Victoria Cross for “Teddy” 78 Years After Going Down With His Ship

This year, a panel revisited the Australian Navy’s request to award the Victoria Cross to Ordinary Seaman Edward “Teddy” Sheean. On August 12th, they overturned three previous decisions that Sheean’s actions did not rise to the level necessary to receive the award.

The Victoria Cross is the highest honor for military valor in the British commonwealth of Australia. Sheean was awarded it nearly 78 years after his actions in the Timor Sea saved the lives of many of his fellow sailors.

HMAS Armidale in Port Moresby harbour c. September 1942.
HMAS Armidale in Port Moresby harbour c. September 1942.

An 18-year-old Sheean served as a gunner’s mate on the HMAS Armidale, a corvette in the Australian Navy. They were spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes as they left Darwin on November 29, 1942. On December 1, they were attacked by Japanese fighter planes.

The ship was struck by two torpedoes and began to sink quickly. The order was given to abandon ship.

Sheean, who was injured in the attack, ignored the order to abandon ship and strapped himself to his anti-aircraft gun.

He continued firing at enemy aircraft as the ship sank thereby providing cover for his fellow sailors as they abandoned the ship. The surviving sailors said that they could see tracer bullets rising from under the water as Sheean continued firing even while being dragged down with the ship.

Members of the Sheean family c.1941. L to R, back row: Edward (Teddy); Frederick. Front row: James (father); Mary (mother); William.
Members of the Sheean family c.1941. L to R, back row: Edward (Teddy); Frederick. Front row: James (father); Mary (mother); William.

Of the 149 sailors on the Armidale, 49 survived. They were recovered from the Timor Sea a week after the attack. According to the panel that awarded the Victoria Cross to Sheean, each survivor most likely owed his life to the actions of the gunner’s mate.

His case was first reviewed for the Victoria Cross in 1942-1942. It was subsequently reviewed in 2013 and 2019. Each time the panel determined that Sheean did not deserve the award.

Sheean was a legend in Australia, though. There are monuments to him throughout the country. The Navy named a submarine after him making him the lowest ranked sailor to receive such an honor.

Through the years the navy continually pushed for Sheean to receive the highest honor his nation could give him.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the government had received “conflicting evidence about Sheean’s efforts after the reviews in 2013 and 2019. He ordered a new panel convene to review the case one more time.

In a statement, Morrison stated that they were correcting a “substantial injustice.” He said that the new decision formalized what Australians already knew to be true – that Sheean was a hero.

HMAS Sheean at Fremantle, Western Australia
HMAS Sheean at Fremantle, Western Australia

Queen Victoria introduced the Victoria Cross in 1856 to recognize acts of gallantry by members of the British armed forces. In order to receive the award, an armed forces member must show extreme bravery in the presence of the enemy.

The original prototype for the award is said to have been formed from the bronze of guns captured from the Russians in Crimea. The first 110 medals were also cast from this same bronze but this is actually false.  Historian John Glanfield has established that the metal for most of the medals made since December 1914 came from two Chinese cannons

Sheean will be the 101st Australian to receive the honor when it is presented to his family later this year.

The Victoria Cross medal is in the form of a Maltese cross cast in bronze. The face of the medal has the royal crown topped with a standing lion. Beneath the crown is a ribbon that has the words “For Valour.”

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The reverse of the cross has a circle with the date of the heroic actions. The cross is suspended from a “V” connected to a bar which lists the details of the recipient.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE