After the Second World War, Kelvin Koorey had a saying: “I was unlucky with my money, but I was lucky with my life.” And lucky he was. A bullet left a crease in his helmet in Syria, one passed through the sleeve of his greatcoat in Greece, and a sniper’s bullet hit him in the head and lodged in his jaw at Kokoda.
When he came home, he kept his damaged helmet, along with a patch of his great coat and the bullet from Kokoda, in a box as a sign of his good luck. His son Brian donated the items to the Australian War Memorial, along with a two-up set Kelvin used during the war, and a Japanese fountain pen and watch that Kel’s brother-in-law collected at Kokoda.
“I grew up with that saying [about luck] my whole life,” Brian said. “Wherever we went, [those things] went with us. They were always just there and I was always aware of them. When I was very young I’d play around with them. Dad’s helmet was always within reach, and the bag of two-up coins sat in a draw for years and I used to play with the pennies and things.
“Even on the Kokoda track he would pull up to have a break for half an hour and take out the pennies and toss them. He carried that bag of two up stuff around with him, wherever he went.”
But his father nearly lost his lucky helmet after being wounded at Kokoda.
“Dad put his helmet on this pile of helmets when they were being demobbed, but when he got outside, he thought, ‘Gee I wish that I’d kept that helmet because it had that crease in it.’
“To him it was a souvenir, and so they allowed him back in, and he ferreted around until he found his helmet, and they let him keep it. To him it was a symbol of his luck.”
Kel, as he was known, was born in Ballina on 17 December 1917 to George and Mary Koorey. He one of four Koorey brothers – Richmond, 28, Nicholas, 26, Kelvin, 23, and Albert, 20 – who enlisted during the Second World War. Their father had emigrated from Lebanon in the late 1890s, and the brothers were keen to do their bit for the war effort. They left their drapery business in Queanbeyan in the hands of one of their shop assistants, Phyllis May Roberts, whom Kel would later marry.
Kel enlisted on 29 May 1940 and joined the 2nd/1st Pioneers. When he arrived in North Africa, he transferred to the 2nd/3rd Battalion on 2 February 1941 to be with his younger brother, Albert. He was having lunch with Albert during a patrol in the Middle East when he had his first close call.
“Like a lot of returned men, Dad didn’t talk a lot about the war, but there were snippets,” Brian said.
“They were sitting against a wall having a bite of hard rations or something, and they weren’t aware of any fighting around them, when suddenly a bullet just put that crease in Dad’s helmet. You can imagine the reaction of them both … It certainly gave him a bit of a shock, and he took that helmet with him throughout the war.”