John Paul Young travels to Goodooga to honour local diggers

UNITED: Les Beckett, a relative of Harold West, embraces keyboardist and songwriter Warren Morgan at the memorial service held at Goodooga.
UNITED: Les Beckett, a relative of Harold West, embraces keyboardist and songwriter Warren Morgan at the memorial service held at Goodooga.

OF all the stages he has stepped upon in his celebrated music career, John Paul Young has rarely performed anywhere as remote as Goodooga.

"It's a long, long way from anywhere," he said of the community of 250 people in north-west New South Wales .

But as the pop music icon approached the microphone in Goodooga's "Tin Camp" reserve, his shoes beating time in the dust, he realised this was not just one of the most isolated gigs he had ever played, it was one of the most significant.

"It's a real personal journey for us, that's what it's all about," John Paul Young said.

In terms of distance, JPY, his long-time keyboardist and friend, Warren "Pig" Morgan, and percussionist Paul Kirtley had travelled more than 700 kilometres from their base at Lake Macquarie, driving across the vast sun-parched plains, to reach Goodooga.

By the measure of time, the journey had taken the musicians back more than 80 years, to the Second World War.

They had travelled so far to attend a memorial service to honour two local men, Harold West and George Leonard.

Harold and George were best mates. As boys, they had learnt bushcraft skills in the country around here.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Private George Leonard and Private Harold West

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Private George Leonard and Private Harold West

In 1941, the pair enlisted in the Australian army. The following year their battalion was fighting the Japanese along the Kokoda Trail in Papua. Private West and Private Leonard were among about 5000 indigenous Australians who served during the Second World War.

On October 23, 1942, George Leonard was killed in battle. Grief-stricken, his best friend launched a series of lethal stealth raids against the enemy. As Warren Morgan told the memorial service, Harold West was the "Ghost of Kokoda". Many believed he should have received a Victoria Cross for his bravery. He was awarded a Military Medal.

Private West died due to scrub typhus just a month after he had lost his mate. But Harold West's bush skills lived on in legend and poetry. A fellow soldier, Bert Beros, wrote a poem, "The Coloured Digger", praising indigenous servicemen and lamenting the lack of recognition they had received.

Which is why, more than 60 years on, when Warren Morgan read the poem, he set the verse to music. Ever since he was a kid in Western Australia, where he observed discrimination directed at Aboriginal people, Mr Morgan had wanted to help change that.

"I always thought if something came along and it suited the occasion, and it felt right, I would do it," Warren Morgan recalled.

He performed his song at the inaugural Anzac Day Coloured Diggers march at Redfern in 2007. Then, about six years later, Mr Morgan learnt about the man behind the words and asked where Harold West was from. Weilmoringle, he was told, a little place near Goodooga.

"I had the sudden thought of playing it [the song] to his people," Mr Morgan said.

In 2014, the musician travelled to Weilmoringle with Brian Mooney, a retired police detective and Vietnam veteran from Newcastle. Having felt the sting of being ignored after the Vietnam war, Brian Mooney wanted to be involved in "The Coloured Digger" project.

"Harold and George are just two from a huge catchment area, and that's the whole of Australia really," Mooney said. "I thought there should be something to acknowledge their input, and what they did, with something like this."

Warren Morgan played his song in Weilmoringle by firelight. In the audience was Phyllis Cubby, a leader from Goodooga. Phyllis Cubby was a niece of Harold West.

Until that night, all she knew was that her relative had gone to war and had never returned. She was unaware of his courageous deeds. After all, at school, "all I had learnt about was Simpson and his donkey".

Phyllis Cubby invited Mr Morgan to perform "The Coloured Digger" the following day at the Tin Camp reserve, just across the road from where Harold West lived for a time. And so under a solitary gum tree, in the dusty earth, the seeds of the Goodooga Kokoda Trail Remembrance Day were sown.

"I said to myself, 'We could do something great here," recalled Phyllis Cubby. "We talked about it, and we've built it up."

During that first visit, Warren Morgan presented archival photos and gifts, including a John Paul Young CD.

