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- December 2020 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
After many years of failure to gain recognition for the heroic deeds performed by Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean, the posthumous award of his Victoria Cross came as a sudden but welcome surprise to many who had believed that this was a forlorn hope. Teddy Sheean’s time of valour lasted all of a few minutes, and then wounded, he was lost when his ship sank beneath the waves. This action and the part played by the young sailor is well known but what is less well known is the story of the Sheean family. This tribute aims to provide a brief glimpse of our hero and how he came to be off the coast of Timor on that fateful first day of December in 1942.
Ireland and the Great Famine
The first of the family to make his way from Irish roots to far distant Van Diemen’s Land was Jeremiah Sheehan (the spelling changes but settles on Sheean). Jeremiah, a farm labourer and ‘imperfect carpenter’ from County Cork, was 23 years of age when on 26 March 1849 he was convicted of stealing a pig and sentenced to seven years transportation. These were desperate times with widespread poverty throughout Ireland exacerbated by the Great Famine of 1845 – 1849 where crops of the food staple, potatoes, failed, leading to starvation. People were forced to steal food in order to live, and imprisonment, which provided food and shelter, was a relief.
To improve the overall situation a model prison known as the Mountjoy was opened in Dublin where those awaiting transportation were held under enlightened conditions, and for a few months this became Jeremiah’s home. As prison records were precise we know he was single and had three brothers and a sister, was 5 ft. 6¾ inches tall, of fair complexion, with sandy hair, and small scars over each eyebrow, and he could read and write a little.
On 20 March 1850 some 288 prisoners were taken from the Mountjoy to the port of Kingston where they boarded the convict ship London, then making her second voyage to the Australian colonies, arriving in Hobart three months later on 19 March 1851. Upon arrival Jeremiah was assigned to a convict working party and a year later granted a Ticket-of-Leave. With a ‘Ticket’ a man was free to seek employment, to marry and acquire property. But old habits die hard, and on 15 November 1858 Jeremiah was convicted of stealing three sheep which earned him an eight-year sentence at the infamous penitentiary at Port Arthur.
Jeremiah learned from these unfortunate experiences and was possibly rewarded by the allocation of a parcel of 50 acres of marginal land in the northern part of the colony, as on 3 August 1874 he was able to list his occupation as farmer, when he married Elizabeth Deverille in the Catholic Church at Deloraine. Elizabeth came from a harsh family background which encouraged the 19-year-old into marriage with her 48-year-old spouse.
Three children had arrived before Jeremiah was again in trouble with the law and was sentenced to three years in the Launceston House of Correction for receiving stolen meat from two sheep. He was released in April 1880. Another son, James Michael Sheehan, was born on the first day of 1880, raising doubt to the paternity of the newborn. Jeremiah died in Launceston on 27 October 1901 aged 75. Elizabeth lived until she was 82, dying in Latrobe on 24 May 1938.
James carried on family pursuits as a farm labourer and bush carpenter and in 1903 married Mary Jane (nee Broomhall). This was a productive union of 16 children. Edward (Teddy) Sheean was the second youngest surviving child, born in Lower Barrington on 28 December 1923. His oldest brother, Allan, was already eighteen. Teddy was brought up with the help of his older sister Amy, who was fifteen at the time of his birth.
The children closest in age to Teddy were Thomas Michael (known as Mick), who was just over a year older than Teddy, Nellie, who was born in 1921, and Frederick, who had just turned six when Teddy was born. In August 1926, there was a new baby Harold John, and over the next few years three more children were born, none of whom survived infancy. The older children, Albert, Florence, Jim, Amy and Ivy, were all married with families of their own so young Teddy spent much of his childhood with big brothers Jamie, Bert, Bill, Fred and Mick.
The family moved from Lower Barrington to Latrobe where the children attended the local Catholic School, St Patrick’s. Teddy started at St Pat’s on 28 January 1930 where the children were taught by the Sisters of Mercy. After a basic education, Teddy left school in year five, on 8 March 1937 to work with his father as a ‘bush carpenter’ (building fences and the like) and helping out on local farms. His sister Ivy and her husband Jack lived on a farm at Merseylea, 20 km out of Latrobe. Teddy would ride his bike to visit Ivy, picking up casual work at the properties along the way.
