Flat White

A Sheean VC will right some of the wrong done to the Navy

11 August 2020

11:03 AM

11 August 2020

11:03 AM

If Teddy Sheean does receive a Victoria Cross, as the Prime Minister has recommended today, it will right a wrong which has persisted since World War II. 

No member of the Royal Australian Navy has ever received a Victoria Cross. 

That, of course, is not a wrong in itself. Bravery awards should not be given out on a quota system. 

But that the Australian Army has received 96, and the Royal Australian Air Force four, suggests that the Navy has never deserved a Cross, the ultimate bravery award. And it has. 

Naval actions are often fought out of sight of land. Sometimes an entire ship’s company can die fighting, and leave no witnesses. That happened with HMAS Sydney off Western Australia, in 1941, in her fight with the Kormoran. Some 645 of our finest died. 

The cruiser HMAS Perth fought to the end alongside USS Houston, against overwhelming Japanese forces. Most of her ship’s company died, and the survivors became POWs, so there were no witnesses to complete any bravery recommendations for years.  

Teddy Sheean, an 18 year old Ordinary Seaman from Tasmania, showed outstanding courage and determination when, instead of abandoning ship as ordered, he turned back to his 20mm gun to defend his mates against the Japanese aircraft strafing them all.  As the corvette HMAS Armidale sank beneath him, he continued firing to the end. “In the Finest Traditions of the Service” is a phrase that has been occasionally used for such actions, and this was just that, but more so – it showed the finest traditions of Aussie mateship. 

But Teddy was like that. In the course of researching his biography, I came across descriptions of Teddy Sheean as a mate time and again. One of the Armidale survivors, Rex Pullen, said: “You always liked to have Teddy with you on shore; you’d be safe with him.” His mate Jack Bird said Teddy was “the type that let hammocks down”, as a joke, but he was also very loyal to his friends, and already noted as full of courage. His secret fiancee, Kathleen Lapthorne, wore their engagement ring around her neck for the rest of her life when he did not return from Armidale’s last combat action out of Darwin. 

So what has happened with Sheean and his bravery story, and why has it not been rewarded? The Navy’s situation in WWII regarding bravery awards was one of manifest injustice. Recommendations had to be made through the Royal Navy, via the Admiralty in London, twenty thousand kilometres away. The Australian Army and the RAAF however, had their’s processed in Australia. Britain, fighting for its life, could pay only small attention to paperwork from the other side of the world. And RAN ship commanders were further discriminated against: unlike their RN counterparts they could not recommend the nature of a bravery award. The recommendation for Sheean came back with a commendation, but one that was not even a medal; the Mention In Despatches, a small badge worn on a campaign medal. 

So what had Sheean done to deserve the ultimate bravery award? He gave the ultimate: he had sacrificed himself, without orders, to protect his shipmates. 

HMAS Armidale, a small warship known as a corvette, had left Darwin to carry out operations south of what is now Indonesia. On 1 December 1942, she was caught by an overwhelming force of Japanese bombers and fighters, and targeted with torpedoes, bombs, cannon and machinegun fire. Fighting back with her anti-aircraft guns, she was caught by a torpedo, and the massive explosion blew a hole in the ship’s side. She was sinking quickly, and so the order was given by her captain, Lieutenant Commander David Richards, to abandon ship. 

According to numerous witnesses, Sheean had obeyed the order, but then, perhaps wounded already, he turned back to his Action Station, a 20mm Oerlikon rapid-fire gun. Putting himself into the leather harness, he began firing at the swarm of Japanese aircraft tormenting the ship. He fired to the last as the ship sank underneath him. 

The survivors took to the ship’s boats and rafts. There was a long delay in search and rescue operations mainly as it was assumed the sunken Armidale was maintaining radio silence as ordered. A search was commenced two days after the sinking.  

On 6 December, 17 naval personnel including the Commanding Officer were rescued in Armidale’s motorboat by the corvette HMAS Kalgoorlie. Following air sightings, the Armidale’s whaler with 29 men on board was rescued two days later.  

However, another group of other survivors on a large raft were never seen again after being located by an aircraft. It is probable they died of exposure to the sun and a lack of food and water. 

Lieutenant Commander Richards recommended a bravery award, but the result was only the Mention. Compared to other VC actions, Sheean had comparably given his all, and so, rightly aggrieved, a campaign began by many which has taken 78 years to put matters right.  

Dr Tom Lewis OAM is the author of Honour Denied; Teddy Sheean, Tasmanian Hero (Avonmore, 2016). He has also just published Atomic Salvation, (Big Sky Publishing) which argues the A-Bomb attacks prevented the deaths of 30 million Japanese. 

Illustration: Australian War Memorial.

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