‘What better example can you get of outstanding bravery’: Accounts of Teddy Sheean’s courage
That the astonishing act of wartime bravery by Edward "Teddy" Sheean, an 18-year-old with less than two years at sea, was denied a Victoria Cross does not come as a surprise to military historian Tom Lewis.
This week, supporters of the campaign to have Sheean posthumously receive a VC were dealt a huge blow, with the Government seeing no reason to overturn an earlier decision to withhold the award, Australia’s highest wartime honour.
Included in the reasoning was the determination that nothing had changed since it had been decided Sheean’s actions in 1942 "did not reach the particularly high standard" required.
"Of the approximately 100 that have been given to military personnel in Australian history, the Royal Australian Navy has never been given one," Mr Lewis said.
Wounded, his ship sinking beneath him, Sheean is recorded as returning to his anti-aircraft gun to fire at enemy aircraft that were strafing his shipmates as they floundered in the water, despite the order having been given to abandon ship.
"Nobody expects anything more from you when you’re told to abandon ship, than to abandon ship," Mr Lewis said.
"But to do more, to go over and above, to turn back and man your station again and fire at the enemy, to defend your shipmates who have been machined-gunned in the water by Japanese aircraft, what better example can you get of outstanding bravery?"
Teddy "Edward" Sheean had already cheated death once, before the fateful attack in December of 1942.
Born in December of 1923, Teddy grew up in the small country town of Latrobe in the north of Tasmania, the fourteenth child of his parents James and Mary Jane.
At 18, he followed in the footsteps of five of his brothers who had joined the armed forces — enlisting in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve in April 1941.
The next year, Sheean was posted to Sydney where he was billeted at Garden Island in the requisitioned ferry Kuttabul, before joining his first ship as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun loader.
By then, Australia had no illusions it could escape the war — Darwin had been smashed in two surprise raids by Japanese fighters and bombers on the morning of February 19, the first of what would be 64 attacks on the northern stronghold.
In May 1942, Royal Australian Navy history records that Sheean was on home leave and not aboard when the Kuttabul was torpedoed by Japanese midget submarines that raided Sydney Harbour.
Twenty-one of his shipmates were killed.
Eleven days later, after his return to Sydney, Sheean was sent to his new posting aboard one of Australia’s new minesweepers, the Bathurst class HMAS Armidale — its first mission to carry out "escort duties along the eastern Australian coast and in New Guinea waters", navy history notes.
In October, Armidale set off for Darwin, with Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean as crew member on one of three Oerlikon 20-millimetre anti-aircraft guns.
In a 2017 speech to the Naval Historical Society about the sinking of the Armidale, historian and author Dr Kevin Smith explained the operating of the Oerlikon gun.
"Each Oerlikon was served by a gun crew of three or four; the gun chief who found the targets, the gunner strapped to his weapon with a waist belt and held firmly in shoulder supports, who had the essential role of hitting enemy targets; the loader who fed the ammunition drums of 7-inch rounds to the cannon, with sometimes a second loader," Dr Smith said.
"Each gun crew member trained to serve in all three positions."
The Oerlikon, as the Naval History and Heritage website has noted, was capable of 480 rounds-per-minute, "fed by a drum magazine of 60 rounds, the weapon would keep firing as long as the firing lever was held back — or until something broke".
Teddy Sheean had been trained as a loader, but also knew how to aim and fire the Oerlikon.
It would be only two months before he would commit the act of bravery he is remembered for.
Navy history notes in November 1942, Armidale, HMA Castlemaine and Kuru, a "shallow draught, 76-foot wooden motor vessel" were taking part in a relief and resupply operation in Japanese-occupied area now known as Timor-Leste, a mission codenamed Operation Hamburger.
With Kuru sailing on ahead, Armidale and Castlemaine followed, leaving Darwin after midnight on November 29, the plan to make two separate night runs into the coastal village of Betano on Timor’s southern coastline, dropping off reinforcements and picking up civilians.
"One hundred and twenty miles from their destination, the two corvettes came under aerial attack from a single enemy aircraft. Although neither ship sustained any damage or casualties, concerns were raised that the mission may have been compromised," the Royal Australian Navy website states.
"The attack was duly reported and orders were received to ‘press on’."
More attacks would follow, with Armidale and Castlemaine managing to avoid major damage, both ships eventually meeting up again with the Kuru, which by that time had picked up a group of Portuguese who were transferred to the Castlemaine.
"No sooner was the personnel transfer complete when enemy bombers again appeared," RAN records note. With Castlemaine ordered back to Darwin, Armidale and Kuru were ordered back to Betano to complete the reinforcement mission.
Armidale would become separated from Kuru, after both were attacked from the air, the smaller vessel ordered to bolt for Darwin.
Armidale was on its own.
At approximately 1:00pm on December 1, five Japanese bombers were spotted by Armidale’s lookouts, RAN records note.
"For the next half an hour Armidale’s gunners beat off successive Japanese attacks and the ship escaped serious damage."
Darwin radioed Armidale, advising that warplanes would be there to help in 45 minutes.
Official naval history states it was just before 3:00pm when Armidale was attacked by nine Japanese bombers, three fighters and a float plane.
"The fighters split up and came in at low level, strafing decks with machine gun fire. With her gunners thus distracted, the torpedo bombers mounted their attacks from different directions as [Commanding Officer David] Richards manoeuvred desperately to avoid their torpedoes.
"In spite of the brave resistance, the ship was hit twice by torpedoes, immediately heeling over to port. At that point Richards gave the order to abandon ship. Rafts were cut loose and a motor boat freed from its falls before men took to the water. Their ordeal, however, was far from over.
