Reg Saunders was born in 1920, in Purnum, Victoria, near the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve. He came from a long line of soldiers. Both his father and his uncle served in the First World War. His uncle, Reg Rawlings, for whom he was named, received a Military Medal for action at Morlancourt Ridge, France. Rawlings was killed in action at Vauvillers, in 1918 .
In the Second World War, Reg Saunders and his brother Harry both served in the army. Harry was killed in action in New Guinea. Reg was shot in the knee in a separate action, but returned to the 2/7th Infantry Battalion after his recovery.
Sergeant Saunders on leave from New Guinea , 1943
When he joined up again for service in Korea, Reg led his company through fierce fighting, including the battle at Kapyong in April 1951. 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."
Reg Saunders commented:
"The Americans had negro officers, but they handled negro troops. Sometimes it was suggested to me that Australia should have its own Aboriginal battalion. I'm dead against the idea. it would mean a line of demarcation - a separateness. They would be treated as something apart, and that would be bad."
After service in Korea, Saunders remained in the regular army for a year before resigning his commission. Returning to civilian life proved a difficult transition. Having been accustomed to leading others in difficult and dangerous situations, and to being a respected and admired officer, when he returned to Australian society he faced discrimination; his qualities as leader went unappreciated. After years of difficulty, he had a successful career working for the Aboriginal Affairs Office and later at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. He died in 1990.