Review into recognition for the late Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean
26 March 2019
Defence opening statement by VADM Michael Noonan AO, RAN
Good afternoon Chair and Tribunal members.
I am Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, representing the Department of Defence. I would like to provide a short opening statement to the Tribunal before accepting questions to assist with today’s hearing.
I would like to start by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are meeting today, the Muwinina people, and pay my respects to their Elders both past, present and emerging. I would also like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have contributed to the defence of Australia in times of peace and war, and those in our Royal Australian Navy serving our nation today.
I am proud to be here today to support the Tribunal and its liberations with respect to recognition for the late Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean. I wish to acknowledge Ordinary Seaman Sheean’s family, particularly those present today, and extend that acknowledgement to the broader Navy family, through which Teddy’s legacy endures.
Courage is not the preserve of any one generation. Navy continues to hold Ordinary Seaman Sheean’s action in the highest regard and we have honoured his devotion to duty and self-sacrifice since the events that transpired on that fateful day in December 1942. There is no doubt, 18 year old Sheean with less than six months operational experience in HMAS Armidale served with honour, honesty, courage, integrity and loyalty – values and behaviours that are just as important in the Navy I lead today as they were in our Navy in 1942.
When Sheean joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1941, Australia was in the grip of the Second World War. Tasmania had already lost so many of its sons to conflict; I can only guess this was something Sheean was acutely aware of when he signed on to serve. Fresh from recruit school, Sheean trained hard, took his duty seriously and above all, is described as someone “who would do anything for his mates”. We here today, know Sheean would also do anything for his country.
He was posted to HMAS Armidale in June of 1942 as a loader for one of the ship’s three Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. It was less than six months later, this Ordinary Seaman would give his life, for his shipmates and country.
This spirit lives on in the modern day sailor, in the Navy I am so proud to lead. Sheean’s actions – returning to his action station, strapping himself into the firing position, shooting down enemy aircraft and saving the lives of his shipmates – inspire sailors and officers today as they also serve this nation. Every member of the modern Royal Australian Navy enlists knowing they should expect and may be called upon to go into harm’s way. If called to war in 2019, our sailors and officers will show courage, determination and selflessness, and without hesitation, will charge into conflict situations with the same bravery Sheean displayed on 1 December 1942. His actions and that of many of our young sailors of the Second World War form the lasting legacy that inspires my sailors of 2019 to do extraordinary things every day.
They do this because of Teddy Sheean. And Emile Dechaineux. And John Collins. And Ken Hudspeth. Great Tasmanian Naval servicemen. They do this because of Dick Emms, Jonathan Rogers, Noel Shipp, Buck Taylor, Frank Gedding, Robert Rankin, William Moran and Hector Waller. All great Australian Naval heroes we continue to remember, of whom have Divisions at our Recruit School and the Naval College named after them, or their name adorns one of Her Majesty’s Australian Ships. These are the heroes who have shaped how we as a Navy act, think and serve today. If it had not been for these men, we would be a very different Royal Australian Navy and a very different Australian Defence Force. These men have forged the unique spirit that is the Australian sailor.
In the case of Sheean, his heroism has become a standard our men and women of the modern Navy should aspire to. His name is universally known in our Navy. That iconic painting of Sheean in his final action, or his photograph, are in many Navy establishments around the country.
Recognition comes in many forms and, while we are here today to consider Teddy Sheean for our country’s highest award for valour in action, I cannot overstate the esteem in which the Navy holds him. He is recognised every day by our men and women.
Over the last 20 years, more than 500 of our submariners have proudly worn Sheean’s name, everyday on their cap tally, and at least another 500 will do so in the years ahead. HMAS Sheean is the first and only ship in the Royal Australian Navy to bear the name of an Ordinary Seaman. Or the Ordinary Seaman Sheean Award for Gunnery given out from 1986 until the mid-1990s at Cerberus for the sailor with the best results on the quartermaster gunner/boatswains mate course. Of course, the iconic painting by Dale Marsh in 1978, proudly hanging in the Australian War Memorial. In 2003 the Australian Navy Cadet unit, NTS Sheean, was established in the Noosa Shire, and is now permanently located in Tewantin, Queensland.
And of course, there are the Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean Memorial and Sheean Walk, in his home town of Latrobe, as well as the Tasmanian Government’s Teddy Sheean Memorial Grants Program. His name is remembered through song and in books, some of the authors of which will join us for these hearings today and tomorrow. His face is on badges, sold by the RSL for its Annual ANZAC Appeal.
