By John Telfer
The word legend has been installed on many Australians, or events, over the years which makes the title a little bit superficial at times. The Oxford dictionary gives the meaning of legend when it states: “A legend could be bestowed on any remarkable event or person” and in the case of Captain Reginald Walter Saunders, it rings true. Reg Saunders has the unique distinction of becoming the first indigenous person to gain a Commission in the Australian Army on 25th November,1944. Here is Reg’s unique story.
Reginald Walters Saunders was a proud Gunditjmara man, born on the 7th August 1920 at Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve, Purnim, in South Victoria. He was the eldest son of Walter and Mabel Saunders and a sibling to his younger brother Harry. Walter, Reg’s father, and his grandfather, had been members of the First AIF in World War 1, and William Rawlings, Military Medal winner in World War 1 was an uncle to young Reg. So, there was a military heritage in the Saunders family.
Both Reg and his younger brother Harry, were raised by their maternal grandmother and were educated at Lake Condah State School, and Hamilton High School in Victoria, but Reg became restless and wanted to leave school and help out the family. Both boys were very close to their father and worked alongside him in the timber and dairying industries. Reg was an excellent sportsman and excelled in football and cricket, as well as being a very handy boxer. In the latter part of the 1930’s, Reg and Harry were working with their father Walter as timber contractors until the outbreak of war in 1939. Keen to help their country both Reg and Harry enlisted into the Australian Amy, but went their different ways.
Reg enlisted on the 24th April 1940 and was posted to the 2/7th Battalion, 6th Division for service in North Africa. After a short time, Reg’s 2/7th Battalion and the 2/8th were deployed to Crete to help stop the advancing German army who were using paratroopers and gliders to attack the island. On 27th May 1941, Reg and his battalion were sent to defend the British army’s garrison at a place called 42nd street. (It was given the name by the Royal Engineers who were based there). Heavily outnumbered, Reg and his battalion were ready to be overwhelmed by German forces when it was decided that 300 men would attempt a bayonet charge to enable the evacuating Australian forces a safe retreat, and this bayonet attack would slow down the German advance. The 300 men included members of the 2/7th. 2/8th and 5 New Zealand battalions, also, consisting of an all- Maori group. This was possibly the last bayonet charge by Australian forces in their military history, and it was so successful that after furious fighting, 200 German troops were killed and only 40 Anzacs died in the charge.
Eventually, Reg and members of his battalion decided to escape capture by the overwhelming German troops and escaped into the Crete hinterland. After eluding German patrols looking for Commonwealth soldiers, Reg, another Australian, and a New Zealander, were taken in at a small village in Labini where there were hidden for 11 months. However, they became concerned that the Germans were executing villagers who were found to be harbouring soldiers, so they left their hiding place and eventually, in May 1942, made their way to a ship that returned them to Australia.
After returning to his battalion in New Guinea, Reg was promoted to Sergeant and fought throughout the Salamaua and Lae campaigns until mid’1944. Such was Reg’s leadership qualities, his Commanding Officer recommended Reg for officer training at Seymour, in Victoria, Australia. It was here that Reg created Australian military history by becoming the first indigenous man to be commissioned as an officer, on 25th November 1944, and returned to New Guinea as a Platoon Commander. He remained in New Guinea until the end of the war and was based at Wewak. Reg did apply to stay in the army and serve in the British Occupation Forces in Japan but was rejected, as the Government did not allow indigenous people in this operation. Sadly, his younger brother Harry who had also enlisted with him was killed in New Guinea.
After the ending of World War 2 in 1945, Reg returned to civilian life, and worked as a shipping clerk and builder’s labourer. He married and had three children, before the call to arms was once again aroused in him when Australia became involved in the Korean War of 1951. Reg was immediately accepted into “K” Force and retained his previous rank of Captain, and posted to the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.
In Korea, Reg was once again embroiled in the action as his ‘C’ Company was involved in the Battle of Kapyong where the Australians received an American Citation for their courage, by fighting off massive Chinese assaults on their position on the ridges of Kapyong from 22nd – 25th April, 1951. On 3rd of October his company was also heavily involved in the Battle of Maryang where, once again, they held off heavy assaults by Chinese forces. When the Korean War ended in 1954, Reg was posted back to Australia to a National Service training unit but became disillusioned with army life, resigned his commission in October 1954, and left the army for good.
The war had an effect on his marriage and after receiving a divorce, Reg remarried and had another four children. He worked in Gippsland as a logging contractor before moving to Sydney to work with Austral Bronze. However, after the 1967 Referendum giving Indigenous people rights, Reg took up a position with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs as a Liaison and Public Relations Officer. In 1971, Reg was honoured by being awarded a Member of the British Empire Medal, a very fitting recognition for Reg and his family. Reg passed away on 2nd March 1990 after serving on the Australian War Memorial Council from 1985- 1987.
In conclusion, readers of this story must be impressed by Reginald Walter Saunders as a courageous warrior and a wonderful Australian. He deserves, and fits, the title of Legend, for being the first indigenous man to be awarded a Commission in the Australian army. Research shows that he did not suffer any great discrimination and only one example was shown in his story, but he quickly put down when racially insulted as a young man, with his fists. However, his personality and leadership qualities shone through at a time when Australia needed leaders in the desert, jungles, and ice- cold mountainous Korea. It was probably summed up well by one of Australia’s leading journalists of the post-war period, Harry Gordon, who had this to say about Reginald Walter Saunders: “He was accepted unreservedly by the men he served with him, because false values do not flourish among front line soldiers.”