Two decades before he was recognised as a citizen of his country he fought for it in two wars. He couldn’t vote in his own country where his people had been for thousands of years. This was nothing new. His father Walter (Chris) Saunders and uncle William Reginald Rawlings MM had done so before him in the Great War, the uncle not returning home. His family would continue to pay a cost for serving the nation. His brother Harry Saunders would die at Kokoda and his first marriage would not withstand his time away in Korea. What did change was that he became the first Aboriginal to be commissioned into the Australian Army going on to command 100 men in combat.

He was born in Victoria of the Gunditjmara people and worked in a sawmill from a young age. In 1940 he joined the Australian Imperial Force immediately displaying natural leadership skill, in 6 weeks he was promoted to Lance Corporal and within 3 months he had made Sergeant. He was posted to the 2/7th Battalion after training where his rank reverted to Private and he went to Benghazi and then the island of Crete. The 2/7th took part in the fighting around Canae and temporarily checked the German advance with a bayonet charge on 42nd street. As the Allies evacuated, Saunders’ unit fought rearguard actions and were left behind. Most were taken prisoner, a few hid out in the hills and caves of the islands relying on help from the locals. Saunders was one who evaded capture for 12 months and managed to escape rejoining the 2/7th.

He next fought in the Salamaua-Lae campaing where as a platoon sergeant he took command of the platoon when the platoon commander was wounded. Subsequently his commanding officer recommended that he receive a commission. This caused the Army some trepidation given “its special significance” but Saunders  completed sixteen weeks of training back in Australia and received his commission. During training he shared a tent with Victoria Cross winner Tom Derrick.

He returned to New Guinea and was a platoon commander during the Aitape-Wewak campaign with the 2/7th serving until the end of the war. He was hospitalised for 3 weeks after being wounded by Japanese gunfire at Maprik.

Rejected for service with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in Japan, he was a shipping clerk and builder’s labourer following the war. With the outbreak of hostilities in Korea he rejoined the Army and was allocated to 3RAR rising to the lofty heights of Captain. He commanded C Company during the Battle of Kapyong April 22nd to April 25 (ANZAC Day) 1951. At Kapyong, a Brigade of United Nations Force stalled the advance of a whole Chinese division pivotally avoiding a breakthrough on the UN’s Command Central Front. 3RAR was subsequently awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation for their actions.

He oversaw training for national servicemen after returning from Korea but he left the Army in 1954 going to work first in the logging industry and then for the next decade in the Austral Bronze company. Saunders also became involved in the Returned and Services League. In 1967 be became an Aboriginal Liaison Officer in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours of June 1971 his community work was recognised when he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (Civil Division). He passed away in 1990 leaving behind 8 of his 10 children. Two had sadly predeceased him.

He was the first Aboriginal serviceman to command a Rifle Company, and was respected and popular with his men. 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.”

-Lloyd Marken


    1. Thanks Cindy, although it’s most likely going to be about military personnel and not always Australians. My Dad told me about Kapyong so I picked up a book years ago called In Valiant Company which was written by LtCol (Ret) Ben O’Dowd who had served at Kapyong. That’s where I first read about Reg Saunders and it kind of went from there. An extraordinary man with a good sense of humour.

    1. Thanks GP. There’s so much more about him I could say. He was a strong willed but funny man. When I wrote the bulk of this 4 years there was a lot less information on the internet let alone Wikipedia. It would appear his story is not being forgotten which is a good thing. Talk about 6 Degrees of Separation, Reg fought in the Salamaua-Lae Campaign which included the 503rd PIR landing at Nadzab which you wrote about and Staff Sergeant Giunta who I wrote about, served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade which is part of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment today. Coincidentally for a brief time in the 1950s, the 503 PIR was part of the 11th Airborne Division.

      1. The 503rd was also attached to the 11th A/B during the Luzon invasion – they handled the Corregidor jump. I’ve made note of this post’s address.

      2. The terrain of that rock made it extremely difficult. My father said a few men were KIA when they landed on that long line of barracks.

      3. It must have been hard to come back from that and everybody is talking about Iwo Jima and Normandy. Although that’s bullshit, most likely they were just grateful to be alive and wanted to get on with it.