"The Japanese airmen then pressed home further attacks, machine gunning the survivors."
ABC war correspondent Peter Hemery interviewed two of the survivors from HMAS Armidale, soon after they had returned from their ordeal.
Arthur Iansbury was Signalman on Armidale’s bridge at the time of the torpedo attack.
"When the first one hit, it threw me to the deck, and when I got on my feet again, I raced to the voice pipe down to the radio room to try and send out a distress message, but couldn’t raise them," Mr Iansbury said.
Later, it would be understood that the radio had been destroyed.
Jack Duckworth was at the stern of the ship when the torpedo hit and was knocked over by water rushing into the vessel.
"While we were getting to the motorboat, Jap fighters machine-gunned us … several boys were hit with cannon fire," Mr Duckworth said.
"We eventually got the boat away, and jumped into the water.
"We’d just dropped astern when another torpedo hit her midships, smoke and oil went everywhere."
Another survivor, Leading Seaman Leigh Bool, would tell of how, after the order to abandon ship was given, "seven or eight of us were on the quarterdeck when we saw another bomber coming from the starboard quarter. It hit us with another torpedo and we were thrown in a heap among the depth charges and racks".
"We could feel the Armidale going beneath us, so we dived over the side and swam about 50 yards astern as fast as we could," Seaman Bool said.
"Then we stopped swimming and looked back at our old ship. She was sliding under, the stern high in the air, the propellers still turning.
"The hero of the battle was a young ordinary seaman, Edward Sheean, not long at sea, who refused to leave the ship.
"Sheean had no chance of escape. Strapped to his anti-aircraft gun, he blazed away till the last. One of the Jap bombers, hit by his gun, staggered away trailing smoke, just skimming the surface until it crashed with a mighty splash about a quarter mile away."
Survivor William Lamshed said he recalled first sighting the enemy aircraft.
"When we first saw these different looking planes coming, we just knew we were in big trouble, and that our end might be near, so I quickly went to my hidey-hole, as I called it, and cringed in a corner, waiting to be blown to pieces."
He would be washed into the sea by a wall of water from an explosion.
"The Zeroes [Japanese fighter planes] were raking the ship with cannon and machine-gun fire from their noses and wings, then another torpedo struck on the starboard side and the ship split in two," he would recall.
"I was now in complete panic as my ship was sinking in front of my eyes, with all still on board trying to escape. Now the front of the ship was turning on its side and going down.
"The rear section was leaning on an angle, when the after Oerlikon gun started firing and I saw tracers actually hitting a dive-bombing Zero, which flew over my head and disappeared into the sea about a quarter of a mile away.
"A brilliant bit of shooting, I thought, considering the deck was at such a steep angle and that the gun was still firing as the ship sank under the water."
Jack Duckworth was another who said he saw Teddy Sheean do the unthinkable.
"As she went down, Ted Sheehan kept one of his guns firing, and went down with the ship," Mr Duckworth said.
"He got a row of machine-gun bullets right across the chest, but went back to his gun, strapped himself in and kept on firing as she went below the water."
Armidale’s Commanding Officer Richards would credit Sheean as "bringing down one enemy bomber", adding Sheean "continued firing until he was killed at his gun".
It would not be enough.
In 2013, as part of an inquiry into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour it was noted that arguments put forward in submissions against the award included "if it is decided that the VC was denied because the administrative arrangements prevailing at the time were inappropriate and that current conditions should apply, then it is incumbent on the awards system to reassess all past award (sic) through a modern prism".
Another argument made, according to the 2013 review, was "without wanting in any way to detract from the very real gallantry displayed by Ordinary Seaman Sheean … the majority of claims made about Sheean’s actions post the date of his death are inaccurate at best and in many cases preposterous".
A Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal in Hobart last year re-examined the 2013 findings, with Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announcing last Wednesday the review "did not present any new evidence that might support reconsideration of the valour inquiries recommendation".
"It is a very difficult decision, but I believe in the circumstance, the right decision," Ms Reynolds said at the time.
Of the 149 personnel on board the Armidale, only 49 would survive the Japanese fighters attacking them in the water and the days at sea before rescue.
As part of the 2013 inquiry, the tribunal heard submissions from two people that upon their arrival in Darwin, the survivors from the Armidale were treated "outrageously" by authorities.
Ray Leonard, who was aboard the Armidale, told the inquiry the Naval Officer in Charge in Darwin, Commodore Cuthbert Pope and "other senior naval officers met them with formality, distance, coldness and even an implied threat".
"Dr Leonard recalled that Pope said that ‘none of you must say a word about the sinking of Armidale to anyone’," the inquiry recorded.
"Dr Leonard said he was left with the impression that Pope thought the survivors had failed in losing their ship, and he felt that this was a factor in [Armidale’s Commanding Officer] Richards not getting another command."
Ray Leonard said after being admitted to hospital for a few days, the surviving members of the ship’s company were sent their separate ways, "some overland in trucks, others returning to eastern Australia via sea with no opportunity to talk, because they were forbidden from doing so".
Edward Sheean remains the recipient of a Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD), an Imperial form of recognition of bravery citing his name in an official report.
In 1999, a Royal Australian Navy Collins Class submarine was named after him — the only vessel in the Navy to bear the name of a sailor.
The week’s setback was described by Teddy’s nephew Garry Ivory as "an injustice".
"It passed all the merits and it’s gone back to the Government and they’ve refused to act on it," Mr Ivory said.
"It’s bad news, I know, but there’s still hope. We won’t give up."
Just like Teddy.
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May 17, 2020 at 07:36AM