and put ashore on the island of Crete, initially to defend the island from invading German paratroops, but later taking part in a bloody bayonet charge at a place nicknamed '42nd Street'. This charge by Australian and New Zealand soldiers briefly stopped the German advance.'

Cartoon depicting Reg Saunders and other soldiers in uniform and helmets, running with bayonets fixed to their rifles; the rifles are held at waist height with the bayonets pointing forward.

'Even so, the allied troops were forced to evacuate the island - the 2/7th (Battalion) was called upon to carry out a series of rearguard actions so that the other units could escape.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting by a creek, in a 'head and shoulders' shot, presenting to the camera.

'Reg and many of members of his battalion were left behind on Crete, vulnerable to the enemy and far from home …'

Photograph showing a hillside with many caves in it; a cartoon depicting Reg Saunders dressed as a Cretan man, standing in a village street.

'Survival skill would now become their only weapon. Many, including Reg, hid in the hills and caves, later disguising themselves as locals and living under cover, learning the local language and wearing traditional clothes.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting by a creek, in a 'head and shoulders' shot, presenting to the camera.

'Well, how long do you think you could hide from an enemy without being caught? Well, Reg remained hidden for 11 months, relying on his bush skills and survival instincts.'

A cartoon depicting Reg Saunders dressed as a Cretan man, standing in a village street; people from the village appear around him, wearing Cretan clothing.

'His dark skin enabled him to blend in among the locals and with the help of a Cretan family, he managed to avoid capture.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting by a creek, in a 'head and shoulders' shot, presenting to the camera.

'On the 7 May 1942, he escaped aboard a trawler to Bardia, in Libya. He then sailed to Australia from Egypt.'

Old photograph showing troop landing ships in shallow water at a beach with their bows open; soldiers are wading on to the beach from the ships.

'His service didn’t stop there; Reg Saunders was then deployed to fight the Japanese in New Guinea, where he learned his brother Harry had been killed in action. This seemed to make Reg even more determined.'

A collage showing old photographs of Australian troops in New Guinea; one photo shows troops cautiously advancing through jungle terrain while the other one shows troops trying to get an artillery piece, towed by a jeep, out of some mud.

'He said he preferred fighting in the jungle as it was easier to take cover than in the desert or on Crete. Once again, Reg would call upon his bush skills in combat.'

Old photograph depicting Reg Saunders and a non-Indigenous male Australian soldier congratulating each other.

'Through his service, he was recommended to attend Officer Candidate School and was likely the first Aboriginal person to attend a King's Commission selection panel.'

Old photograph depicting Reg Saunders in full uniform being presented with his badge of rank by two senior non-Indigenous Australian Army officers.

'After successfully completing his training, Saunders was promoted to Lieutenant in November 1944, becoming possibly the first Aboriginal to be a commissioned officer in the Australian Army in the Second World War.'

Presenter Warren Brown sitting by a creek, in a 'head and shoulders' shot, presenting to the camera.

'Reg returned to the fighting in New Guinea with the rank of Lieutenant, but he had fewer rights as a citizen than the white Australians he led. When the war was over, he returned home as a hero, but he was denied the privileges and entitlements enjoyed by non-Indigenous returned soldiers. Because he was an Aboriginal, he wasn't even allowed to go to his local RSL and have a beer with his fellow diggers.'

A collage showing an old newspaper clipping about soldier settlement blocks and old photographs of people on blocks of land and clearing houses; old newspaper clippings about Reg Saunders' post-war jobs.

'Returned soldiers were offered the opportunity to apply for land as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme. That land was sometimes land that Aboriginal communities or missions had been built on; many Indigenous returned service men's requests for land were rejected. He eventually took on jobs as a tram conductor, working with a builder, and in an iron foundry.'

A collage showing old photographs of Reg Saunders in Korea during the Korean war and old newspaper clippings about the conditions his family faced when trying to find accommodation in Australia after the war.

'Saunders rejoined the army to fight in the Korean War, but upon return from that conflict, he once again faced the challenges in Australian society for Indigenous people. His family lived in sub-standard accommodation and found themselves to be excluded from many establishments.'

An old photograph of Reg Saunders and other soldiers in uniform standing and sitting next to a train – other soldiers are in the train. Reg's figure moves to the foreground of the photograph via digital image manipulation as Warren Brown speaks in the voiceover.

'Reg had overcome adversity - as an Aboriginal soldier on the battlefield and as a true leader amongst the Diggers. Reg and other Indigenous veterans had enjoyed equality while in the Australian Armed forces, but they struggled for equality in civilian life in Australia. Reg continued to work tirelessly for equality and a better future for the Aboriginal people of Australia. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1971 for his work in establishing communications between the government and Indigenous communities. His story of service is one of courage, determination and the will to better the lives of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.'

Closing frame shows the crest of the Australian Government Department of Veterans' Affairs.

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