Teddy’s father was a good long-distance runner. In his youth he raced in the local competitions, including the Boxing Day races at Latrobe and the New Year’s Day carnival at Burnie. He also trained some of the local runners and encouraged his children’s athletic abilities. St Patrick’s, too, had a good reputation for sport.
Edward Sheean joins the Navy
With the Second World War well under way, on 21 April 1941 at just seventeen, Teddy Sheean enlisted at Hobart’s small naval base, HMAS Derwent, as an Ordinary Seaman RANR. Most new entries into the navy came via the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) joining for the duration of hostilities. His service records show he was 5 ft. 8½ ins. tall, with black hair, brown eyes and dark complexion. To gain seagoing experience he served on board the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Coombar. On his 18th birthday Teddy joined HMAS Cerberus at Western Port Victoria, where he received more training. On 11 May 1942 he was posted to HMAS Penguin. During his short time at Penguin Teddy was billeted in the converted ferry Kuttabul but was not aboard when she was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese midget submarine on the night of 31 May 1942, when 21 men were killed.
Teddy was posted as commissioning crew to the new Bathurst class corvette HMAS Armidale under command of LCDR David Richards RANR (S). Between June and October 1942 she served in eastern coastal waters escorting convoys to New Guinea. She was then ordered to Darwin attached to the 24th Minesweeping Flotilla.
About 800 km northwest of Darwin lies the island of Timor, then divided between two colonial powers, the western portion being part of the Netherlands East Indies and the east a Portuguese colony. Australian and Dutch troops defending the western portion were driven out by superior Japanese forces with some defenders escaping to the nominally neutral Portuguese territory where they started a guerrilla campaign. The hazardous task of supporting these guerrillas became a naval responsibility.
In darkness in the early hours of 29 November Armidale, with her sister ship HMAS Castlemaine, sailed for Betano Bay in enemy occupied Portuguese Timor to reinforce the guerrilla forces and evacuate
some troops and civilians. Armidale carried as passengers three AIF Bren gunners to provide covering fire on the beach, two Dutch officers and 61 local troops, making for a very crowded corvette with 149 on board. Under command of LCDR Phillip Sullivan RANR (S) as senior officer, Castlemaine led the way but as their task was to pick up troops and refugees Castlemaine had no passengers at this stage.
The next day at about 9 am they were discovered by an enemy floatplane which attacked with bombs which all missed. Just before dusk they were attacked by nine twin-engine bombers which again all missed their targets. Just before dark another formation of seven aircraft came directly overhead and the ships opened fire, thankfully not recording any hits, because the aircraft were an RAAF squadron returning from patrol.
Arrival at Batano was set for midnight but owing to the Japanese attacks the ships were a couple of hours late. They looked for fires on the beach to show landing places but nothing was seen. Then early in the morning they discovered the wooden motor vessel HMAS Karu with 77 civilian evacuees which were transferred to Castlemaine and both ships returned to Darwin, with Castlemaine diverting to search for a downed RAAF Beaufighter.
Shortly after the ships had parted company, Armidale was on her way back to Betano but was discovered by a scouting Zero. This brought further attacks by dive bombers but through skilful seamanship all were avoided. A further intensive attack commenced about 3 pm with nine bombers escorted by three Zeros and a floatplane. After circling, the bombers attacked simultaneously from each quarter, while the Zeros came in on the beam. The bombers carried torpedos, one of which came very close to the starboard bow before fire from the starboard Oerlikon appeared to go straight through the aircraft. At the same time as the torpedo exploded in the mess deck a Zero strafed the bridge. As the ships began to sink the captain ordered ‘Abandon Ship’ only moments before a second torpedo slammed into the ship’s side. With survivors in the water the Japanese planes continued to strafe the area for several minutes.
