Life On The Job

Indigenous Famous Person's Story

Captain Reg Saunders (7 August 1920 - 2 March 1990 ) ARMY OFFICER

Reg Saunders

Quick Facts

Name: Reginald Walter Saunders
Born: 7 August 1920, Framlingham, Victoria
Died: 2 March 1990, Sydney


Reginald Saunders, MBE was the first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army. He came from a military family, his forebears having served in the Boer War and the First World War. Enlisting as a soldier in 1940, he saw action during the Second World War in North Africa, Greece and Crete before being commissioned as a lieutenant and serving as a platoon commander in New Guinea during 1944–45. His younger brother Harry also joined the Army, and was killed in 1942.

After the war Saunders was demobilised and returned to civilian life. He later served as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) during the Korean War, where he fought at the Battle of Kapyong.

Reg left the Army in 1954 and worked in the logging and metal industries before joining the Office of Aboriginal Affairs (later the Department of Aboriginal Affairs) as a liaison officer in 1969. In 1971, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his community service. He died in 1990, aged 69. (Source: Wikipedia)


With Derrick
Lieutenant (Lt) Thomas Currie 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.
(Source: AWM)

Early Life

Reginald Walter Saunders (1920-1990), army officer, was born on 7 August 1920 at Framlingham Aboriginal reserve, near Purnim, Victoria, elder son of locally born parents Walter Christopher George Saunders, labourer, and his wife Mabel, née Arden (d.1924). Chris Saunders had served in the Australian Imperial Force in World War I. He named his first son after William Reginald Rawlings, who had won the Military Medal in that war. Reg and his brother Harry were raised by their maternal grandmother but remained close to their father. They grew up with a sense of loyalty and duty to Australia. After attending Lake Condah State School and, briefly, Hamilton High School, Reg worked in both the timber and dairying industries. He built a reputation as a good footballer and he also boxed and played cricket. By the late 1930s he was in business with his father and brother as timber contractors.(Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)

Saunders was born near Purnim on the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve in western Victoria on 7 August 1920. He was a member of the Gunditjmara people. His father, Chris, was a veteran of the First World War, having served as a machine gunner in the Australian Imperial Force. One of his uncles, William Reginald Rawlings, who was killed in action and after whom Saunders was named, had been awarded the Military Medal for service with the 29th Battalion in France. Another ancestor, John Brook, fought with the Victorian Rifles and the Australian Commonwealth Horse in the Boer War.

Saunders' mother died in 1924 from complications caused by pneumonia while giving birth to her third child, a girl, who also died. After this, his father moved to Lake Condah in Victoria, with Reg and his younger brother, Harry, born in 1922. As their father undertook various labouring jobs, the two boys were raised largely by their grandmother. (Source: Wikipedia)


Saunders attended the local mission school at Lake Condah, where he did well in maths, geometry and languages. His father, meanwhile, taught Reg and Harry about the bush, and encouraged them to read Shakespeare and Australian literature. After completing eight years of schooling, Saunders earned his merit certificate. His formal education thus ended, he went to work at the age of 14 as a millhand in a sawmill. (Source: Wikipedia)

Employment & Training

Employers regularly withheld payments for Aboriginal labourers at this time; however, Saunders refused to work unless he was paid his full entitlement, and his employer relented. He worked and furthered his education until 1937, when he went into business with his father and brother operating a sawmill in Portland, Victoria; the sawmill was destroyed in a bushfire in 1939. (Source: Wikipedia)

Experiences & Opportunities:

Following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Saunders enlisted in the AIF on 24 April 1940. His leadership qualities were soon evident and by August he was an acting sergeant in his training battalion. Next month he sailed for the Middle East with reinforcements for the 2/7th Battalion. On joining the unit at Marsa Brega, Libya, in February 1941, he reverted to private. In April he was involved in the disastrous Greek campaign. His battalion withdrew to Kalamata, from where he embarked in the transport Costa Rica. When a German bomb disabled the ship he was transferred to another vessel and put ashore on Crete.

Officer Training
Officer Training
(Source: NLA)

There Saunders saw his first serious action. On 26 May he took part in the bayonet charge at ‘42nd Street’ that temporarily disorganised the enemy. When Allied resistance on the island ceased at the end of the month, the 2/7th Battalion was left behind in the hasty evacuation. Saunders was one of a number of soldiers who refused to surrender. Assisted by sympathetic Cretans, he avoided capture for eleven months. On 7 May 1942 he escaped aboard a trawler to Bardia, Libya. He arrived back in Australia in September and in January 1943 was promoted to acting sergeant (substantive in April). His brother Harry had been killed in action at Gona, Papua, on 29 November 1942, while serving with the 2/14th Battalion, AIF.

