Teddy Sheean's sacrifice will live on longer than VC deniers
Originally published in The Examiner 19th May 2020 (Available here)
The story of Teddy Sheean is the stuff of folk-lore. It will continue to be celebrated, honoured and passed down to future generations with or without a VC. But future generations will be right to ask why and by whom the independent tribunal’s findings recommending a VC for Sheean were rejected.
The rejection of the tribunal’s unanimous recommendation is wrong. Wrong as a matter of process and outcome.
The public advocacy for a VC while well-motivated had the potential to demean the currency of the award. It shouldn’t be a popularity contest. It shouldn’t be determined by the mob. Such a highly regarded award needs to be carefully and soberly considered to protect its currency. Invidious comparisons, details determined and one assumes even confidential records scoured are all part of the process.
Given the public support and campaign for a VC for Teddy Sheean, it was right and proper that the matter was referred to an independent tribunal.
The issue needed to be elevated above a demeaning popularity contest. It was.
We were all therefore duty-bound to respect and accept the decision of the tribunal (irrespective of its finding) unless some egregious fault in procedure or determination could be identified. No such egregious failing has been asserted. Accordingly, the finding needs to be honoured and a posthumous VC awarded to Teddy Sheean.
In 1999 I read into the Senate Hansard the Teddy Sheean story as told in HMAS Armidale – The Ship That Had To Die by F.B Walker:
"Ted Sheean, just 27 days short of his 19th birthday, could see his shipmates were being ripped to bits. His ship was being attacked by Japanese warplanes.
“He was himself unwounded and could have scrambled to some sort of shelter. He could have dived overboard and trusted to luck by duck-diving to escape the bullets.
“He did none of those things. Instead he scrambled back to the Oerlikon gun abaft the bridge, a distance of some 10 difficult and hazardous metres, thrust his shoulders into the semi-circular grips at the rear of the gun and strapped himself in.
“The ship was sinking fast. It was only three minutes since the first torpedo struck until she vanished. The moment Sheean fastened that strap he must have known he would go down with the ship.
“He poured stream after stream of 20mm shells at the strafing Japanese fighters and sent one cartwheeling into the sea. A Zero flashed in, its guns blazing, and slashed Sheean's chest and back wide open.
"With blood pouring from his wounds Sheean kept fighting, forcing some of the Japanese planes to sheer away. The ship was now sinking fast and the water was lapping Sheean's feet but still he kept firing.
“The men in the water gasped in amazement as they saw the bloodstained, desperate youngster wheel his gun from target to target, his powerless legs dragging on the deck.
“Then came the most incredible sight of all. The ship plunged down and the sea rose up past Sheean's waist to his shattered chest. Still he kept firing. As the gun was dragged into the sea its barrel kept recoiling and shots kept pouring from it.
“Even when there was nothing left of the ship above water, tracer bullets from Sheean's gun kept shooting from under the water in forlorn, bizarre arcs."
It was, said author Walker, 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 short months," Walker said. "He was not acting on orders. It was his decision and his alone. It was not a question of duty—the order to abandon ship had been given and he was free to try to save his own life.
He chose to try to save the lives of shipmates and to inflict as much damage on the enemy as he could. It was valour above and beyond the call of duty."
More recently I pursued the issue of the release of the tribunal’s funding’s at the last Senate Estimates in February.
It’s not too hard to understand why the tribunal found as it did. What is hard to understand is the decision to reject its findings. One suspects Sheean’s heroism and sacrifice will live on in our folklore a lot longer than those that denied him a VC.