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Saunders, Reginald Walter (1920–1990)

by Darryl McIntyre

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

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.

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.

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.

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. Living in Melbourne, 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.

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.

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 AWM 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.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Gordon, The Embarrassing Australian (1962)
  • R. O’Neill, Australia in the Korean War 1950-53, vol 2 (1985)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 1969, p 4
  • ‘Captain Reginald Walter (Reg) Saunders, MBE’ http://www.awm.gov.au/people/302.asp, accessed 9 July 2011, copy held on ADB file
  • P. Read, interview with R. Saunders (typescript S520, 1989, Australian War Memorial)
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, item 337678

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Darryl McIntyre, 'Saunders, Reginald Walter (1920–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/saunders-reginald-walter-15909/text27110, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012