Harold West and George Leonard were brothers in childhood before they were brothers in arms.
Murruwarri man Harold West grew up with his best friend, George Leonard (Euahlayi Nation), on the border of New South Wales and Queensland. As children, they were taught to hunt, track, and live off the land. As adults they worked as bushman trackers, station hands, ringbarkers and casual labourers. Their experience and ability to move discreetly and invisibly through the bush for long periods would prove indispensable when fighting the Japanese in the Second World War.
On 23 August 1941 West and Leonard enlisted and were posted to the 2/1st Battalion to serve in the Middle East, Ceylon, and Papua New Guinea. In October 1942 Leonard was killed in action while serving along the Kokoda Trail. Stricken with grief, West sought revenge, using his unique set of skills to track the Japanese.
Leaving his unit behind, West filled his pockets with grenades and rations before disappearing for days at a time to hunt Japanese machine-gun posts. Waiting silently for hours alone in the jungle, he would inch carefully towards a party of Japanese and throw grenades before slinking back into the bush. Upon returning, he would report that another Japanese machine-gun post had been taken out of action.
West initially avoided sustaining any wounds during his solo missions, but some weeks later his luck changed and he was hospitalised with a broken leg. During his treatment period he contracted scrub typhus and soon passed away.
In West’s native language Murruwarri means “to fall with a fighting club in one’s hand”, and he did just that: on the battlefield defending his Country and his friend. His bravery inspired many in his community back home and in his unit. For his actions at Kokoda several officers recommended that West be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
In 2018 the Brewarrina Shire Council unveiled a memorial plaque dedicated to West and Leonard as a reminder of the contribution Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made in defence of Australia. The memorial is located in Goodooga in New South Wales on the land where the two friends grew up. Engraved in gold on the plaque is the poem The coloured digger, by Sapper Bert Beros, inspired by West’s experience during the Second World War.
The coloured digger by Sapper Bert Beros
He came and joined the colours, when the war God’s anvil rang,
He took up modern weapons to replace his boomerang,
He waited for no call-up, he didn't need a push,
He came in from the stations, and the townships of the bush.
He helped when help was wanting, just because he wasn't deaf;
He is right amongst the columns of the fighting AIF
He is always there when wanted, with his Owen gun or Bren,
He is in the forward area, the place where men are men.
He proved he’s still a warrior, in action not afraid,
He faced the blasting red hot fire from mortar and grenade;
He didn’t mind when food was low, or we were getting thin,
He didn’t growl or worry then, he’d cheer us with his grin.
He’d heard us talk democracy – They preach it to his face –
Yet knows that in our Federal House there’s no one of his race.
He feels we push his kinsmen out, where cities do not reach,
And Parliament has yet to hear the Abo’s maiden speech.
One day he’ll leave the Army, then join the League he shall,
And he hopes we’ll give a better deal to the Aboriginal.