Reg Saunders was the first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian army. The son of a First World War veteran, Saunders was born in western Victoria on 7 August 1920 and brought up by his grandmother. Having attended school only sporadically, he found work as a sawmiller but imagined himself going to fight in South America for the poor and oppressed, with whom he felt a kinship.
Very conscious of the service of Aboriginal men during the First World War, Saunders enlisted on 24 April 1940 and, after his initial training, was sent to the Middle East as a reinforcement for the 2/7th battalion. Having survived several encounters with German aircraft in North Africa, 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.
After escaping Crete in May 1942, Saunders returned to Australia before rejoining his battalion in New Guinea - now as a sergeant. He fought through the Salamaua campaign, remaining in action with the 2/7th until mid-1944 when his commanding officer nominated him for officer training. After a 16 week course, Saunders was commissioned in November 1944 and returned to New Guinea.
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. By now tired of living rough, Saunders sought work in the city and, for the next five years, worked as a shipping clerk and, later, a builder's labourer.
When the Korean War began he returned to the Army, leaving his wife and three daughters behind. In Korea, Saunders served as a captain in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and fought at Kapyong. 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.
Korean War Diaries
AWM85/4 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment
4/28 April 1951
4/34 October 1951
Gordon, Harry: The embarrassing Australian: the story of an Aboriginal warrior, 2nd ed. Melbourne, Cheshire Lansdowne, 1965.
O Connell, Garth: First Aboriginal commissioned officer Reginald Saunders, AWM web log Friday 13 February 2009 https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/reginald-saunders.