"Well, it was, 'Wooh! John Paul Young!'," Mr Morgan said of the reaction.

In 2018, Morgan asked JPY if he would consider singing "The Coloured Digger" at the Goodooga service.

"My ears pricked up straight away, because anything that I can do to further the cause of indigenous people, I'm going to do," JPY said.

In front of a newly installed commemorative plaque to Harold and George, JPY sang "The Coloured Digger" in the reserve. He found it a deeply moving experience.

"I'm just happy that his relatives can see there's a bit of a light being shone on Aboriginal involvement [in the forces]," he said.

Word spread quickly this week that JPY was returning for the 2019 service.

"Aunty Phyllis said, 'Don't get jealous, Warren. A lot of people are coming to see John'," recounts Morgan. "I said, 'I know. Throw them out!'."

About 140 people attended the service on Wednesday, travelling from far and wide. But this was about more than seeing a pop star sing.

TRIBUTE: John Paul Young, with Paul Kirtley and Warren Morgan, perform at Goodooga, as part of the remembrance service. Picture: Scott Bevan

TRIBUTE: John Paul Young, with Paul Kirtley and Warren Morgan, perform at Goodooga, as part of the remembrance service. Picture: Scott Bevan

Joe Flick, from Collarenebri, about two hours' drive away, was wearing his grandfather's medals. Private Michael Flick had fought on the Western Front in the First World War. After serving his country, he had returned to discrimination.

"On the front, you might be standing with half a dozen white mates," Private Flick's grandson said. "You fought together, you died together, you were buried together; you weren't segregated on the battlefield."

Kelsey Strasek-Barker had travelled from Lightning Ridge to sing at the service. She performed "I am Australian" in English and the local Yuwaalaraay language. She was singing to honour her "Pop".

Pinned close to her heart was her grandfather's service medal. Roy Barker had fought in the Second World War. He had waited 70 years to receive his medal.

"When he came back to Australia, he actually got turned away from the RSL," Ms Strasek-Barker said.

Joining the visiting musicians for "The Coloured Digger" was Les Beckett, on harmonica. His uncle was Harold West. He considered the service an exercise in "bridge building".

"It brings about recognition, not just for my uncle, but for all the families who had an indigenous family member who fought in a war, but for so long were under-valued and not recognised for their efforts," Mr Beckett said. "They fought for a better place for Aboriginal people."

During the service, one more local man was recognised. Archie "Tracker" Murphy, who enlisted for both world wars, was honoured with a plaque and the launch of his biography.

One of the authors, Olga Collis-McAnespie, said Tracker Murphy was still not properly recognised. His remains lie in an unmarked grave in Goodooga cemetery.

For some, the service presented an opportunity to meet their idol. Sheila Nagy was wearing a bracelet engraved with JPY's name. She was given the bracelet as a teenager more than 40 years ago.

"It's the first time I've worn it since back then," Ms Nagy said. "He was my first love."

Time rewards patience. Sheila Nagy had her photo taken with John Paul Young.

"To see someone like him interested in something like this is just fantastic," she said.

The community leaders hope the service will continue to grow, along with recognition of Aboriginal servicemen and women, past and present.

After the service, Brian Mooney cleared his throat, not because of the dust but tears.

"Oh mate, I'm so proud of what we've achieved," he said.

Joe Flick said the service showed it wasn't just Aboriginal people on the journey to recognition for indigenous soldiers: "We're making small, small steps, and after that we'll make bigger steps."

Les Beckett reckoned his uncle would have been "ecstatic and proud" about the service, "honouring not just him and George, but all Aboriginal people who gave their efforts, and gave their lives."

After the service, John Paul Young, along with Warren Morgan and Paul Kirtley, played a few of his hits, including "Love Is In The Air". The very title seemed to resonate in the clear winter sky.

JPY's hits were written by Harry Vanda and George Young. Now, JPY said, with Private West and Private Leonard, he had another Harry and George in his life. And he plans to return to Goodooga to sing for them, to sing for all Aboriginal service people, next year.

"That was great," he said.

"The whole idea is taking off, and hopefully it will just keep going."