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Saunders, Reginald Walter (Reg) (1920–1990)

Reg Saunders MBE, the first Aboriginal Australian to win rank as an officer in the Australian Army, joined the Department of Aboriginal Affairs on the first day of its inception. He died yesterday morning, on the last day of the department's existence.

Mr Saunders, 70, was proud of his country, for which he constantly declared his love and deep affection. A Canberra resident, he was regarded with great affection by his fellow Australians and admired for his straightforward presence and honesty.

He served with the 6th Australian Division in the North African and Greek campaigns. In the Greek campaigns, he evaded capture for 11 months after the Allied forces had surrendered, in part by teaching himself to speak Greek.

In November, 1944, after commendations for his initiative and composure under fire, Mr Saunders became the first Aborigine to be commissioned as an officer of the Australian Army.

Ironically, at the time Aborigines were not entitled to vote and only those issued with permits could buy alcohol. And under Australian civil law, he was not equal to the men over whom he had authority.

Mr Saunders later served in New Guinea and Korea. In Korea, he commanded 200 Australian troops and men who served under him called him "the best officer in the world". His regiment received a United States Presidential Citation, regarded as the equivalent of a unit VC. He reached the rank of captain but on leaving the army did not take the title with him: "I don't care what I am called so long as it doesn't change me personally and I think the captain thing can change you."

A biography, The Embarrassing Australian, was written about Mr Saunders by Korean war correspondent Harry Gordon in 1962.

After the 1967 referendum gave the Federal Government new powers over the states concerning the situation of Aborigines, the Gorton Government chose Mr Saunders as one of three liaison officers to communicate the new powers to the Aboriginal people for the newly-created Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Mr Saunders was made an MBE in 1971 and appointed to the council of the Australian War Memorial in July, 1985.

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'Saunders, Reginald Walter (Reg) (1920–1990)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/saunders-reginald-walter-reg-15909/text35179, accessed 22 August 2019.

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