Biography

Birth date: 07 August 1920
Birth place: Australia: Victoria, Purnim
Death date: 02 March 1990
Final rank: Captain
Service number: 337678 - Korea, 1950-1953
VX12843 - Second World War, 1939-1945
Units:
  • 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment
  • 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion

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.

Source Material

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).

Rolls and Awards

Collection Items

Photograph

003967

1940-09. SOMEWHERE AT SEA. SERGEANT REG SAUNDERS - THE ABORIGINAL SOLDIER IS HELD IN EXCELLENT REGARD BY BOTH OFFICERS AND MEN, AND IS ONE OF THE SMARTEST MEN IN THE COMPANY. (NEGATIVE BY R. WILLIAMS).

003967

083166

Lieutenant (Lt) T.C. Derrick, VC DCM (right) shaking hands with Lt R. W. Saunders (left), as they congratulate each other following their successful graduation from the Officer's Cadet Training Unit at Seymour. Lt Saunders was the first Aboriginal commissioned in the Australian Army.

083166

083167

LIEUTENANT (LT) R.W. SAUNDERS, 2/7TH INFANTRY BATTALION (3), IN THE RANKS DURING THE GRADUATION CEREMONY FROM THE OFFICERS' CADET TRAINING UNIT SEYMOUR. IDENTIFIED PERSONNEL ARE:- LT T.J. DONOGHUE (1); LT J.W. THIRKILL (2); LT H.H. WOOLCOTT (4).

083167

Art

Captain Reg Saunders

Reginald Walter Saunders was born in 1920, in Purnim, Victoria, near the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve. He came from a long line of soldiers. 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...

ART28159

Film

Passing out of Officer Cadet Training Unit School

Mute copy of Movietone newsreel item on passing out parade at Officer Cadets' Training Unit (OCTU), Seymour, VIC. 32 (VX63396) Lieutenant General (Lt Gen) John Northcott accompanied by VX11 Lieutenant Colonel John Alfred Wilmoth, Commandant of Seymour OCTU, inspect the cadets. Lt Gen Northcott...

F07122

Heraldry

Engraved cigarette case : Sergeant R W Saunders 2/7 Battalion AIF

Cigarette case with matt gold coloured interior. The exterior surface of the case is stamped with a decorative waffle pattern. A small piece in the top left corner of the exterior does not have this pattern and within this is faintly punched 'RWS'. Scratched into the interior surface are the...

REL/18642

2/7th Battalion souvenir pennant : Captain R W Saunders

Triangular red wool felt souvenir pennant with dark brown felt reinforcing strip and two pairs of ties attached to the fly. Printed in yellow is a Rising Sun badge over '2/7 AUS. INF. BN.' over the battalion colour patch (brown over red), over 'CEDE NULLIS'. Printed adjacent to this design are the...

RELAWM32920

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

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

REL/18641.001

Sound

Reginald Walter Saunders (Reg), as a Captain, (337678/VX12843), Aboriginal serviceman 2/7th Battalion, interviewed by Peter Read for the Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939-45.

Discusses education; employment; religion; enlistment; aborigines in WW2; 2/7th Battalion; training; mateship; leave; racism; desert operations; disease; air raids; discipline; rations; AIF Greek relations; promotion; jungle operations; Returned Services League (RSL); Mentions Victoria; Bardia,...

S00520

Timeline

Date of birth 1920-08-07 Puruim, VIC.
Date and unit at enlistment (ORs) 1940-04-24 Enlisted 2nd AIF.
Other 1940-04-24 Posted to 2/7th Battalion, 6th Division.
Other 1942-05 Escaped capture in Crete. Later returning to Australia before rejoining his battalion in New Guinea as a sergeant.
Date commissioned 1944-11-25 Graduated as a lieutenant from course 14, Officers Training School, at the Infantry Wing of the Officer Cadet Training Unit, Seymour. Saunders became the first Aboriginal comissioned officer to serve in the Australian Forces. He returned to service in New Guinea.
Date promoted 1950 Appointed captain in charge of C Company, 3rd Battalion. Captain Saunders was the first Aboriginal serviceman to command a rifle company.
Other 1951 Fought in the Battle of Kapyong, Korea.
Date of discharge 1954-10-05
Other 1967 Joined the Office of Aboriginal Affairs as a liaison and public relations officer.
Date of honour or award 1971-06-12 Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Other 1985-07 Appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial.
Date of death 1990-03-02