Snub of war hero Teddy reignites fu­ri­ous bat­tle for VC

The Weekend Australian - - FRONT PAGE - MATTHEW DEN­HOLM

They were sit­ting ducks. On the hori­zon, the ship’s look­outs spot­ted five Ja­panese bombers; the fore­run­ner of a larger aerial force that would al­most lit­er­ally blow their small, un­pro­tected ves­sel out of the wa­ter.

Within two hours, HMAS Ar­mi­dale, a minesweepe­r known as a corvette, was un­der at­tack; the Zero fight­ers ar­rived first, swoop­ing in low and straf­ing the ship’s deck with ma­chine­gun fire.

Then came the tor­pedo bombers, from all di­rec­tions. “Two tor­pe­does struck us and there was a near-miss from a bomb that caused a great ex­plo­sion,” re­calls Vic­tor “Ray” Leonard, then a 19year-old or­di­nary sea­man.

“The Ar­mi­dale per­cep­ti­bly lifted, it seemed like a yard in the air, be­fore com­ing down. Im­me­di­ately, we be­gan to take on wa­ter … all our guns were fir­ing as fast as they could, un­til the or­der was given by the cap­tain to aban­don ship. Ev­ery­one ca­pa­ble of aban­don­ing ship did so, ex­cept one man: Teddy Sheean.”

Sheean, an 18-year-old labourer’s son from ru­ral north­west Tas­ma­nia, not long at sea, see­ing his mates in the wa­ter be­ing strafed with gun­fire, sud­denly turned away from the lifeboat and headed back to his gun post.

His ac­tion in fir­ing on the Ja­panese, even as he and the ship sank be­low the sur­face of the Ti­mor Sea, is one of the great­est acts of brav­ery and self­less sac­ri­fice seen in war­fare. While men­tioned in dispatches, he was over­looked for a post­hu­mous VC in a de­ci­sion that con­tin­ues to out­rage his many ad­mir­ers to this day.

This week, a let­ter leaked to The Aus­tralian saw the long cam­paign for full recog­ni­tion of Sheean’s out­stand­ing gal­lantry ex­plode into fresh con­tro­versy, with claims of min­is­ters mis­lead­ing par­lia­ment, cover-ups and bloody-minded bas­tardry by the top brass. Leonard, now aged 96, is the last man alive who wit­nessed that hor­rific af­ter­noon of De­cem­ber 1, 1942. Of the 149 aboard the Ar­mi­dale, only 49 sur­vived and all but Leonard have gone since.

Age may have since wea­ried his body, but not his mind. “I have a clear rec­ol­lec­tion of al­most ev­ery­thing that oc­curred that day,” Leonard ex­plains. His rec­ol­lec­tions — key to a re­cent tri­bunal rec­om­men­da­tion Sheean fi­nally

re­ceive a VC — are formed from his own ob­ser­va­tions, and the ac­counts of mates as they waited in the sea for res­cue.

“Sheean went as if to aban­don ship on the port side, which was the sink­ing side, but when he got to the gun­wale ahead of him he saw many of our crew strug­gling in the wa­ter, as the ma­chine­gun­ning by the Ze­ros con­tin­ued,” Leonard re­calls.

“He turned around and made his way back to his gun, the aft Oer­likon (anti-air­craft gun) and he man­aged to get him­self into po­si­tion. He had to scram­ble there be­cause of the ship slop­ing sharply.”

Sheean was wounded in the ef­fort. His job had been as gun loader; not gun­ner, but he did not hes­i­tate. “He strapped him­self into po­si­tion and com­menced to fire,” Leonard ex­plains. Ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple wit­nesses, Sheean shot down at least one en­emy air­craft and pos­si­bly two. He was still shoot­ing as he and the ship dis­ap­peared be­neath the waves.

As they gath­ered above the wa­tery grave of their lost ship, sur­vivors could talk of only one thing. “He must have known that he would go down with the ship in a mat­ter of min­utes,” Leonard says. “It was a mo­ment of ex­treme hero­ism and gal­lantry. It must have saved lives. It was un­be­liev­able. We talked about it all of the rest of that day and night and dur­ing the res­cue that fol­lowed; how amazed we were that any per­son could be so brave.”

Sheean was men­tioned in dispatches, but over­looked by the Ad­mi­ralty for a Vic­to­ria Cross. An epic cam­paign has fol­lowed, to rec­tify what his ship­mates, fam­ily and some in the naval com­mu­nity see as a glar­ing over­sight.

A broader 2013 Val­our In­quiry failed to rec­om­mend a VC for Sheean, while a 2018 re­quest to the Chief of Navy spe­cific to Sheean, also failed. A re­view of this last de­ci­sion was then made to the De­fence Hon­ours and Awards Ap­peal Tri­bunal, by Tas­ma­nian Lib­eral Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Min­is­ter Guy Bar­nett.

