Australian War Memorial gallery named in honour of Indigenous soldier Reg Saunders
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Australian War Memorial gallery named in honour of Indigenous soldier Reg Saunders

Reg Saunders' daughter Glenda Humes remembers walking down the aisles of a supermarket in country Victoria as a young girl, surrounded by shoppers high-fiving her father.

He was a talented Australian rules footballer, she said.

Captain Reg Saunders' daughters Dorothy Burton, Glenda Humes and Judith Standen inside the gallery named after their father.

Captain Reg Saunders' daughters Dorothy Burton, Glenda Humes and Judith Standen inside the gallery named after their father.Credit:Graham Tidy

Captain Reginald Walter 'Reg' Saunders was also the first indigenous Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian Army and is arguably the country's best known Aboriginal soldier.

Now, Captain Saunders is set to become perhaps, even more recognisable.

Relatives of Reg Saunders inside the Captain Reg Saunders Gallery.

Relatives of Reg Saunders inside the Captain Reg Saunders Gallery. Credit:Graham Tidy

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After the major crowds had cleared from the Australian War Memorial on a rainy Remembrance Day in Canberra, about 70 of the late serviceman's family gathered for the opening of the Captain Reg Saunders Gallery and Courtyard - the first space inside the memorial to be named after any Australian.

Captain Saunders served in the Middle East, Greece, Crete and New Guinea during the Second World War, before serving in the Korean War as captain of the third battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.

Through his service in the Australian Defence Force and later with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs, he is also remembered as a strong advocate for breaking down discrimination against Indigenous Australians.

Memorial director Brendan Nelson described the former Western Gallery as a place "where some of the most emotional and transformative things have occurred in my almost three year tenure here".

He said the memorial's council voted unanimously to name the space after Captain Saunders.

"Only one person is going to have his name on anything inside the Australian War Memorial - that's Reg Saunders," Dr Nelson said.

"This is not some quiet corner of the museum."

Ms Humes, Captain Saunders' eldest surviving daughter, said she was "blown away" to discover a place in the memorial would be named after her father.

"We thought, 'what an honour', particularly when [Dr Nelson] told us the story that this is the first time a room in the memorial has been named after somebody," she said.

"You think, 'wow, that's my dad'. You don't always see your dad in the way other people do.

"It's a great honour for us and for our family but also for Australian service people and the kids who want to be, maybe thinking about a career in the service."

She said her memory of that Saturday in the supermarket with her father reflected how proud he was of his Aboriginality.

"I kept saying, 'Dad, how come all these people know you?'

"He said, 'well, they know me because I played football but also, because I'm black'.

"To me, that was a lesson in being proud of who you are as an Aboriginal person - and he always was foremost proud of being Aboriginal."

Indigenous historian Dr Jackie Huggins described Captain Saunders as "a legend amongst our people".

She linked the re-naming of the gallery and courtyard with the country's broader reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

"For all Australians, seeing the importance of having an Aboriginal soldier and his gallery recognised here in Canberra, the national capital, does great things," she said.

"I think, for this nation and certainly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we see that we are now being valued and recognised, something which our soldiers were not when they came home from war.

"They were denied access into clubs, pubs and RSL clubs. Now, our country is changing."