Military history is replete with stories of heroism and self-sacrifice, but that of Australian Edward “Teddy” Australian Sheean stands between them.
And on Wednesday, nearly 78 years after the then-18-year-old sailor provided cover for his comrades to escape Japanese planes, Sheean was posthumously awarded Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth’s highest honor for military value.
On December 1, 1942, Sheean was the companion of an attack on the HMAS Armidale Corps when it was attacked during an operation near Japanese-occupied Timor, now the site of Timor-Leste across the Timor Sea from the Australian city of Darwin.
According to Australian War Memorial (AWM) data, the Sheean ship was spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes when it left Darwin on November 29th. This meant that a dangerous mission was coming, as Japan dominated the air and waters around Timor, about 720 kilometers (447 miles) northwest of the Australian port.
On the afternoon of December 1, Japanese warplanes attacked the Armidale. The Australian Corvette was hit by two torpedoes launched by Japanese planes and quickly began to sink, according to AWM. An order was given to abandon the ship.
“Sheean was wounded and, instead of abandoning the ship, he tied himself to the Oerlikon (anti-traction weapon) and began to engage the attacking plane even when the ship sank beneath it. “It was rising from below the surface as Sheean crawled underwater, shooting to the end,” says AWM.
There were 149 sailors on Australian ships. Forty-nine survived and were abducted from the Timor Sea a week after the sinking. Each likely owed his life to his 18-year-old shooter buddy, according to an expert panel set up in June this year to try out Sheean’s case.
It was the fourth time the Victoria Cross case for Sheean had been considered. The first three, in 1942-43, 2013 and 2019, determined that Sheean’s actions did not rise to such a high level as to guarantee the nation’s greatest honor.
But the 18-year-old is a legend in Australia, with monuments and tribute to him across the country. The Australian Navy even named a submarine for him, the only ship ever named after a sailor with a rank as low as Sheean.
And the Navy has never relied on its offer to get Sheean the honor it felt was so deserved.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison heard and said the government had been provided with “contradictory evidence” after the 2013 and 2019 reviews and formed another panel to reconsider the Sheean case.
Morrison wrote Wednesday that a “substantial injustice” had been corrected.
Victoria Cross was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 for acts of gallantry by the British Armed Forces. Winning the prize requires an act of extreme bravery in the presence of the enemy, according to the UK National Army Museum.
“According to legend, the prototype, along with the first 111 crosses given, were cast from the bronze of weapons seized by the Russians in Crimea,” the museum details on its website.
Sheean will become the 101 Australians to receive the Victoria Cross when the medal with the words “For Valor” is given to his family, now in Sheean State, Tasmania, later this year.
Modern Australian soldiers have been awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia; four have earned that rating.
The most recent Australian winner was Cameron Baird, also awarded the prize posthumously, after he was killed fighting in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, in 2013.