The four-mem­ber, quasi­ju­di­cial body gath­ered writ­ten ac­counts from sur­vivors penned over the years, as well as a fresh ac­count from Leonard, and held pub­lic hear­ings.

In July last year, it fi­nally promised jus­tice for Sheean, high­light­ing a string of er­rors re­lied on by the mil­i­tary stretch­ing back to 1943, when the Ad­mi­ralty couldn’t even spell his name cor­rectly.

The tri­bunal found Sheean’s ac­tions ex­ceeded those of “strik­ingly sim­i­lar” Bri­tish VC cases, and unan­i­mously rec­om­mended to the Min­is­ter for De­fence Per­son­nel, Dar­ren Ch­ester, that Sheean be posthu­mously awarded the VC. It rec­om­mended the ci­ta­tion read: “He sac­ri­ficed his life try­ing to save his ship­mates and de­spite his wounds, he con­tin­ued fir­ing the gun un­til the ship sank and took him to his death. His pre-em­i­nent act of val­our and most con­spic­u­ous gal­lantry saved lives. His hero­ism be­came a stan­dard to which the mod­ern men and women of the Navy aspire.”

The tri­bunal said the facts were ac­cepted by all par­ties, in­clud­ing De­fence. Ac­cord­ing to tri­bunal chair­man Mark Sul­li­van, Ch­ester ad­vised he was “com­fort­able with the rec­om­men­da­tions and … would be com­mu­ni­cat­ing with se­nior min­is­ters” in­clud­ing De­fence Min­is­ter Linda Reynolds and the Prime Min­is­ter. Then the trou­ble started. Ch­ester was rolled, the tri­bunal re­port buried. It was only last week, thanks to a ma­noeu­vre in the Se­nate by Tas­ma­nian in­de­pen­dent Jac­qui Lam­bie, that Reynolds was forced to de­clare her hand.

She told the Se­nate the VC would not be awarded. “The 2019 re­view by the tri­bunal did not present any new ev­i­dence that might sup­port re­con­sid­er­a­tion of the Val­our In­quiry’s rec­om­men­da­tion,” Reynolds told the Se­nate. “That is also my view and the view of De­fence. It is a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion, but I be­lieve in the cir­cum­stance, the right de­ci­sion.” It was too much for Sul­li­van, who felt obliged to write to Reynolds, in a let­ter ex­posed by The Aus­tralian, to claim the min­is­ter was plain wrong.

The tri­bunal’s VC rec­om­men­da­tion, he said, was based on its “full mer­its-based re­view”; not a re­view of the 2013 Val­our In­quiry. Be­sides, there was “new ev­i­dence”.

Sul­li­van said this in­cluded that Shee­han had reached the rel­a­tive safety of a lifeboat be­fore tak­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary de­ci­sion to re­turn to his gun, dif­fer­ing from the Ad­mi­ralty ver­sion that Sheean sim­ply re­mained at his post.

Other new ev­i­dence in­cluded Sheean telling a ship­mate he was do­ing so to save his com­rades be­ing ma­chine­gunned, and that he was not wounded un­til af­ter he de­cided to re­turn to the gun.

Reynolds sub­se­quently cor­rected the record about the 2013 in­quiry but oth­er­wise stuck to her own guns, re­leas­ing a De­fence state­ment to back it up. This read: “De­fence’s view on the 2019 re­view… is that it pre­sented no com­pelling new ev­i­dence nor any ev­i­dence of man­i­fest in­jus­tice.”

Scott Mor­ri­son said Aus­tralia would “re­main eter­nally grate­ful” for Sheean’s “ser­vice, ded­i­ca­tion and sac­ri­fice”, but he be­lieved the 2013 Val­our In­quiry, which did not back a VC, was “more com­pre­hen­sive” than the 2019 re­view. “Like pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments, we have not taken this de­ci­sion lightly and ap­pre­ci­ate it would also be pop­u­lar to take the con­trary view. I have taken ad­vice from Aus­tralia’s mil­i­tary chiefs past and present in mak­ing this de­ci­sion.”

‘He must have known that he would go down with the ship in a mat­ter of min­utes’ VIC­TOR ‘RAY’ LEONARD HMAS AR­MI­DALE SEA­MAN


Vic­tor ‘Ray’ Leonard, back row left, aboard HMAS Ar­mi­dale

A stu­dio por­trait of Teddy Sheean, right, with his brother, Thomas, who were then crew mem­bers of HMAS Der­went


Some of the HMAS Ar­mi­dale crew; be­low, Ray Leonard

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