b. 28/12/1923 Lower Barrington, Tasmania. d. 01/12/1942 off Betano, East Timor.
DATE OF VC ACTION: 01/12/1942 off Betano, East Timor.
Edward Sheean (1923-1942), sailor, was born on 28 December 1923 at Lower Barrington, Tasmania, fourteenth child of James Sheean, labourer, and his wife Mary Jane, née Broomhall, both Tasmanian born. Soon afterwards the family moved to Latrobe. Teddy was educated at the local Catholic school. Five ft 8½ ins (174 cm) tall and well built, he took casual work on farms between Latrobe and Merseylea. In Hobart on 21 April 1941 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve as an ordinary seaman, following in the steps of five of his brothers who had joined the armed forces (four of them were in the army and one in the navy). On completing his initial training, he was sent to Flinders Naval Depot, Westernport, Victoria, in February 1942 for further instruction.
In May Sheean was posted to Sydney where he was billeted at Garden Island in the requisitioned ferry Kuttabul, prior to joining his first ship as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun-loader. Granted home leave, he was not on board Kuttabul when Japanese midget submarines raided the harbour and sank her on 31 May. Eleven days later he returned to Sydney to help commission the new corvette H.M.A.S. Armidale, which carried out escort duties along the eastern Australian coast and in New Guinea waters. Ordered to sail for Darwin in October, Armidale arrived there early next month.
On 29 November Armidale sailed for Japanese-occupied Timor—in company with the corvette H.M.A.S. Castlemaine—to withdraw the exhausted Australian 2nd/2nd Independent Company, evacuate about 150 Portuguese civilians and 190 Dutch troops, and land soldiers to reinforce Dutch guerrillas on the island. Arriving off Betano before dawn on 1 December, the ships rendezvoused with the naval tender H.M.A.S. Kuru, which had already taken the civilians on board. When these people were transferred to Castlemaine, she sailed for Darwin, leaving the other two vessels to carry out the rest of the operation. From 12.28 p.m. Armidale and Kuru came under repeated attack from Japanese aircraft. Despite requests, no air cover was received.
Shortly before 2 p.m. on 1 December 1942 Armidale, by then separated from Kuru, was attacked by no less than thirteen aircraft. The corvette manoeuvred frantically. At 3.15 a torpedo struck her port side and another hit the engineering spaces; finally a bomb struck aft. As the vessel listed heavily to port, the order was given to abandon ship. The survivors leapt into the sea and were machine-gunned by the Japanese. Once he had helped to free a life-raft, Sheean scrambled back to his gun on the sinking ship. Although wounded in the chest and back, the 18-year-old sailor shot down one bomber and kept other aircraft away from his comrades in the water. He was seen still firing his gun as Armidale slipped below the waves. Only forty-nine of the 149 souls who had been on board survived the sinking and the ensuing days in life-rafts.
Sheean was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery. A Collins-class submarine, launched in 1999, was named after him—the only ship in the R.A.N. to bear the name of an ordinary seaman. Carrying the motto "Fight On", the vessel was one of six Collins-class submarines entered into service. Later that year, 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 Opposition, Kim 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. His home town of Latrobe commemorates his life via the Sheean Walk and Teddy Sheean Memorial, opened in 1992. In 2003, the Australian Navy Cadets established a training ship at Tewantin, Queensland, called NTS Sheean in his honour.
In 2011, at the direction of the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Senator David Feeney, the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal opened an inquiry into thirteen cases of unresolved recognition for past acts of gallantry. Among the group were eleven naval personnel, including Sheean. Known as the 'Valour Inquiry', the Tribunal was directed to determine if the individuals were unduly overlooked for recognition at the time of their actions and, if so, whether late awards were appropriate. The inquiry lasted two years and included 166 submissions from 125 individuals and organisations, before the Tribunal reported its findings in January 2013. In the case of Sheean, the Tribunal found that there was no manifest injustice with the award of the Mention in Despatches, and that there was no new evidence to support the consideration of Sheean for the Victoria Cross for Australia. If Sheean had lived, they reported, he might have been recommended for either the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal or the Distinguished Service Medal instead, but neither medal could be awarded posthumously in 1942. The Tribunal did recommend that the RAN perpetuate the use of Sheean as the name of a major combatant vessel.
In June 2020, Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison ordered an expert panel to review the decision. On 10 August 2020, Morrison accepted the findings of the panel and recommended the Queen posthumously award Sheean the Victoria Cross for Australia. The official announcement that the Queen had accepted the recommendation came on 12th August 2020.
VC FOR AUSTRALIA CITATION:
For the most conspicuous gallantry and a pre-eminent act of valour in the presence of the enemy during a Japanese aerial attack on HMAS Armidale in the Timor Sea on 1 December 1942.
On 1 December 1942, during operations in the Timor Sea, HMAS Armidale came under aerial bombardment and torpedo attack from Japanese aircraft. Shortly after the commencement of the attack, Armidale was hit by a torpedo and began listing to port. One minute later the ship was hit by a second torpedo which broke the vessel’s back, causing the Captain to order abandon ship.
Ordinary Seaman Sheean, one of the youngest and most junior ranked members of Armidale’s Ship’s Company, made his way to the stowage position of the motor-boat and assisted in its launch. As the enemy continued to fire upon the ship and his shipmates who were already in the water, Ordinary Seaman Sheean decided to forgo his opportunity for survival by not abandoning ship and returning to his Action Station to man the aft Oerlikon gun, where he was the loader, not the gunner. Despite being wounded, he strapped himself into the gun and commenced firing at the enemy, damaging at least two enemy aircraft.
Ordinary Seaman Sheean’s actions disrupted and distracted the enemy from strafing and killing his defenceless shipmates in the water. He sacrificed his life trying to save his shipmates and, despite his wounds, he continued firing the gun until the ship sank and took him to his death. His pre-eminent act of valour and most conspicuous gallantry saved Australian lives. His heroism became the standard to which the men and women of the Australian Defence Force aspire.
BURIAL LOCATION: BODY LOST AT SEA.
NAMED ON THE PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL, PANEL 76 COLUMN 1.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT AWARDED AS OF YET.
NO IMAGE AVAILABLE
Updated memorial October 2020 (Steve Lee)
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Courtesy of Garry Ivory