HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 15 JUNE 2020
‘What more can you ask of a man or a boy than to give his life for his country and to save his mates.’
These are the words of Garth Sheean, the nephew of Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean.
This is Teddy Sheean's story—a story of bravery, of sacrifice and of underacknowledged valour.
Almost 80 years ago, at just 17 years of age, Teddy Sheean followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined the Royal Australian Navy. It was there he met his mate, Able Seaman Jack Bird. The now 96-year-old Jack says Teddy Sheean 'could fight like a thrashing machine'.
It was both combat and comradery that he'd be remembered for.
Less than two years after enlisting and just shy of his 19th birthday, Teddy Sheean was on board the HMAS Armidale when it was sent to the waters north of Australia. He and his crew mates were tasked with helping evacuate exhausted troops and civilians from occupied Timor. On December 1, en route to Timor, they came under repeated attack from Japanese aircraft. For hours, they fought back.
Almost three hours later, nine bombers, three fighters and a float plane attacked the Armidale. Hit by two torpedoes and possibly a bomb, it began to sink. As men took to the life rafts, the Japanese Zeros stopped attacking the sinking ship and begin strafing those in the water. Teddy Sheean was shot twice. For reasons we'll never know, he returned to his Oerlikon cannon, strapped himself in and began shooting back. As enemy aircraft fired on his friends and fellow sailors in the water, he shot down one plane and damaged two others. Crew mates recall seeing him dragged under the water, firing as he vanished under the waves.
Ordinary Seaman Russel Caro afterwards reported, 'none of us will ever know what made him do it, but he went back to his gun, strapped himself in'.
Teddy died strapped to a sinking ship, hundreds of kilometres from his home in Tasmania. This is a teenager who gave his life for his friends and for his country. Forty-nine of the 149 men on board the Armidale survived the sinking and lived to be rescued. Many survivors credited Teddy Sheean's actions.
Teddy Sheean's sacrifice is a reminder of all that his family lost. Speaking about Teddy Sheean, I can't help but think of my own great-grandfather Roland Stebbins who also enlisted in the Navy at age 17. In war, we ask teenagers to do extraordinary things. I'm here only because my great-grandfather came home from World War I. Many of Teddy Sheean's mates survived World War II because he did not.
Just last year, when marking the anniversary of the sinking of the HMAS Armidale, the Defence Force noted:
Ordinary Seaman Sheean's bravery has become synonymous with the Navy's values of courage and loyalty.
In his funeral oration, after the first battle of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles spoke of those whose test of worth was to be found in their closing scene—soldiers who ‘reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards… joyfully determined to accept the risk’. Such warriors, said Pericles, received that ‘renown that never grows old’, the glory ‘to be eternally remembered’. Heroes, he said, ‘have the whole earth for their tomb’.
Many have told Teddy Sheean's story to their children. In 1999 a submarine was named after him. The war memorial holds a painting depicting his final moments, but he never received a Victoria Cross.
Victoria Crosses are forged from bronze taken from captured 19th century cannons and inscribed with 'For Valour'. Teddy Sheean's extraordinary valour merits the award, and there's something particularly apt about a man who took to the guns to defend his mates now posthumously receiving an award cast from the barrel of a cannon.
Garry Ivory has led the family campaign to see his uncle get a VC for more than 25 years. He said:
There's a lot of tributes been paid to Teddy, but the VC is what he deserved …
Last year the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal unanimously recommended it. And it's not just Labor; Liberal Guy Barnett has backed the campaign too. It should have happened when Teddy Sheean's parents were alive to see it, but it's time now we acknowledge Teddy Sheean's heroism in the greatest way our country knows.
It's time his valour was recognised with a Victoria Cross.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.