Edward (Teddy) Sheean
Died at sea
Edward 'Teddy' Sheean is Australia's most recent Victoria Cross recipient. In 2020, almost 80 years after his death, the 18-year-old Tasmanian seaman was recognised for his efforts to save his crewmates aboard HMAS Armidale.
Edward Sheean was born 1923 in Lower Barrington, Tasmania. He was one of 16 children, and his parents were James and Mary Sheean.
Sheean's family moved to Latrobe in northern Tasmania when he was young. He and his siblings were educated at the local Catholic primary school.
Great-niece and family historian, Lynne Gillam, said Sheean left school in Year 5. He and his father worked for local farmers, cutting wood, fencing and doing other labouring work.
Teddy Sheean joined the Royal Australian Naval Reserve (RANR) in Hobart on 21 April 1941 when he was 17. He was one of 5 Sheean children who joined the armed forces.
After his initial training, Sheean transferred to Flinders Naval Depot, Victoria, in February 1942. He joined the base depot HMAS Cerberus.
In May 1942, Sheean was posted to Sydney's Garden Island. He was billeted aboard HMAS Kuttabul, a ferry used as barracks for naval personnel before being posted elsewhere. When Kuttabul was sunk by a Japanese midget submarine later that month, 21 sailors died while they slept. Sheean was on leave visiting his family at the time.
When Sheean returned to Sydney, he joined in preparing HMAS Armidale for its next voyage. Lynne Gillam said:
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.
HMAS Armidale was one of 56 Bathurst Class Corvettes commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy for World War II service. Each was named after an Australian town or city.
Originally meant as minesweepers, these ships were also used for:
- carrying supplies
- escorting convoys
- evacuating troops and civilians
- sea rescues
In October 1942, Armidale was ordered to sail for Darwin. From there, it would head for Timor to land Netherlander colonial troops and evacuate Australian soldiers and Timorese civilians.
HMAS Armidale left Darwin just after midnight on 29 November, and the crew had a very tense experience over the next 24 hours.
After reaching Timor later that night but failing to make the rendezvous with another Australian ship, Armidale was ordered to wait offshore in hostile waters the following day and return to the island after dark. The Japanese launched a series of aerial attacks over several hours, finally hitting Armidale with 2 torpedoes.
Armidale began to sink quickly, about 100km south of Timor. The order was given to abandon ship, and crew and troops dived over the side.
Enemy planes strafed the members of Armidale's crew and the Netherlands East Indies soldiers who had made it overboard.
The inquiry into recognising Sheean's bravery later reported that the machine-gunning continued for 15 minutes. Sheean scrambled back to his gun. He strapped himself to it. And, despite his own shocking wounds, he continued to fire at the Japanese aircraft, shooting one down and damaging 2 others.
Newspapers later reported on the chaos and violence of the attack. Leading Seaman Leigh Bool said in the Launceston Examiner:
They strafed us from every point of the compass. Zeros machine–gunned the men who were trying to get out the life-saving appliances. The Japanese also machine-gunned the men in the sea.
With his crew mates being machine-gunned in the sea, Sheean kept firing the Oerlikon gun. Biographer N Watson said Sheean was last seen by witnesses still shooting as Armidale sank. He was only 18.
Only 49 people survived of those on board Armidale. Many survivors witnessed Sheean's final act of bravery.
Sheean was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches.
A year after his death, Sheean's family posted a memorial notice in the Burnie Advocate newspaper. It read:
Just one year ago today the one we loved was called away. The loss was great, the shock severe – we little thought that death was near.
Dear Teddy, how we miss you. But we know 'tis vain to weep, for tears of love can never wake you from your peaceful, happy sleep.
Recognising Edward Sheean's bravery
Sheean's family never gave up fighting for recognition of his courage on that day of HMAS Armidale's sinking. Nephew, Garry Ivory, campaigned for 3 decades.
In 2020, Queen Elizabeth II approved the young Tasmanian sailor's award of a Victoria Cross for Australia.
Sheean's citation, recorded in the Federal Register of Legislation 1 December 2020, reads:
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.
In December, Edward 'Teddy' Sheean's family were guests of honour at his investiture and Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.
The crew of HMAS Armidale (II) held its own commemorative ceremony. Over the site of the wreck, they honoured Sheean and all those from HMAS Armidale (I) who lost their lives in 1942.
Sheean's medals now hang in the Australian War Memorial's Hall of Valour. His story joins that of the 100 other Australian VC recipients.
- ABC, A Measure Of Courage, Australian Story, 1 August 2011
- Australian War Memorial, February 2020, A Cruel Sea - The sinking of HMAS Armidale, https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/cruelsea/background
- Gillam, L, Edward (Teddy) Sheean VC – Resources, Lynne's Family https://lynnesfamilies.wordpress.com/sheean/edward-teddy-sheean
- Royal Australian Navy, Ordinary Seaman Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean VC https://www.navy.gov.au/biography/ordinary-seaman-edward-teddy-sheean-vc
- Watson N, Sheean, Edward (Teddy) (1923–1942), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University