A hero’s death
During the attack a Zero was brought down and for this the credit went to Teddy Sheean. None of us who survived will ever forget his gallant deed. When the order for abandon ship was given he made for the side only to be hit twice by bullets from an attacking fighter. None of us will ever know what made him do it, but he went back to his gun, strapped himself in, and brought down the enemy aircraft. He was still firing when he disappeared beneath the waves. [Russel Caro, The Armidale Story].
Just four weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday, Teddy Sheean died trying to save the lives of his shipmates. Of the 149 men on board when the ship sank, 47 were killed. Many who survived the attack credit Teddy Sheean and his act of bravery with saving their lives. It was an act of sublime, selfless heroism. It was not the result of years of training and discipline — Sheean had been in the Navy only a few months. He was not acting on orders. It was not a question of duty — the order to abandon ship had been given and he was free to try and save his own life, instead, he chose to try to save the lives of his shipmates and to inflict as much damage on the enemy as he could. It was valour beyond the call of duty.[Frank Walker, HMAS Armidale, the Ship that had to Die]
The ordeal was not over for those who survived. Armidale had been operating under radio silence so the Darwin headquarters did not know that she had sunk and so did not initiate rescue efforts. The survivors took it in turns in the boat, the Carley float and treading water. They managed to get a whaler floating, but they had little food and no water. By early afternoon the next day, when assistance still had not arrived, Captain Richards took 21 of his men in the motor boat to get help. They were seen on 5 December but not picked up until late in the evening of 6 December by HMAS Kalgoorlie.
Meanwhile, the men on the whaler and Carley float were not doing well. Some had been taken by sharks, and the badly holed whaler only floated with the assistance of a couple of 44 gallon drums lashed to the inside. On 5 December, thinking that Richards and his men had not made it to safety, Lieutenant Palmer decided to take the whaler and crew of 28 in search of help. They were eventually picked up on 10 December. The raft and Carley float were last seen on 8 December, but were unable to be rescued because of heavy seas, and the men on them were never seen again.
Teddy Sheean was posthumously awarded a Mention in Despatches for his gallantry. But his surviving shipmates,relatives and others who have heard his story continued to call for appropriate recognition in the form of a Victoria Cross. There are numerous awards and memorials in Teddy’s honour – from local memorials in his home town of Latrobe, and nearby Ulverstone, to the naming of one of the RAN’s Collins class submarines in his honour. There is a Sheean Award for the most outstanding trainee at the Seamanship School of his alma mater Cerberus. In addition, in 2005 a new class of patrol boat was named the Armidale class in honour of the first Armidale.
Defence Honours and Awards Appeal Tribunal
In April 2011 the Commonwealth Government announced an inquiry to give consideration to the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Teddy Sheean and other brave Australians. On 1 March 2013, the Defence Honours and Awards Appeal Tribunal released the report of its Inquiry into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour. Sadly, the Tribunal did not share the view that Teddy’s heroism deserved to be recognised by the award of the VC.
In summarising its views, the Tribunal found that the awards process was followed correctly and there was not sufficient evidence that there was a manifest injustice with regard to the outcome of the recommendation concerning Sheean. The Tribunal concluded that: ‘Sheean’s actions displayed conspicuous gallantry but did not reach the particularly high standard required for recommendation for a VC. If Sheean had lived he might have been recommended for a higher Imperial honour (such as a second or third level gallantry award) rather than the fourth level MID, but such intermediate honours were not available posthumously in 1942, and the equivalent level Australian gallantry honours should not be recommended now.’ The Tribunal therefore concluded that it could not recommend that Ordinary Seaman Sheean be awarded the VC for Australia.
On 10 August 2017, the Tasmanian parliamentarian, Guy Barnett, wrote to the then Chief of Navy, asking that Sheean’s bravery be reconsidered for a posthumous VC or other more appropriate recognition. On 31 July 2018, the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan AO RAN advised that these issues had been considered during the 2013 Valour Inquiry and that he had, nonetheless, considered the matter and formed the view that there was no new evidence to support reconsideration or review. On 30 October, Mr Barnett applied to the Tribunal for a review of the decision of the Chief of Navy. The Tribunal convened in 2019 and held public hearings in Hobart.
