Many Aborigines have enlisted and served in Australia’s defence forces, and several have won decorations, but the first to be promoted to a commissioned rank was Reginald Walter Saunders, of Victoria.
Reg Saunders was born a member of the Gunditjmara people in the Western District of Victoria on 7 August, 1920. His father, Chris Saunders, and uncle, William Reginald Rawlings, had served with the 1st AIF.
William Rawlings of the 29th Battalion, AIF, was awarded a Military Medal for “displaying rare bravery in the performance of his duty”. Reg grew to admire the military feats of both his father and uncle.
Reg’s mother died in 1924 and shortly after her death he was taken by his father, along with his brother Harry, to the Lake Condah Mission in south-western Victoria, where he was brought up by his grandmother and received his primary education.
Reg did not like being away from his family and left school at the age of 14 to go to work as a mill-hand in a timber yard with his father. At this time he became aware of the plight of indigenous people in South America and imagined himself fighting for the poor and oppressed, with whom he felt a kinship.
As Reg’s father and his father’s mates talked about the First World War, Reg listened and wanted to do the same. When he was given the opportunity to enlist in the Second World War, Reg enlisted in the AIF (2/7th Battalion of the Australian 6th Division) in April 1940. His outstanding leadership skills, personable character and sporting skills were quickly recognised by his superiors, and he was promoted to the rank of lance corporal within six weeks. Three months later, he was promoted to sergeant.
The first action that Reg saw was in Libya, where he joined the battalion and took part in the continuing push to Benghazi. On 9 April, 1941, Reg accompanied his battalion to Greece, where they were under constant air attack by the Germans. Saunders embarked on the ill-fated Greek campaign which he, along with many others, considered a mistake. After Greece his unit fought on Crete where Saunders experienced his first close combat and was forced to remain hidden on the island for twelve months after the German victory. Being of darker skin, Saunders was able to hide on the island quite successfully. He and his fellow soldiers managed to escape Crete in May 1942.
After returning to Australia, Reg was soon posted to New Guinea, where he proceeded to the Owen Stanley Ranges. Reg’s brother Harry joined the AIF and they served in New Guinea together. Unfortunately, Harry was killed in action on the Kokoda Trail. Being bush boys, they were at home in the jungle. Reg fought through the Salamaua campaign, remaining in action with the 2/7th until mid-1944 when his commanding officer nominated him for officer training.
Reg returned to Victoria and attended Officers’ Training School, at the Infantry Wing of the Officers Cadet Training Unit, Seymour. After a 16 week course, Saunders graduated as a Lieutenant in December, 1944. He became the first Aboriginal commissioned officer to serve in the Australian forces. For the remaining months of the war, Saunders fought as a platoon commander in New Guinea. He was in the Wewak area when the war ended and was repatriated to Australia to a welcome tinged with sadness for his younger brother who had been killed in action.
He had become tired of living rough and sought work in the city, where he gained worked as a shipping clerk and, later, as a builder’s labourer.
When the Korean War began he returned to the Army, leaving his wife and three daughters behind. Reg was promoted to Captain in charge of ‘C’ Company of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He took part in the famous battle of Kapyong in 1951. It was during the battle of Kapyong that the battalion was awarded the US Presidential Citation. When it came time to decorate Reg for his part in the battle he declined the award, saying that “there were twenty-five other blokes in that particular battle with me and they didn’t get any recognition so why should I?” After having fought in the battle for Hill 317, Reg finally departed from Korea in October 1952.
On returning from Korea, he was posted to National Service Training but, dissatisfied with the training regimen, he left the army in 1954 and found work as a logging contractor in Gippsland. He then moved to Sydney and, for the next 11 years, worked with the Austral Bronze Company. In 1967 he joined the Office of Aboriginal Affairs as a liaison and public relations officer.
Saunders’s first marriage did not survive his absence during the Korean War. A second marriage followed but it too ended in divorce. He had ten children and was awarded the MBE in 1971. A well-respected soldier and leader, Saunders died on 2 March 1990.