Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero
The true story of Australia’s first Indigenous commissioned army officer
24 April 2015
I recently came across Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero, the true story of Australia’s first Indigenous commissioned army officer. What caught my eye is that Saunders’ story is told in a graphic novel format, successfully blending an intriguing mix of action, biography and military history.
Upon further investigation, I discovered a number of excellent sources of information about Saunders’ life—my favourites including various digitised newspaper articles on Trove, and some rather wonderful photographs on the Australian War Memorial website.
Reg Saunders’ father and uncle served in the First World War, so following in their footsteps, Saunders enlisted to serve during the Second World War, and the Korean War. He quickly proved himself as an exceptional warrior and natural leader, becoming Australia’s first Indigenous commissioned army officer.
I was fascinated to discover that Saunders, and indeed other Indigenous soldiers, experienced little racism whilst in the army, where “mateship trumped race” (Brennan, 2011). When he did encounter racism, Saunders dealt with it!
Although he was considered good enough to fight and to potentially die for his country, the everyday discrimination faced by Indigenous Australians meant that Saunders was unable to rent suitable accommodation for his family until the newspapers reported the disgraceful situation. Upon his return home, Saunders was not granted any land in the Soldier Settlement Scheme, and despite his evident capabilities, he could only find menial work, until his 1969 appointment as liaison officer to the Office of Aboriginal Affairs.
Saunders was certainly not considered good enough by the “powers that were” to represent Australia at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. I was delighted to see that popular opinion is outraged by this snub!
Reg Saunders was widely respected in the ADF community; he was heavily involved with the RSL, and in later life became a member of the council of the Australian War Memorial. This respect shines through Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero. The work is jointly authored by the historians Hugh Dolan and Dr Adrian Threlfall. Hugh Dolan, the conceptual creator is a former Intelligence Officer in the army and the RAAF. He states that “Reg Saunders is simply my hero.” Adrian Threlfall, a former infantryman with the Army Reserve explains that “I have always wanted to bring Reg’s story to a wider audience.” Lieutenant General David Morrison, AO, Chief of Army writes in the graphic novel’s foreword that Saunders “never stopped serving his country and was a unifying symbol for all Australians in an era when too many of us held prejudiced views about Indigenous Australians.”
The Library also holds Hugh Dolan’s other publications, including more military history graphic novels.
The artwork in Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero is detailed, vivid and very realistic. Each panel is well thought-out, melding the factual style of military history with the emotive style of Saunders’ personal story. During the ABC Radio National Late Night Live program, Dolan explains that the faces of the people in the graphic novel are based on photographs, and the dialogue is based on documented conversations.
Many years ago I travelled to France, and my dad was most upset when I showed zero interest in visiting the Somme Battlefields. The problem was the way he pitched it—he made it sound dull, dry and dusty. Not an appealing prospect for an eighteen year old. I regret not going now, because I’ve since come to realise that the most interesting part of military history for me is the individual stories of soldiers. What really sets Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero apart is the graphic novel format, which appeals to children and adults alike. If my dad had given me a graphic novel about the Somme, or even just a well-written and accessible biography in the style of A Fortunate Life, I might not have these regrets.
Indigenous Australians have served in the defence force for well over a century, fighting and dying throughout various wars, and this contribution is often overlooked. Publications such as Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero bring this contribution to light, and are an important depiction of Australian history and culture. It is therefore an especially wonderful thing to see this graphic novel enter the Library’s collection, in recognition of a significant Australian.
Adams, P. 2015, Captain Reginald Saunders, ABC Radio National, Late Night Live, http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/captain-reg-saunders/6328848
Brennan, E. 2011, Indigenous servicemen: their contribution, Australian Geographic, http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2011/05/indigenous-servicemen-their-contribution
Dolan, H. & Threlfall, A. 2015, Reg Saunders : an Indigenous war hero. NewSouth Publishing, Sydney NSW, http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/6610847
McIntyre, D. 2012, Saunders, Reginald Walter (1920–1990), Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/saunders-reginald-walter-15909
Reg Saunders, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reg_Saunders