Captain Reginald Saunders

Lieutenant Thomas Derrick VC DCM (right) shakes hands with Lieutenant Reginald Saunders following their successful graduation from the Officer’s Cadet Training Unit at Seymour, Victoria, 1944. Keith Carr Rainsford, AWM 083166

Reginald Saunders was born near Purnim, Victoria, on the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve in 1920. “Reg”, as he was known, was named in honour of his uncle, William Reginald Rawlings, who had earned a Military Medal for his bravery in the First World War. Reg’s father, Chris, had also served in the First World War. Raised by their grandmother after their mother died in 1924, Reg and his younger brother, Harry, remained close to their father, and the three later opened a sawmilling business. When his father talked about the First World War, Reg listened with “ears as big as footballs”, and at the outbreak of the Second World War he was eager to volunteer for service.

Indigenous Australians were prevented from enlisting in the Second Australian Imperial Force, but restrictions were not consistently enforced and both Saunders brothers joined in early 1940. Reg proved to be a natural soldier and an outstanding leader, and was promoted to sergeant within a few short months. After perilous encounters with Italian and German forces in North Africa and mainland Greece, Reg’s battalion took part in the ill-fated campaign on Crete.

Britain had established a garrison on Crete in late 1940, but few defensive preparations had been made in April 1941, when the German conquest of Greece placed it under threat. By the end of May the Allies were forced to evacuate Crete, but there was not enough time or ships to transport everyone. Hundreds, including Reg, were left behind.

Reg remained hidden on the island for the next 11 months, helped by a local family. After escaping aboard a British submarine and returning to Australia, he began training for jungle warfare against the Japanese in the Pacific. In late 1942 Reg learned that his younger brother, Harry, had been killed in the bitter fighting that had taken place towards the end of the Papuan campaign. Reg was in New Guinea the following year, and was selected for officer training in Australia. Graduating as a lieutenant, he returned to New Guinea, where he commanded a platoon of 30 men, making him the first known Aboriginal to be commissioned in the Australian army.

The feeling of equality many Indigenous Australians had experienced in the army disappeared when the Second World War ended. Reg moved to Melbourne with his wife, Dorothy, and three young children, but struggled to find work that matched his qualifications. He re-enlisted for service in the Korean War and served as a captain. He was discharged from the army in 1954 and later moved to Canberra, where he worked at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. He was made a Member of the British Empire for his commitment to raising the profile of Indigenous communities, and was appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial in 1985. He died in 1990, aged 69.

Find out more about Reginald Saunders here.


  1. Listen to the following oral history recording [number 6, tape 1, side 1] or download the transcript.  
    1. Why did Reg volunteer for service?
    2. What expectations do you think he may have had about army life before enlisting?

Related objects

Jungle green shirt

Pacific Star medal

Last updated: