Date of birth: 7 August 1920
Place of birth: Purnim, Victoria
Date of death: 2 March 1990
Place of Death: Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
(Photograph) William Norman Gravener, c. 1951, Korea. Captain Reginald Walter Saunders. (Photograph used with kind permission of Mrs Georgina Gartland)
Reg Saunders was the first well-known 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 following the death of his mother in 1924 was largely brought up by his grandmother. Having attended school only sporadically, he found work at a local saw mill, but imagined himself going to fight in South America for the poor and oppressed, with whom he felt a kinship.
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 with reinforcements 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; here Saunders experienced his first close combat and was forced to remain hidden on the island for 12 months after the German victory.
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. Prior to attending the course, Saunders married Dorothy Mary Banfield, a WAAAF. After a 16-week course Saunders was commissioned in November 1944 and returned to New Guinea in March 1945.
For the remaining months of the war Saunders served as platoon commander of 10 Platoon, B Company, 2/7th Battalion. He was in the Wewak area when the war ended and was repatriated to Australia. His return was a melancholy one for Saunders and his family, as his brother Harry, serving with the 2/14th Battalion, had been killed in action during the battle of Gona on 29 November 1942. 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 was promoted to temporary captain and took command of C Company of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He led C Company during the battle of Kapyong in April 1951, and in October was in charge of the Medium Machine Gun section of Support Company, 3RAR, during the battle for Maryang San.
On returning from Korea, Saunders was posted to a National Service Training Battalion in Victoria and reverted to the rank of lieutenant. He was dissatisfied with the National Service Training scheme, and in 1954 took his discharge from the army.
Initially, Saunders found work as a logging contractor in Gippsland before moving to Sydney where, for the next 11 years, he worked with the Austral Bronze Company. In 1967 he joined the Office of Aboriginal Affairs as a liaison and public relations officer. He had a major impact on Indigenous policy implementation and his community relations work.
Saunders’s first marriage did not survive long after his return from the Korean War. A second marriage followed, but it also ended in divorce. He had ten children and was awarded the MBE in 1971. A well-respected soldier and leader, Reg Saunders died on 2 March 1990.
- 2/7th Battalion
- Out in the Cold: Australia's involvement in the Korean War
- Collection Items
- Second World War Nominal Roll (external website)
- Korean War Nominal Roll (external website)
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 (provide link).