When Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean bravely strapped himself to an anti-aircraft gun on the HMAS Armidale nearly 80 years ago, he knew the significance of what he was about to do.
Despite being wounded, the 18-year-old was willing to put his life on the line to protect his mates against swarming Japanese bombers attacking the ship.
A mere boy, Sheean died a hero that day.
But what he couldn’t have known when embarking on his courageous last stand on December 1, 1942, was that the greatness of the deed would resonate across the ensuing years.
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The problem is that Sheean’s actions have been endlessly analysed, sometimes to an insufferable degree.
Long have Sheean’s family and supporters campaigned for him to be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia.
On Wednesday, they finally got their wish.
But time and time again, they were thwarted; the military bureaucracy and, most recently, the federal government, prevented the Lower Barrington boy from receiving the honour on multiple occasions.
A review of Sheean’s brave acts, as well as those of 12 other naval and military personnel, was undertaken by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal in 2011-13.
It concluded that “no action be taken to award Ordinary Seaman Sheean a VC or further form of recognition for his gallantry or valour”.
A further review was carried out last year, this time into Sheean alone and the tribunal handed down a report last July, recommending that Defence Minister Linda Reynolds recommend to the Governor-General that Sheean be posthumously awarded a VC.
Extraordinarily, the government ignored the tribunal’s recommendations, opting to deny Sheean the honour his nephew Garry Ivory had so long been seeking for his late uncle.
It prompted a dismayed reaction from Ivory and state Veterans’ Affairs Minister Guy Barnett, as well as an eruption of fury from Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie.
To the credit of Tasmania’s federal Liberal members, they lobbied the Prime Minister to follow the most recent recommendations of the tribunal. Eventually Scott Morrison relented, announcing the appointment of an “expert panel” – which cost taxpayers upwards of $60,000 – to make a final call on Sheean’s case.
The panel, chaired by former Australian War Memorial director and ex-Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, made the right call.
But there’s a certain absurdity in the way that a dead 18-year-old’s final moments were agonised over for so many years in an attempt to evaluate the extent of his gallantry.
There’s a certain absurdity in the way that a dead 18-year-old’s final moments were agonised over for so many years in an attempt to evaluate the extent of his gallantry.
The tireless campaigners who rallied behind Ivory and Barnett shouldn’t have been forced to endure the kinds of bureaucratic headaches better suited to a a Kafka novel.
It made sense for the PM to announce in the week leading up to VP Day that Governor-General David Hurley would recommend to Queen Elizabeth II that Sheean be awarded a VC.
For a marketing man like Morrison, the opportunity for such a conveniently timed announcement would have been difficult to resist.
Finally, on Wednesday, the Governor-General confirmed that the Queen had approved his recommendation for Sheean to be granted the highest award in the nation’s military honours system.
But the drawn-out nature of this whole saga was, frankly, shameful.
If Sheean’s gallantry was observed by multiple eyewitnesses, was honoured in a famous painting hung at the war memorial and even resulted in the Royal Australian Navy naming a submarine after him, then maybe the criteria for the awarding of a Victoria Cross need to be changed.
The war hero has finally been given his dues but that doesn’t erase the years of frustration and pain his family had to go through to see that outcome realised.
Nelson told Australian Community Media this week that “the evidence was always there” but stressed that there had never been a concerted effort not to award Sheean a VC.
“There were a whole series of events and missteps, missed opportunities and mistakes made over the last 78 years or so,” he said.
It’s good that those mistakes were ultimately rectified.
They should never be allowed to occur again.
- Rob Inglis is a journalist with Australian Community Media.
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