Did You Know?

In June 1941 German troops took control of the Greek Island of Crete when Reginald Saunders was serving as a non-commissioned officer in the 2/7th Battalion.

Island of Crete
Crete is the large island at the bottom of this map - 2.

There were two options for the 21 year old Australian serviceman: surrender to the Germans or take to the hills and try and survive. Reg was always going to choose the later. With the help and generosity of the local villagers he took refuge in an old church 5 km from town. Hiding in cupboards and drains during German raids, he evaded capture for 12 months.
Australian Geographic)

Here is the story of Glenda Humes and other members of Reg's family and their travel to Crete to thank the people there who helped Reg, .

(Source: Sydney Morning Herald 20 November 2010)

Read some of Reg's survival story....

"After moving through the mountains in the weeks that followed the Allied capitulation, Saunders arrived at a village called Labini in the hills south of Rethymno. Of all the hideouts during his time on the run, it was at Labini that he stayed the longest, protected by a woman and her children. Twenty years later he would describe this remarkable matriarch. ''Vasiliki Zacharakis was the bravest woman I've ever seen … classical features and magnificent flashing eyes. She walked straight as a gun barrel and had courage to match. Never saw a woman with so much ruddy strength.''

A few kilometres away, on a hillside north of the village, is the church of Agios Ioannis Theologos where Reg was hidden just outside Labini, in a ruined village called Lofia that was destroyed in Ottoman times. Still accessible only by foot, it was here the Zacharakis family would tend their flocks in the summer. Yiannis leads the way to the isolated church that Saunders shared with two other Diggers - George Burgess of the 2/3rd Battalion and Les ''Dodger'' Vincent of the 2/1st, along with a New Zealander, Arthur Lambert of NZ 18th Battalion.

Saunders travelled much of the time with Burgess, Lambert and Vincent. They moved on foot, mostly at night. They crossed and recrossed the mountains, lived in caves, scaled the desolate high passes; avoiding roads, they traversed the flat fertile plains taking shelter where they could. Shepherds would bring warnings of German patrols, news of a safe house in the next village, and occasionally, knowledge of gatherings of troops waiting above a beach, where in the dead of night an evacuation was due. Together they came close to getting away in January 1942, but the operation was cancelled because of rough seas. Soon after, Arthur Lambert was captured.

Saunders finally left Crete four months later. From official records of operations in May 1942, the location for the evacuation that took Saunders off Crete, along with Burgess and Vincent and at least 30 other men, was due south of Heraklion, below the village of Krotos.
(Source: Sydney Morning Herald 20 November 2010)

In April 1943 Saunders travelled to Wau, New Guinea, where he rejoined the 2/7th. The unit took part in the Salamaua campaign (April-September). Saunders’s athleticism and bushcraft proved to be valuable assets. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Guinn, his commanding officer, valued him as a highly successful leader of patrols and ambushes against the Japanese. In October the battalion moved to North Queensland. On Guinn’s nomination, Saunders appeared before a selection board for promotion to officer rank. Successful, he attended officer training school but periods in hospital with malaria delayed his graduation. On 3 April 1944 at St Matthew’s Church of England, Prahran, Melbourne, he married Dorothy Mary Banfield, who was serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force. Commissioned as a lieutenant on 26 November, he was one of only a few officers to be posted back to their old units.

From March 1945 Saunders was with the 2/7th Battalion in New Guinea and in command of No.10 Platoon. While fighting in the Maprik area on 11 May, he was hit in the knee by a bullet and was out of action for ten days. He returned to Australia in September and on 13 October transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

 Saunders with mates ready to be deployed


Living in Melbourne [after the war], he did odd jobs for a builder, became a tram conductor and worked in an iron foundry, before moving to Sydney where he again obtained employment in an iron foundry. By 1949 he was back in Melbourne and working as a tally clerk at Station Pier. (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)

The Korean War broke out in June 1950 and on 28 August Saunders was appointed to the Interim Army. In November he joined the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in Korea and next month was promoted to temporary captain.

At first a platoon commander in ‘A’ Company, he took command of ‘C’ Company in March 1951. The company engaged in a number of skirmishes with Chinese and North Korean forces and in April participated in the battle of Kapyong, in which 3RAR held firm against waves of Chinese attackers; the battalion was awarded the United States of America’s Distinguished Unit Citation.

