On 1 December 2020, 78 years to the day, Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia ‘For the most conspicuous gallantry and a pre-eminent act of valour in the presence of the enemy during a Japanese aerial attack on HMAS Armidale in the Timor Sea on 1 December 1942’. This conclusion to the story of Sheean’s heroism was the result of a decades-long fight for recognition.
Having been posted to HMAS Armidale on operations in the Timor Sea, on 1 December 1942 Sheean and the Ship’s Company were ordered by the captain to abandon ship following fatal hits from two Japanese torpedoes. Sheean defied this order. Instead, he strapped himself to the aft Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun, and firing at the attacking Japanese aircraft, reportedly shot one down and damaged at least two others. Despite his injuries, Sheean was seen firing at the enemy aircraft as the Armidale sank, helping 49 of his crewmates survive by drawing fire away from the escaping life rafts. He was 18 years old. For this action, Sheean received a Mention in Despatches in June 1943, which had been widely viewed as insufficient recognition of his bravery.
Parliamentary interest in the Victoria Cross award process
No Victoria Cross is awarded lightly. But for the Tasmanian Sheean, the process of being recognised in this way spanned decades, and was keenly observed by some parliamentarians. In the June 1999 Senate Estimates hearings, Labor senator Chris Schacht questioned Defence officials extensively about the process of posthumously awarding commendations for bravery, noting that the Naval Association of Australia had been lobbying for greater recognition of Sheean. In response, the then Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Don Chalmers, commented that Sheean ‘was a remarkable young man. He actually has something, though, that I think is better than a VC: he has a living memorial to him, and it is a submarine’. Indeed, just one month earlier HMAS Sheean was launched in Adelaide, the fifth Collins Class submarine and the only Royal Australian Navy vessel to be named after a sailor (as opposed to officers, after which many ships have been named).
In April 2001 Senator Schacht introduced the Award of Victoria Cross for Australia Bill 2001 in the Senate, recommending Sheean as well as John Simpson Kirkpatrick and Albert Cleary be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia. In June 2001 Labor MP Sid Sidebottom introduced a similar Bill in the House of Representatives, the Defence Act Amendment (Victoria Cross) Bill 2001. These Bills became an important part of Labor’s Veterans’ Affairs policy platform, with the then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, committing to award Sheean and two others Victoria Crosses if Labor formed government. However, the Coalition victory in the November 2001 federal election meant both Bills lapsed.
In October 2010 the matter was again raised in Senate Estimates, this time by Liberal senator Guy Barnett, who referred to earlier advocacy by Mr Sidebottom. The Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, and the then Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Russ Crane, both agreed there may be scope to revisit Sheean’s case, among others, with Houston remarking, ‘I do agree with him [Sidebottom] … [Sheean’s] actions under fire were just unbelievable and they should perhaps be recognised’. However, he went on to caution:
There are very strict rules associated with Victoria Crosses and at the end of the day the final approval has to go to Buckingham Palace, and there is a very rigorous process associated with it. We will let the Honours and Awards Tribunal have a look at it and obviously we will go forward from there. We will come back to you and let you know how that process goes.
Senator Barnett followed up on this commitment in the February 2011 Senate Estimates, where it was confirmed the matter had been referred to the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal (DHAAT) for inquiry, although with an unspecified timeline or deadline.
This ongoing advocacy led to the Gillard Government instigating the Inquiry into Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour by DHAAT, the report of which was released in April 2012. It concluded that ‘Sheean’s actions displayed conspicuous gallantry but did not reach the particularly high standard required for recommendation for a VC’ and therefore recommended that no action be taken to award Sheean the Victoria Cross for Australia.
In 2017, Guy Barnett, now the Tasmanian Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, requested the then Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, to again refer to DHAAT the proposal to award Sheean the Victoria Cross. This led to a complicated inquiry process that ultimately resulted in DHAAT recommending in 2019 that Sheean be awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 12 May 2020 Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie put a question without notice to the Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds, asking ‘Our question from Tasmania is this: what more could Teddy Sheean have possibly done to earn a Victoria Cross?’. On 19 May 2020 the Department of Defence released a statement commenting that the ‘threshold of maladministration and compelling new evidence’ was not met in either the initial DHAAT Inquiry or the 2019 review, and that ‘Defence continues to honour Teddy Sheean’s service and memory in a number of ways including through the naming of the Collins Class Submarine HMAS Sheean’.
This response led to a resurgence in public interest and scrutiny of the Sheean case, centred on the recommendation by the 2019 review that Sheean be awarded the Victoria Cross. This led to Prime Minister Scott Morrison commissioning an expert panel on 10 June 2020 to look into the matter. In its report, delivered on 31 July 2020, the panel unanimously advised the ‘Government accept the recommendation of the 2019 Review that Sheean be awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia’. The Government accepted this recommendation on the grounds that there was ‘compelling new evidence’. On 12 August 2020 the Governor-General announced that the Queen had approved the posthumous awarding of the Victoria Cross for Australia to Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean.