Great Uncle Edward (Teddy) Sheean
Edward Sheean was the twelfth of sixteen children born to James and Mary Sheean. He was born in Barrington, on 28 December 1923. His oldest brother, Allan, was already eighteen. My grandmother, Amy, the fourth child, was fifteen and no doubt helped to bring up young Teddy, as he was known, and the other younger children, although she was to marry and have a child of her own by the time Teddy was five.
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. Over the next few years Teddy’s mother gave birth to three more children, none of whom survived infancy. These must have been difficult times for the family. The older children, Albert, Florence, Jim, Amy and Ivy, were married and having families of their own by 1930 so young Teddy probably spent much of his childhood with big brothers Janie, Bert, Bill, Fred and Mick.
The family moved from Barrington to Latrobe where Teddy and his siblings attended the local Catholic School, St Patrick’s. Teddy started at St Pat’s on 28 January 1930 and received his First Communion on 21 May 1931. Here the children were taught by Sister Aquinas and the other Sisters of Mercy. Perhaps Teddy was among the boys enthralled by Sister Josephine’s stories of the heroism of Ned Kelly. In 1931 the weatherboard school, just a couple of steps outside the Convent fence, comprised a small room for the infants and Grade 1 children; a larger room for Grades 2, 3 and 4 and a hall, complete with stage, for grades 5, 6 and 7.
After a basic education, Teddy left school in year five, on 8 March 1937, with the school register noting that he was ‘over age’. He left to work with his father as a ‘bush carpenter’ (building fences and the like) and woodcutter and to help out on farms in the local area. His sister Ivy and her husband Jack lived on a farm at Merseylea, some 20 kilometres 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 very 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 no doubt encouraged his children’s athletic abilities. St Patrick’s, too, had a good reputation for sport.
In 1939, Teddy’s younger brother, Harold, died. He was twelve years old. With less than three year’s in age between them, no doubt Harry’s death hit hard.
Two years later, on 21 April 1941, when he was just seventeen, Teddy Sheean reported for duty as an Ordinary Seaman with the Royal Australian Navy. His records indicate that he was 5 feet, eight and half inches tall, with black hair, brown eyes and dark complexion. His parents, James and Mary, are listed as his next of kin. Six weeks later, Mick also joined up.
It is interesting that Teddy and Mick chose the Navy over the Army. Their brother Bill had enlisted with the Army at the end of March 1941. However, it seems that he was discharged just under twelve months later, in January 1942. Perhaps his experience encouraged his younger brothers to try the Navy. On the other hand, Fred joined the Army only a week or so before Bill and served until 6 December 1945 when he was discharged as a Sergeant from the 2/8 Australian Infantry Battalion. He went on to make his career in the Army.
Whatever his reason for choosing the Navy, Teddy signed on to HMAS Derwent, the naval depot in Hobart, on 21 April 1941, where he served on board the auxiliary minesweeper HMAS Coombar. On his eighteenth birthday Teddy joined HMAS Cerberus at Western Port Victoria, where he received more training. On 11 May 1942 he was posted to HMAS Penguin, from where he was posted to the new Bathurst class corvette, HMAS Armidale in June 1942.
Over the next four or five months the Armidale was engaged in escort duties in the North Queensland – Port Moresby – Milne Bay area. In October 1942, HMAS Armidale was ordered to Darwin. Arriving on 7 November, she was then allocated to support Australian operations in Timor. HMAS Amridale and her sister ship the HMAS Castlemaine, were sent to Betano in Timor to effect the withdrawal of the 2/2 Independent Company and to evacuate some civilians. They were also to land replacement forces on the island that was, at the time, in Japanese hands.
Shortly before 2:00 am on 29 November, both ships left Darwin to rendezvous with HMAS Kuru. Seven hours later, about 120 miles from Timor, the two corvettes were attacked by a single aircraft. Instructions from Darwin were that the mission was to proceed but that air cover would be provided. However, before the corvettes reached Betano at 3:00 am on 1 December, they were attacked again. On the second occasion, air support finally arrived.
On the night of 1st-2nd December, passengers from HMAS Kuru (176 Dutch troops, 120 Portugese women and children and some medical evacuees) were transferred to HMAS Castlemaine for evacuation to Darwin. No sooner had the transfer been effected than the corvettes came under fire again. HMAS Kuru and HMAS Armidale sailed for Betano Bay where the operation was to be completed, while HMAS Castlemaine departed to look for crew missing from a downed Beaufighter some 150 miles south-west of Betano, and then to return to Darwin.
HMAS Kuru and Armidale again came under attack from Japanese bombers. Separating, the Kuru sustained only fairly minor damage. But, in the afternoon of the 1st of December the Japanese attack on the Armidale escalated. There were now nine Japanese bombers, three fighters and a float plane attacking the ship from four directions, dropping bombs and torpedoes. Shortly after 3:00 pm the Armidale was hit.
In addition to her normal crew of 83, the Armidale was carrying three Australian Army personnel, two Dutch Army officers and 61 Indonesian troops. About two-thirds of the Indonesians were in the forward mess, and were killed, when the ship was first hit.
The ship listed to port, reaching an angle of about 50˚. The order came to abandon ship. Some jumped overboard, others climbed into the motor boat and onto carley floats. The Japanese attack continued with those in the aircraft machine-gunning the survivors in the water.
About to jump overboard, Teddy could see his shipmates being torn to pieces by the gun fire. Some duck-dived to escape the bullets only to be hit when next coming up for breath. Not yet wounded, Teddy turned from the lottery of the sea, to face certain death attempting to save those struggling below. Making it back to his station, Teddy strapped himself to his Oerlikon gun and began firing 20 mm shells at the attacking aircraft, shooting down one bomber and perhaps damaging two more.
A Japanese fighter zoomed in with guns blazing. Teddy was hit twice, his chest and back torn open. With blood pouring from his wounds, Teddy remained firing, forcing the Japanese planes to veer away. The men in the water tell of the desperate, blood-stained gunner wheeling his gun from target to target, his powerless legs dragging on the deck. As the Armidale took another hit and sank even faster, the sea rose above Teddy’s waist and chest and then above the gun itself. As the sea closed over the young gunner and his gun, their shots continued to pour forth.
A hero’s death
Just a four weeks shy of his nineteenth birthday, Teddy Sheean died trying to save the lives of his ship mates. Of the 149 men on board when the ship sank, 47 were killed. Many of the men 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 had survived. The Armidale had been operating under radio silence so those in command in Darwin did not know that she had sunk and could not initiate rescue efforts. The men took it in turns in the boat, the carley float and treading water. They managed to get a whaler floating. 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 no 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. 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. It is thought that they may have been killed by the Japanese, either shot while in the water or perhaps captured by a Japanese submarine in the area and subsequently killed.
Once back in Darwin, the men who had survived were instructed not to speak of their ordeal. Relatives of those who had disappeared on the raft were kept in the dark about the inquiry that followed.
What of Teddy’s family? How did they learn of his loss? My father was just four at the time but remembers holding on to his mother’s apron as she received the dreadful news.
Twenty year old Mick was somewhere in the Mediterranean or North African waters on board another newly commissioned ship, the British destroyer, HMAS Quiberon. Within twenty-four hours of his brother’s death, Mick was in the thick of a battle that resulted in the destruction of an enemy Italian convoy as well as the loss of the Quiberion’s sister ship, HMAS Quentin.
Amazingly, Teddy’s loss prompted older brother Janie to increase his contribution to the war effort. Married, with four young children, aged one, thee, four and six, Janie had been working in a munitions factory in Victoria, making bombs, at the time of Ted’s death. In July the following year, he joined the Australian Army and soon after served two years in New Guinea, fighting the Japanese. Bert also joined the Army, serving from January to July 1944.
His sisters would later recall the last time they saw their young brother – at the end of home leave, wearing his great coat, naval cap and a white scarf around his neck, waving as the train pulled out from Latrobe railway station on its short trip to Burnie, where Teddy would take the ferry to the mainland to join the Armidale. He was young, vibrant and full of confidence as the family waved goodbye.
Teddy Sheean was posthumously awarded a Mention in Despatches for his gallantry. But his surviving ship mates, relatives and others who have heard his story continue 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. Significant and important as they are, they do not hold the power and symbolism of the VC, which Teddy’s heroism justly deserves.
In April 2011 the Commonwealth Government announced an inquiry to give consideration to the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to Teddy Cross and twelve other brave Australians. I was pleased to assist in the preparation of a submission, on behalf of Sheean family members, supporting the case for the award of the Victoria Cross.
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 does not share the view that Teddy’s heroism deserves to be recognised by the award of the VC.
In summarising its views about Teddy, the Tribunal ‘concluded 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.’
Chapter 17 of the report tells Teddy’s story in more detail. The Tribunal’s failure to recommend a VC for Teddy has received significant publicity, including on the ABC’s 7:30 report and in various newspaper articles, the links of which are accessible from the Facebook Page referred to below.
[Updated 11 June 2016 – link to Tom Lewis article added below]
There is a great deal of information published on the web about Teddy Sheean. Much of it is accessible via my Facebook Group: Teddy Sheean
A Facebook page has also been set up to continue the fight for the award of VC for Teddy Sheean.
I have also published many links to information about Teddy Sheean on my Ancestry page.
The Trade published an article on the HMAS Sheean Rededication Ceremony in 2013.
Lee Kernaghan’s tribute to Teddy in song ‘Teddy Sheean – Forever Eighteen‘