ALMOST 80 years after he died defending his country on the Kokoda Track, the spirit of Harry Saunders was welcomed back to country in a symbolic ceremony at the Lake Condah mission on Saturday.
Soil from the indigenous soldier’s grave in Papua New Guinea was brought home and returned to the land where he was raised.
A small crowd of relatives and representatives from Glenelg Shire, the RSL, and the Department of Defence were present, including Private Saunders’ nephew, Portland filmmaker Richard Frankland, who said it was a moving experience.
“It was very tender,” he said. “It was a beautiful day. It was clear that those present were there to honour Uncle Harry.
“It’s a long overdue recognition.”
He said soil from the grave of Private Saunders had been gathered as part of project to help bring peace to families who had lost indigenous relatives buried overseas as a result of war.
“It was important to stand there with the children and mum and the siblings and welcome Uncle Harry home,” Mr Frankland said.
“It’s important not only to his family, to Gunditjmara people, and to all Aboriginal people, but the whole country.
“This shows most of us are moving forward in a positive light.”
Mr Saunders was about 20 when he left Lake Condah and went to war. He died fighting on the Kokoda Track at Gona on November 29, 1942.
Mr Saunders is part of a historic family of indigenous soldiers. His grandfather fought in World War I, as did an uncle, while his brother was Reg Saunders, the first Aborigine to become a commissioned officer, and his nephews, including Mr Frankland, also served in the army.
Mr Frankland pointed out that “none of us were citizens of Australia when we were born”, referring to the pre-1967 referendum law that counted Aborigines under the Flora and Fauna Act.
“Uncle Harry was clearly regarded in law as a second-class citizen, yet he stood up,” he said.
“He was a young Aboriginal Australian fighting in a war, defending this country that treated him so badly.
“I find that pretty amazing.”
Mr Frankland made an award-winning short film in 1999 about his uncle’s life called Harry’s War.