Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil) : Captain R W Saunders, 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment

Accession Number REL/18641.001
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Award
Physical description Silver
Maker Unknown
Place made United Kingdom
Date made Unknown
Conflict Period 1970-1979
Period 1960-1969

Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil). Unnamed as issued.

History / Summary

This Member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) was awarded to Reg Saunders for his long and dedicated service to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Reginald Walter Saunders was born in 1920, in Purnim, Victoria, near the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve. He came from a long line of soldiers with his community in Western Victoria being known as the 'fighting Gunditjmara' for their extensive and proud contributions to the defence of Australia over several generations.

Both his father and his uncle served in the First World War. His uncle, Reg Rawlings, for whom he was named, received a Military Medal for action at Morlancourt Ridge, France. Rawlings was killed in action at Vauvillers, in 1918. In the Second World War, Reg Saunders and his brother Harry both served in the Army. Harry whilst serving within one of the most decorated Infantry sections of the Australian Army in the 2/14th Battalion was killed in action in New Guinea near Buna and is buried at Bomana Cemetery in Port Moresby. Reg saw action in North Africa at Benghazi, in Greece, and spent 12 months behind German lines on occupied Crete. After being rescued with other Allied servicemen by a British submarine he eventually returned to Australia. He saw service on the Kokoda Trail was shot in the knee but returned to the 2/7th Infantry Battalion after his recovery.

He is the most famous Indigenous Australian soldier and one of the first to be commissioned as an Officer into the Australian Army, in 1944 with the rank of Lieutenant. By the end of the war he had been promoted to Captain. The Korean War provided further opportunity for soldiering. In Korea, he served as Officer Commanding, C Company, 3 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, leading his company through fierce fighting, including the battle at Kapyong in April 1951 for which the battalion was awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation. After having fought the battle for Hill 317, Reg left Korea in October 1952, and resigned from the regular army in 1954.

After leaving the army his life became unsettled, and he had difficulty re-establishing himself as a civilian. Tough years followed, but he overcame them. Meanwhile he found he was increasingly expected to be a spokesperson for Indigenous Australians. In 1969 Reg Saunders was selected to be among the first Aboriginal Liaison Officers for the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, which became the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Devoted to those he had served with, he was a man of dignity and good humour who remained committed to the advancement of his people. His biographer and friend, Harry Gordon, an Australian journalist in Korea, wrote of him: 'He was accepted unreservedly by the men who served with him because false values do not flourish among front-line soldiers.' Saunders was awarded a MBE in 1971 and appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial in July 1985. He died on 2 March 1990.