Gallipolitics: Why no VC for teenage hero Teddy Sheean?

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Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean (Image via Wikipedia)

Brave Teddy Sheean made the ultimate sacrifice to save his mates as his ship went down, firing all the time, but the top brass won't award him the VC he surely deserves, writes contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence.

YOUNG TEDDY SHEEAN was robbed of the chance to grow out of his teenage years. He will not grow old as we grow old.

Today, at the going down of the sun, we will fail to remember him as we should.

The  country farm boy from Tassie has already died once for his country, and now the Government and military brass are again trying to bury him and deny him a rightful place amongst our national war heroes.

Edward 'Teddy' Sheean was the baby in a large family, born in the beautiful countryside of Lower Barrington. Shortly after his birth, the clan moved to Latrobe.

He was one of 16 apples of his mother's eyes. Mary Jane and labourer dad, James 'Jimmy' Sheean were to become just two of millions of Australians who felt the sting of war's grief.

Like his five other siblings, Teddy was to join the defence forces, breaking with family tradition to join the navy.

In June of 1942, he was assigned to the freshly minted Bathurst-class corvette HMAS Armidale as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun loader.

Less than six months later, on the Armidale's fateful voyage towards Timor, he and many of his shipmates were to die a cruel and most terrible death.

In his dying moments, though, it was what Teddy Sheean did that has earned him the indisputable privilege to be awarded Australia's Victoria Cross.

For decades, his country has shamelessly denied a VC to him and his family, and thus, metaphorically, to all such children and teenagers who did more than their country asked or expected of them.

And certainly invariably more than their commanding officers did or asked of them – and therein lay the rub – certainly not from Sheean's CO, who publicly acknowledged Sheean's courage, but rather the officialdom, that are so often oathe to acknowledge heroism by the underclass and kids who were literally cannon fodder, unless it suits the spin doctors and war propagandists.

On the 1st of December, 27 days short of Teddy's 19th birthday, HMAS Armidale came under extreme and merciless attack by 13 Japanese planes.

Thirteen proved to be an unlucky number for Armidale and its crew in more ways than one.

From Wikipedia:

At 13:58, Armidale reported that she was under attack from "nine bombers, four fighters" over the Arafura Sea.

Armidale undertook evasive action, manoeuvring frantically to avoid the aerial attack. However, at 15:15, the vessel was struck by two air-launched torpedoes, one hitting her port side and the other colliding with the engineering spaces, before a bomb exploded aft. Armidale listed sharply to port at this stage, and the order was given to abandon ship.

HMAS Armidale (Image via Wikipedia)

A vulnerable target, Armidale was bombed and torpedoed and started to lilt and sink in its death throes. The ship was dying. Her men were dying.

The order was given to abandon ship. The Arafura Sea had turned into a bloodbath. Blood was spilling around the Armidale as if it were a harpooned whale.

Teddy had already selflessly helped to loosen a life raft and was on his way to abandon ship as ordered and join his mates in the water who were being strafed by the Japanese.

It was every man for himself.

Teddy was hit in the chest and back, and possibly the leg, and instead of sliding into the sea, he decided to delay his scripted fate; there was no hope of going gentle into any good or murderous night but he decided he would rage against the dying of the light and fight unto death.

Somehow, he managed to crawl and scramble his way back to the deck and strapped himself to the 20 mm cannon in a categorical statement that he was going to go down fighting whilst trying to distract the overwhelming firepower of the Japanese — to at least give some of his mates a fighting chance and certainly to sacrifice his life for theirs, all the while his body leaking blood and guts.

Not only that, Sheean, despite his wounds and lack of mobility, in a Herculean effort of mental and physical strength, managed not only to shoot down one of the Japanese planes but also, to inflict damage on two others.

Wikipedia again:

Sheean maintained his fire as the water rose above his feet, and remained firing as he "disappeared beneath the waves". Sheean's crewmates later testified to witnessing tracers rising from beneath the water's surface as Sheean was dragged under.

Only 49 of the 149 men on the Armidale survived this hell and credit for some of those saved lives must go to Teddy Sheean.

Here is how one of his shipmates, Russel Caro, described those terrifying last minutes:

During the attack a plane had been brought down and for this the credit went to Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean. Teddy died, but none of us who survived, I am sure, will ever forget his gallant deed ... When the order 'Abandon ship' was given, he made for the side, only to be hit twice by the bullets of an attacking Zero. None of us will ever know what made him do it, but he went back to his gun, strapped himself in, and brought down a Jap plane, still firing as he disappeared beneath the waves.

Dale's Marsh's profoundly heroic and evocative painting of the wounded and bleeding Teddy Sheean, who strapped himself to the gun. (Image via awm.gov.au)

And Russel Caro was not alone.

Of the survivors, many attributed their life to Sheean. For his "bravery and devotion when HMAS Armidale was lost", Sheean's actions were recognised with a posthumous Mention in Despatches, awarded on the recommendation of Armidale's commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander David Richards, and announced in a supplement to the London Gazette on 29 June 1943. However, many hold the opinion that Sheean's gallantry, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice were worthy of the Victoria Cross, with author Robert Macklin stating his "actions were in the highest tradition of the Australian military" and comparing them with those of Vietnam War Victoria Cross recipient Kevin Arthur Wheatley.

