Brothers in arms

09 December 2019 by Claire Hunter

Privates George Leonard and Harold West

Informal portrait of best mates Private George Leonard (NX43504) and Private Harold West, (NX43500).

Harold West and George Leonard were best mates who did everything together.

The pair enlisted together at Goodooga in north-western New South Wales in August 1941, were posted together to the 2/1st Battalion, and served together in the Middle East, Ceylon, and Papua New Guinea.

As young Indigenous boys growing up on the border between New South Wales and Queensland, they had been taught to hunt, track, and live off the land.

As adults, they put their specialised skills to work as bushman trackers, station hands, ringbarkers and casual labourers.

Harold, a proud Murrawarri man, was so good at his work that it was said he “could track a little black ant up a crowbar after six inches of rain”.

These skills, along with his ability to move quietly and invisibly through the bush for long periods of time, would prove indispensable during the Second World War when his battalion found itself desperately fighting to stop the Japanese advance on the Kokoda Trail in 1942.

Private George Leonard enlisted with his mate Harold West at Goodooga.

Private George Leonard enlisted with his mate Harold West at Goodooga.

When his best mate George was killed at Eora Creek in October, Harold was stricken with grief.

Over the following days and nights, he sought revenge, putting his specialised skills to work to track the Japanese and even the score.

Leaving his unit behind, Harold would disappear for days at a time to hunt Japanese machine-gun posts.

Armed with a bag of grenades, Harold stealthily moved behind the enemy’s lines, eliminating machine-gun posts and numerous other enemy positions.

Waiting silently for hours alone in the jungle, he would inch carefully towards a party of Japanese soldiers and throw grenades before slinking back into the bush. He would then disappear into the jungle, evading capture, despite the enemy’s best efforts to find him.

Upon returning, he would report that another Japanese machine-gun post had been taken out of action.

Private Harold West

Private Harold West served with his mate Private George Leonard in the 2/1st Battalion.

Sadly, Harold died just a few weeks later. He had initially managed to avoid being wounded during his solo missions, but his luck changed when he accidentally broke his leg. He contracted scrub typhus while being treated in hospital in Port Moresby, and died in November 1942.

In his native language, Murrawarri means “to fall with a fighting club in one’s hand”, and he had done just that, defending his Country and his friend.

Murrawarri elder Doris Shillingsworth is one of Harold West’s descendants. She was named after his wife Doris, and grew up hearing about his acts of bravery during the war.

“We used to hear a lot of stories about him,” she said. 

“When we were kids marching in Anzac Day parades, some of the old non-indigenous men who served with him used to tell us stories about him sneaking into the jungle and blowing up the Japanese guns.

“He used to melt into the night. Because he had fuzzy hair and was dark like the Papua New Guineans, they said he would take his uniform off, and get dressed up like the civilians, and put a bone through his nose.

“He used to carry a sugar bag around with grenades in it and took out his revenge on the Japanese army because of what they had done to George.

“They had gone over there together and fought together and when he died, he wanted to make sure they paid for what had happened.

“He was a hero, and he really deserved the Victoria Cross.”

Aunty Doris Shillingsworth, left, at the Memorial.

Doris Shillingsworth, left, was among a group of Murrawarri elders and representatives who were presented with a picture of George Leonard and Harold West at the Memorial.

Aunty Doris was among a group of Murrawarri elders and representatives who visited the Australian War Memorial to pay their respects to Harold and George.

For Aunty Doris, seeing an image of the best mates at the Memorial was particularly emotional. “When I saw it, I was overwhelmed by it,” she said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

She was honoured to place poppies by their names on the Roll of Honour. “I was very, very, proud,” she said. “Those old people fought for us, and we wanted to pay our respects and stand up for them. 

“Standing there, looking at all the others, and at all the old diggers that fought for us, it’s pretty special… It’s like a special keeping place.”

Placing poppies

The Murrawarri representatives were in Canberra to present the Ode in Murrawarri language to the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Rick Burr. The Ode was written on a kangaroo skin in both the Murrawarri language and in English by Aunty Doris’s son Allan, a Murrawarri artist.

“The stories on it are told in symbols representing the old warriors from our country that fought for Australia in the army,” Aunty Doris said.

“On either side of the ode, stand two tribal warriors in traditional pose with the traditional weapon, representing Grandfather Harold West and Grandfather George Leonard.

“They were warriors with traditional skills who laid down their traditional weapons – the spear – to take up the modern weapon, the rifle.

“These tribal warriors also represent the full circle that Grandfather Harold West went through, from traditional to modern, and then back, using his traditional skills to destroy the enemy.”

Presenting Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr

The Murrawarri elders and representatives presented a copy of the Ode in Murrawarri language to the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Rick Burr.

She is particularly proud of a memorial plaque that was dedicated to Harold and George in Goodooga in 2018 as a reminder of the contribution Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have made in defence of Australia.

“They took up arms to fight to protect their country, their land, their nation, and their families,” Aunty Doris said.

“The Murrawarri lands provided the clans with a rich abundance of food, water and shelter. However our country was more than just a source of survival to the Murrawarri; it held the reason for their existence, and gave them a spiritual and cultural dimension that made them Murrawarri.

“Aboriginal lore is all about protection – protection of our safety, protection of mother earth, and protection of all the living things.

“Country is the most important thing; if you’ve got a connection to your country, you’ve got a connection to your plants, your land, your boundaries. That is more important than anything, to know your connection to the land, and that is why they did what they did.

“You protect the land and the country, and the land protects you.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a long standing tradition of fighting for Country, and continue to serve with honour among our military forces. The Memorial's touring exhibition For Country, for Nation highlights these stories.

The memorial plaque commemorating Private George Leonard and Private Harold West at Goodooga is listed on the Memorial's Places of Pride website, a national register of war memorials.

Memorial plaque at Goodooga