Uncle Reg | Gunditjmara Warrior

24 April 2019 | General Interest



One of the most known Aboriginal people to serve was Gunditjmara man Reginald Walter Saunders, who was the first Aboriginal person to reach the rank of officer in the Australian military.

After the outbreak of World War II, Uncle Reg enlisted in the Army. His strong leadership meant that he was appointed acting sergeant of his training battalion. He then sailed to the Middle East and joined the unit at Marsa Brega, Libya in February 1941 as a private.

He was involved in the failed Greek campaign where his battalion was forced to withdraw. When a German bomb damaged the ship he was on he was transferred onto another vessel and put ashore on the island of Crete.

Uncle Reg saw his first serious action on May 1941, where he took part in a bayonet charge that disorganised the enemy. When the allied army left the island, Uncle Reg’s battalion was left behind and he was one of the few soldiers that refused to surrender. With the assistance of locals and incredible perseverance Uncle Reg avoided capture for eleven months behind enemy lines.

In May 1942 he escaped on a fishing boat to Libya and arrived back in Australia in September.

In April 1943, Uncle Reg travelled to Wau, New Guinea to rejoin his battalion to take part in another campaign. Uncle Reg’s athleticism and skills in the bush were extremely valuable to his unit. In October, the battalion repositioned in North Queensland, where Uncle Reg was promoted to officer.

From March 1945, Uncle Reg was in command of a platoon in New Guinea. While fighting, he was hit in the knee by a bullet but was only out of action for 10 days. He returned to Australia post-war and worked in various fields in Melbourne and Sydney.

When the Korean War began in 1950, Uncle Reg signed up to serve again. In November he joined the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australia Regiment and was promoted to temporary captain. The company he commanded fought against the Chinese and North Korean forces.

“As the first Indigenous Australian to be commissioned in the army, he did much to break down racist assumptions about his people.”

 

Despite his sacrifices for his country, Uncle Reg and his family continued to experience racism and discrimination back in Australia. He wasn’t granted any land in the Soldier Settlement Scheme, unlike his non-Aboriginal counterparts.

Regardless, Uncle Reg continued to be loyal to his country, training recruits and was remembered for his ability to lead men into battle. It was noted that soldiers loved serving under him, labelling him as “easy going”, “proud” and “tolerant” with a good sense of humour.

In 1969, Uncle Reg began work as a liaison officer in the Office of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra. He was honoured in 1971 for his work in establishing communications between the government and Aboriginal communities. In 1985 he joined the council of the Australia War Memorial, Canberra.

He passed away in 1990 and was survived by 10 children. In 1992 the RSL established a scholarship in his name for Aboriginal and Torrest Strait Islander men and women. His skills, leadership and bravery continue to be remembered in the Community and the military.

Although Uncle Reg is only one man amongst thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who served in the military, his story offers a strong representation of strength and perseverance in a time when he wasn’t offered acceptance and equality in many ways.

This right to acceptance and equality is one that still continues to this day but the road was strongly paved by the people like Uncle Reg who helped turn the Australian narrative of inclusion.