Fifteen years ago next month, Teddy's sister Ivy Hayes launched the submarine HMAS Sheean that was named in her brother's honour.

That's wonderful. But it's not the Victoria Cross.

In 2001

...a Bill was introduced into the Australian Senate to have three awards of the Victoria Cross for Australia made, one being to Sheean. The Bill came as part of a campaign by the then leader of the Australian Labor Party and Federal OppositionKim Beazley, to secure more rights for war veterans. However, it was subsequently rejected by the Liberal Government.

A painting depicting Sheean's final moments is held by the Australian War Memorial, while his home town of Latrobe commemorates his life via the Sheean Walk and Teddy Sheean Memorial which was opened in 1992.

For decades, Sheean's family and friends from all walks of life have valiantly tried to secure a VC for Teddy. These include his nephew Garry Ivory and politician Guy Barnett.

There have been petitions and entreaties, and various reviews and media reports, including a poignant episode of Australian Story on ABC television.

Do the people have no say in the awarding of the Victoria Cross?

A couple of years ago at Latrobe's Anzac Day ceremony, two of Teddy's great-nephews (one named in honour of Ted) put it in their own words when interviewed by the Burnie Advocate:

He saw his mates being shot and thought `blow this'. He wasn't wounded until he strapped himself to the gun  he knew he was going to die when he went back, but others were dying in the water and he decided to fight back," Ted said.

Ted's brother Garth said "what more can you ask of a man or a boy than to give his life for his country and to save his mates".

They believe Teddy's rural upbringing was on show that day. "It's a whole different style of being raised ... it's a natural act for a country-raised man to help others and he displayed that right through to the ultimate," Garth said.

Latrobe Mayor Mike Gaffney told the Anzac Day crowd the town was "right behind the fight for Teddy Sheean to receive the VC", albeit belatedly. "The VC would be a fitting honour to his name. It would mean a lot to the family," Garth said. "The sad thing is there's not a lot of his (immediate) family left - there's only our generation and younger," Ted said.

The last of Teddy's 15 siblings (Albert) died last year, aged in his 90s. "Just give (Teddy) his medal - it's overdue," Ted said.

Some accounts say Sheean was wounded before he strapped himself to the gun; other accounts say he was wounded whilst strapped to the gun. The truth is, it is entirely possible he was wounded in both areas.

Where was the source of this young man's courage? Are we to believe that Teddy Sheean is not worthy of a Victoria Cross? Has it been denied because he was a nobody from Tasmania? Because he was just an ordinary seaman? Because he was in the Second World War? Because he was in the Navy and not the Army or Air Force? Because he did not fight at Gallipoli?

Or because WWII is yesterday's war and our politicians and their spin doctors want us to concentrate on next year's 100th Anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli?

Are we seriously expected to believe that of all the 100 Victoria Crosses awarded thus far, not a single man in the Australian Navy, let alone Teddy Sheean, has ever been worthy of a Victoria Cross? Come on boys, what is it about Teddy Sheean that makes him unworthy?

While politicians and dignatorial poseurs bask in the proxied glory that was never theirs, and sidle up to those in uniform and medals to pose for selfies, and while sonorous and hollow voices dare to lecture us about the spirit of the ANZACs, who will lift these veils of hypocrisy to wipe the tears from eyes rheumy with age and sorrow.

While historians and academics bicker over the naming rights and wrongs of Anzac Day, those on the frontline of conflict, and who bear witness, are so often relegated to the marginalia of the public record.

When those who sit in judgement upon the merits of others dabble in factional cabals where mateship means overthrowing prime ministers for your mates, awarding multi-million dollar mining deals to your mates, giving multi-thousand dollar bottles of wine to your mates; giving your mates cushy overseas diplomatic postings and awarding multi-million dollar contracts without tender, when criminal and other charges are dropped for your mates; when time and again you betray Diggers and deny them a decent pension, we of the great unwashed can be forgiven for wanting to reclaim government and governance for the people.

Gallipolitics is big business. It has become a 'product'.  It buys and sells naming rights. Football matches. Food. Cosmetic surgery.

Little wonder that media reports today cite that the number of pilgrims now at Gallipoli are at a 14 year low.

We have betrayed the likes of Teddy Sheean and all that he did for this country in his short life in our name and in our uniform.

Teddy Sheean with his family (Image via Wikipedia)

He took a bullet or two for us. He paid the supreme sacrifice.

We asked less of him. He did more.

And ordinary seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean was no ordinary seaman. He was an extraordinary seaman and extraordinary young man.

He has become both a symbol and a casualty of Gallipolitics — the trashing of ANZAC Day by expedient politicians who, for their self-aggrandizement, indecently smear themselves with the revisionist blood of history and lost wars, for no war is ever truly won.

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