For us, for every modern sailor and officer, it doesn’t matter what the outcome of the Tribunal hearing is: Teddy Sheean’s spirit is an enduring part of our Navy.
We will continue to ensure his story lives on through our men and women and the work they do, as well as through the Australian War Memorial, the mechanism for acknowledging our Nation’s proud service history in conflict.
Navy’s position is that Sheean displayed bravery and selflessness in the face of mortal danger while HMAS Armidale was under attack on 1 December 1942.
Nonetheless, it is also Navy’s position, consistent with Defence policy, that the most appropriate decision making body to retrospectively determine whether an individual’s actions are deserving of an award for gallantry against the award criteria is the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal. Navy has, and will continue to support the independent findings of the Tribunal.
As the current professional head of the Navy, there are some forms of recognition that I am able to approve and many that I cannot. I am proud to be able to award a Group Commendation to the Ship’s Company involved in the HMAS Westralia fire on 5 May 1998. Unfortunately, the Victoria Cross for Australia is not a gift I can give as the Chief of Navy.
Accordingly, I advised the applicant, Mr Guy Barnett, in July 2018 that there was no new evidence that would support a reconsideration or review of the findings of the 2013 Valour Inquiry, conducted by this Tribunal.
At that time, this Tribunal, in determining whether to recommend granting retrospective honours in the form of a Victoria Cross to Sheean, applied a number of tests through the prism of maintaining the integrity of the Australian honours and awards system.
In doing so, the Tribunal determined:
- There was insufficient evidence to support a clear case of maladministration leading to a manifest injustice;
- Whilst Sheean’s actions displayed conspicuous gallantry, they did not reach the particularly high standard required for recommendation for a Victoria Cross; and
- There was no compelling new evidence to support the reconsideration of Sheean for a Victoria Cross that was not adequately considered at the time.
Additionally, this Tribunal concluded that had he lived, Sheean may have been recommended for a higher level gallantry award, however, the equivalent level Australian gallantry honours should not be recommended now.
Implied in the determination of the Tribunal – that “whilst Sheean’s actions displayed conspicuous gallantry, they did not reach the particularly high standard required for recommendation for a Victoria Cross” – is the assertion that the only other award, the Mention in Despatches, was an appropriate award for the level of gallantry displayed. It is not the place of the modern Royal Australian Navy, which I lead, to question the decision making of the British Admiralty on the recommendations for awards made from Australia and the RAN at the time. However, in the absence of an intermediate higher level posthumous award, this was an appropriate award to recognise the bravery demonstrated by Sheean.
Despite the disappointment of this recommendation by the Tribunal for many, it certainly did not, nor will it ever, diminish the esteem in which Sheean is held by the men and women of the Royal Australian Navy or the people of Australia.
Is not appropriate for me to disagree with the conclusions and recommendations developed by an independent tribunal; to do so would be inconsistent with Defence policy and challenge the integrity of the Australian honours and awards system. This was the basis of my response to Mr Barnett.
Following notification of the review, I was pleased to offer Navy support to develop an objective, merits based assessment of the actions of Ordinary Seaman Sheean, using the Tribunal’s evidence and conclusions from The Valour Inquiry as guidance – as well as checking whether there was any significant new evidence that deserved consideration. I wasn’t required to do this, but in my view, that it was the right thing to do. The report was subsequently provided to the Tribunal and I am happy to clarify any points within that report.
Should the Tribunal conclude from the hearings today and tomorrow that it will set aside its own recommendation from The Valour Inquiry and recommend an award, that decision too, will be fully supported by me and our Navy.
Before I offer the Tribunal the opportunity to ask questions of me, I would like to address a few points of contention in the report provided by Defence to this Tribunal. The first is the remark at paragraph 51. I wish to offer an unreserved apology to anyone to whom this may have caused offence. It is not my view, nor does it reflect our Navy’s values.
It is also important for me to address a remark in paragraph 34 regarding the use of the term “pass the pub test”. This remark is irrelevant to the intent of the paragraph, which is aimed at demonstrating support for the maintenance of the integrity of the honours and awards system. Remarks like these have no place in this context.
I am now happy to take questions from members of the Tribunal to assist with its deliberations in reviewing this case.