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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 13431

Mr NIKOLIC (Bass) (18:23): I have previously spoken in the Parliament about a Tasmanian legend: Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheean, commonly known as Teddy. It is fair to say that the fight to get Teddy Sheean the recognition his bravery deserves is a long and continuing story. That is because there are so many people in the Tasmanian community and further afield who are determined to ensure that Teddy gets the higher recognition his bravery deserves.

I acknowledge this is a difficult case. It has been considered previously, including by the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal. It is especially difficult because the events in question occurred almost 75 years ago. We are trying to distil from history's record the proof that justifies a fresh look—a different decision. But that is exactly why Teddy Sheean's case deserves that extra consideration, because we have the documented history to rely on.

I can recall first becoming really aware of Teddy's story in the early days of my military career. Who could forget Dale Marsh's famous painting that now hangs in the Australian War Memorial? A young man on a sinking ship, the HMAS Armidale. And there, strapped to an Oerlikon gun and doing his best to defend his mates is Teddy Sheean, trying to stop Japanese aircraft from strafing his shipmates in the water.

It was no surprise to me that when the honours and awards inquiry was established on 16 April 2011 to consider Teddy's case and others, the then Parliamentary Secretary for Defence used Teddy's valour as a way of setting the scene for the inquiry's deliberations. That is because Edward 'Teddy' Sheean may have been an ordinary seaman, but his actions were certainly extraordinary to generate over 70 years of respect and admiration—to have a submarine named after him, songs and a historical walk dedicated in his honour and to be the subject of books, articles and hundreds of media stories, including Australian Story. As I have said in previous speeches and public comments, the respect afforded to Teddy's memory reinforces that the tactical actions of an individual in war can inspire others. Teddy's sacrifice set in motion a historical ripple that continues to lap against the hearts and minds of many Australians.

It is hard to think of someone so young having the maturity of spirit to do what Teddy did. We often search for motivation when acts of conspicuous bravery occur. Teddy cannot tell us himself why he did it, because he died during his act of bravery on 1 December 1942. He cannot tell us what prompted him to stagger back to an Oerlikon gun to fire at enemy aircraft shooting his mates in the water and to keep firing while the ship sank. But the history tells us that what Teddy Sheean did on that day was very special indeed. Those who read histories say that they are often stark and chronological in their description of events that today would dominate the news cycle. So it is with the Navy's history of World War II. On page 218 of volume 2, it states simply:

The bomber fell to Ordinary Seaman Sheean at the after oerlikon, who remained at the gun when the ship sank.

It was around 20 words, that is all. We are fortunate, however, that there is a footnote on the same page from Teddy's shipmate, Ordinary Seaman RM Caro, who adds some colour, movement and pathos to the story:

Teddy died, but none of us who have survived, I am sure, will ever forget his gallant deed … None of us will ever know what made him do it, but he went back to his gun, strapped himself in, and brought down a Jap plane, still firing as he disappeared beneath the waves.

So it is no surprise that amidst the carnage of that day, HMAS Armidale's commanding officer, Commander Richards, singled Teddy out for special mention and the eventual award of a Mentioned in Despatches.

But that is not good enough, I say. Despite being wounded, Teddy put the lives of his mates before his own. We often look for benchmarks and comparisons to gauge the relative value of things. The test that I applied to Teddy's bravery was to have a look at those who won a Victoria Cross on either side of the date that HMAS Armidale was sunk. A great resource is Lionel Wigmore's book They Dared Mightily. It is a handy reference listing Australia's Victoria Cross recipients during that time. Had Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean won a Victoria Cross on 1 December 1942, he would sit between the citations for Flight Sergeant Middleton, who earned his Victoria Cross during 28-29 November 1942, just three days before Teddy died. Flight Lieutenant Newton was the next VC recipient in chronological order, on 16 March 1943. Teddy's story clearly deserves a place between these creases of history. Let me read just a few lines from these other two citations to illustrate my point.

Flight Sergeant Middleton was the pilot of a Stirling aircraft attached to the Royal Air Force 149 Squadron. He died after attacking the Fiat works at Turin. Low on fuel and having to make the decision whether to proceed to the target area or turn back, Middleton pressed on. Despite being severely wounded by shell splinters from a light anti-aircraft gun, he dropped his bombs and got the aircraft back to England, with most of the crew parachuting to safety. Middleton died in order to complete his mission and protect his mates.

Flight Lieutenant Newton was a Boston pilot with No. 22 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, in New Guinea. While leading a low-level bombing attack on Salamaua on 16 March 1943, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by ground fire. He completed his mission, flew his heavily-damaged aircraft away from the enemy, made a skilful water landing, and swam ashore with one of his crew. Sadly, they were captured and subsequently executed by the Japanese, but Newton did his best to complete his mission and protect his crew.

I say that Sheean's act of extraordinary valour is not out of place in the company of these two very brave Royal Australian Air Force officers. But, unlike the Air Force commanding officers of Middleton and Newton, Australian Navy commanders in 1942 could not specify the nature of the award they were submitting. Australian Imperial Force and Royal Australian Air Force awards were decided by Australians in Australia, but our Navy, at that time, had to submit its recommendations to the Admiralty in London for consideration by an honours and awards committee. Sheean's heroism—in my view—was not adequately acknowledged in competition with British navy recommendations. It is also worth noting that Sheean's deeds were suppressed from public knowledge by a decision of the Department of Defence on 9 December 1942 to 'impose a complete publicity ban upon HMAS Armidale's story'.

It has been a long journey to get adequate recognition of Teddy Sheean's bravery, but hope springs eternal in many hearts—including mine—that one day justice will be done for Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean. Why can we not be the Australians in Australia that reward his bravery with the higher honours he clearly deserves? As a former soldier, officer, and senior Defence public servant, I say to this parliament that Sheean's actions fit the criteria for much higher recognition. They were conspicuous and daring, and they constituted a pre-eminent act of valour and self-sacrifice against impossible odds. His was a display of rare and mighty courage.

Finally, let me acknowledge the indefatigable efforts of Teddy's nephew, Gary Ivory—who lives in my electorate of Bass—former Senator Guy Barnett, surviving members of the Sheean family and many Australians around the country who continue to fight on for Teddy's cause. They have been voices of reason, persistence and dedication, and I respect them for their devotion to Teddy's cause. Last week in the Tasmanian parliament, former senator Guy Barnett—now a member of the Tasmanian parliament—tabled a petition with over 7,000 signatures. Renowned singer Lee Kernaghan has written a song titled Forever Eighteen about Teddy's bravery, which is a finalist in the Heritage Song of the Year in the 2016 Golden Guitar Awards in Tamworth. It is only one song on Kernaghan's 'Spirit of the Anzacs' album, but he says that Forever Eighteen is the one that stays with him. Kernaghan said:

It's strange, how the story of a man that I've never met can make you feel such a connection.

Lee Kernaghan is right, as are the tens of thousands of Teddy Sheean's supporters around the country.

I urge this Parliament to get behind the cause to give Ordinary Seaman Edward 'Teddy' Sheean the recognition that his valour and sacrifice so richly deserve.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mrs Wicks ): The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.