Snub of war hero Teddy reignites furious battle for VC
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