Saunders reverted to lieutenant on being posted to 2RAR in Australia in March 1952. He later trained recruits and national servicemen but was unhappy in this role and resigned his commission on 4 October 1954. His metier had been leading men, especially in battle; George Warfe noted that soldiers loved serving under him. But he lacked administrative skills and, as Guinn observed, ‘just wasn’t cut out to be a peacetime officer’. His biographer, Harry Gordon, found him ‘easy-going, proud’ and tolerant.

He had a good-natured sense of humour: when a fellow officer remarked that Korea was ‘no place for a white man’, he replied that it was no place ‘for a black man either’. As the first Indigenous Australian to be commissioned in the army, he did much to break down racist assumptions about his people.

Did You Know?


Three members of the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), confer with a North Korean interpreter (left) who is serving with the battalion. The Australian soldiers are (left to right): Warrant Officer (WO) W.J. ('Bill') Harrison, the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM); Lieutenant (Lt) Reginald Walter Saunders, second-in-command of 'A' Company; Private (Pte) W.H. ('Alby') Alberts of the Sniper Section.
The men are gathered around a small campfire on which a billy is boiling. All three Australian soldiers are wearing padded windproof jackets as protection against the cold, while WO Harrison and Pte Alberts are also wearing pile caps. Lt Saunders is smoking a pipe and Pte Alberts a cigarette. The Korean interpreter, who is wearing a traditional fur-lined cap and other warm clothing, is holding a Bren gun. Photographer Robert Parker. [AWM P01813.866]

(Source: Department of Veterans Affairs)

After trying a number of occupations in Victoria, Saunders moved with his family to St Marys, Sydney, in 1959 and worked for Austral Bronze Co. Pty Ltd. His marriage had failed in 1953 and he lived with Patricia Montgomery; they were to be married on 17 November 1979 at the registry, Queanbeyan, but later parted. In 1962 he was elected president of the St Marys sub-branch of the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia.

The Federal government appointed him a liaison officer in the Office (later Department) of Aboriginal Affairs in 1969 and thereafter he lived in and around Canberra. He was appointed MBE (1971) for his work in establishing communications between the government and Indigenous communities.

In 1985 he joined the council of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. He died of coronary artery disease on 2 March 1990 in Canberra and was cremated with Anglican rites. His ten children survived him.

The Australian War Memorial holds his medals and his portrait by Pamela Thalben-Ball.

In 1992 the RSL established a scholarship in his name for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women. A room in the Lady Gowrie Services Club, Manuka, was named for him; a collection of significant memorabilia held there was lost when the building was destroyed by fire in April 2011. (Source: Australian Dictionary of Biography)

After Reg passed away in 1990, his ashes were scattered at Lake Condah. Today, two streets in Canberra bear his name. Each year, the RSL awards the Captain Reg Saunders Scholarship to an Indigenous student. His medals are displayed at the Australian War Memorial.

Reg displayed courage and leadership during Australia's wartime years, earning him the respect of those he served with, and the gratitude of all he defended. Importantly, he offered proof to future generations of Indigenous Australians that the seemingly impossible could be achieved.


Foundation backs Reg Saunders film

Documentary film

Australian Army: Reg Saunders MBE


Australian War Memorial - Out in the Cold

Out in the Cold

National Library of Australia

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Australian War Memorial - Collection

Victoria University: Reg Saunders: An Indigenous Hero


ABC - Late Night Live [Audio] 18 March 2015

Late Night Live


Discrimination involved?

PrimaryPrimary MiddleMiddle High SchoolSecondary

Personal and social capabilityAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Literacy

Ethical Understanding Australian Curriculum General Capability: Ethical Understanding
Australian Curriculum Cross Curriculum Priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures



1. In pairs, read the following short entry from the National Library of Australia. Reading

(Source: NLA: Trove)


2. What is this article about?  Together, answer the following questions:

  • Who's Coronation is taking place?

  • Which Federal Government is in power - Coalition or Labour?

  • Why is anyone going to this Coronation besides the Head of Government?

  • What is the Coronation Contingent? Who is invited?

  • What does the initials "RSL" stand for? Why would they plea Saunders' inclusion at the Coronation?

3. Read the following two articles to understand Coronation Contingent of 1953

Australian War Memorial - The Coronation Contingent of 1953 Reading

Coronation Contingent

National Library of Australia: Portland Guardian (Vic: 1876 - 1953) Monday 9 March 1953 Reading


3. With your partner, discuss your answers.

4. Discussion


As a class, discuss the issue:

"Was excluding Captain Reg Saunders from the Coronation contingent an act of discrimination?"
Why? Why not?






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