The Tribunal’s decision of 23 July 2019 recommended to the Minister for Defence Personnel that:
- a) The decision by the Chief of Navy to refuse to recommend the award of the Victoria Cross for Australia to Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean in respect of his actions in HMAS Armidale during a Japanese aerial attack in the Timor Sea on 1 December 1942 be set aside.
- b) The Minister recommend to the Sovereign that Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean be 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 in HMAS Armidale during a Japanese aerial attack in the Timor Sea on 1 December 1942.
On 10 June 2020, the Prime Minister announced an expert panel to advise ‘whether the 2019 review by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal had any significant new evidence, not available to the previous reviews and otherwise available that is compelling enough to support a recommendation by the Government that Sheean’s Mention in Despatches be replaced by a Victoria Cross’. The expert panel was chaired by former Minister for Defence and former Director of the Australian War Memorial, the Hon Dr Brendan Nelson AO, and also comprised former Solicitor-General, Mr David Bennett AC QC, former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr Peter Shergold AC, and Senior Curator and Historian at the NSW Anzac Memorial, Mr Brad Manera. The panel was to report by 31 July 2020.
Victoria Cross Awarded
On 14 August 2020 the Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell AO DSC issued an ‘Order of the Day’ which read:
I welcome the announcement by the Governor General on 12 August 2020 that Her Majesty The Queen has approved the Posthumous award of the Victoria Cross of Australia to Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean.
Edward Sheean was born in Lower Barrington, Tasmania. When Teddy’s country called, he enlisted on the 21st of April 1941, following five of his brothers into military service.
Posted to the newly commissioned HMAS Armidale, the ship and her crew departed Darwin for Japanese-occupied Timor to relieve Australian forces and evacuate both troops and civilians. In the afternoon of 1 December 1942, the Armidale was attacked by thirteen Japanese aircraft and struck by two torpedos. The survivors abandoned ship, and were strafed by enemy aircraft.
Ordinary Seaman Sheean leapt to help free a life raft, and then returned to his gun – warding off the airborne attackers. As the Armidale slipped below the waves, he remained, strapped to his post; serving his country and his mates till the last beat of his heart. He was eighteen years old.
Ordinary Seaman Sheean’s actions while under fire on 1 December 1942 were indeed brave and, as stated by the Chief of Navy, were amongst the most conspicuous and gallant that we have seen in our Navy.
Our values spring from the actions of those who have served before us, like Teddy, who, in the face of adversity, showed service, courage, respect, integrity and excellence.
This award, the Victoria Cross for Australia, is a great honour for the late Teddy Sheean, for his shipmates, for his family, for the Royal Australian Navy, for the Australian Defence Force, and for our country.
We are working with Government House to find a suitable time in the coming months for an investiture ceremony that befits the service, the magnitude of the award, and its significance to Australia.
For all members of the ADF at this time, the motto of the submarine that bears Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean’s name is apt – Fight On.
The ancient Greeks, with their mastery of literature, gave us epic tales of heroes who claimed fame through great and courageous deeds. It is in this continuing tradition that Teddy Sheean is numbered, one of a special breed of men whose courage gains him a place in the hallowed and immortal halls of fame.
Bastock, John, Australia’s Ships of War, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1975.
Beech, Peter John, (also known as Peter John Caldwell), Such a short life – A memoir of my father, William Ralph Beech 14 July 1919 to 1 December 1942, privately published, Darwin, 2003.
Caro, Russel, The Armidale Story, The Australian Home Journal, Sydney, 2 April 1945.
Gill, G. Hermon, Australia in the War of 1939-1945 – Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1968.
Lamshed, William Noel, Survivor – An account of my personal experiences at the sinking of HMAS Armidale on 1 December 1942. Reveille Vol 83 No 2 March/April 2010 & Vol 83 No 4 July/August 2010.
Lynne, The Lynne Family of HMAS Armidale, Naval Historical Review, Sydney, Sept 1983.
Walker, Frank, B, HMAS Armidale: The ship that had to die, Kingfisher Press, Budgewoi, NSW, 1990.
Williams, John, Irish Convicts & Van Diemen’s Land, Master of Arts Thesis, University of Tasmania, 1972.