  1. A nice tribute to Reg, and educational too, as I had no idea that Aboriginal officers were commissioned during WW2. Good to hear how respected he was by the men he commanded.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Just him in the Army, he’s famous for being the first but your comment prompted some research on my part. There is Len Waters who was a fighter pilot during the war and an NCO. An Alfred John Hearps of mixed parentage enlisted in World War I and was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant shortly before his death in 1916. He maybe when history is revised remembered truly as Australia’s first Aboriginal Officer but that is how Reg has been known and remembered for many decades. Certainly when Reg trained for and was given his commission that is the milestone he was achieving for others to follow. Both great men in any event. It would be interesting to find out who has followed in Reg’s footsteps. Has there even been an Aboriginal Colonel or General? I think we’ve only ever had two female officers reach one or two star rank. At least one of Saunders’ kin served in Vietnam.

      1. What an extraordinary man, thanks for sharing this Pete. So many got a chance to break down barriers during war and then found themselves treated just as poorly as before when it was over. Tull didn’t even get that.

  2. Amazing Post about an Amazing Man and Warrior. As a Amateur WW2 Historian, I am learning more and more about Australian and New Zealand History through sites like yours (Thanks to GP at Pacific Paratrooper) I am beginning to know now why Rommel was quoted as saying if he had to “Take Hell” he would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to Hold It! Thanks Again.

  3. GP reblogged this and I am very glad he did. I did a five year stint in the Army just after Vietnam and knew a lot about Reg Saunders. I am watching the AFL indigenous round tonight and it is amazing the coincidence that I read this blog. It’s good to have a few Aussie blogs to follow with feeling patronising.

    1. GP at the moment I’m unable to regularly check back on my site at the moment. A few other priorities to attend to. Logging in today was a pleasant surprise and a real joy. Glad everybody enjoyed the article and thank you for reblogging.

      1. No problem Lloyd. You did a great job and the article adds to the information accumulated here. Stay in touch with those that stopped in to read the article completely.

  4. I think your final line makes a most powerful statement.

    Sadly, when they get home—if they get home—it’s too often status quo.
    Stay-at-homes outnumber reality …

  5. How much talent goes to waste because of prejudice? A great story which I would never have come across without your efforts. Thank you so much.

  6. Found this article via GP Cox – most impressed and thank you for giving this acknowledgment of the hurdles Aboriginal Australians did and still do face! So many of them have served this country while so little recognition or thanks is given.

  7. Lloyd, I first heard of Reg Saunders in 1959 when I was a school cadet. We were on camp at Pucka and many of the instructors had been in Korea and I forget the circumstances but we had a Maori Sgt who told us Korea stories during breaks and he mentioned Saunders in glowing terms. But that isn’t what I wanted to write about.
    You began with “Two decades before he was recognised as a citizen of his country he fought for it in two wars. He couldn’t vote in his own country where his people had been for thousands of years. This was nothing new.”
    I am a little concerned because I think most people, including Tony Abbott, have missed something very important. Mr Abbott said that we needed to amend the Constitution to recognise aborigines.
    But, and it is a huge but, section 41 says, “No adult person who has or acquires a right to vote at elections ………of a State shall, while the right continues, be prevented…..from voting at elections for either House of Parliament of the Commonwealth.
    NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania all allowed aborigines to vote, and so by that section 42 they were permitted to vote in Federal elections. This section has NOT been amended and so Reg Saunders would have had the vote, because he would have been allowed to vote in Victoria.
    People have used section 25 to say that the Constitution does not recognise aborigines.
    Sec 25 says, “….if all persons of a race are disqualified from voting at elections of a State, then in reckoning the number of people of the State…..persons of that race shall not be counted.”
    Now that may seem a little damning but it was included to punish WA and Qld, both states which did not allow aborigines to vote in State elections. Because if aborigines were counted as people then both WA and Qld would have had an extra parliamentarian. So the founding fathers said, in effect, if you don’t give them the vote then you won’t get an extra seat in Canberra..
    I could go on and on, but that’s enough for now.
    To sum up, Because aborigines DID have the vote in the four states listed above, then they DID have the vote in Federal elections. AND they could vote because their NAMES were on Electoral ROLLS and so they were recognise.

    1. Thank you John for adding this. I had no idea. I was of the belief that until the Referendum Aborigines could not vote. Certainly it has been said in the past by Aborigines that that at that time they could not vote, get their pension or a drink in a pub. If you have any further information regarding this lament please feel free to add. We sometimes take facts as truths when we’ve heard them enough without looking into it further. I guess the point being made was the Army gave Reg a lot of authority and respect at a time when he could not take them for granted outside of it. He moved forward anyway doing the best he could. In the late 1960s you see a change I think and things got easier for him. Interesting side note I just found out voting wasn’t compulsory for Aborigines until I think 1984.

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