Dale Marsh's painting of Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean depicting him strapped to a gun on HMAS Armidale.

The Extraordinary Valor of Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean

Edward “Teddy” Sheean held the rank of ordinary seaman on December 1, 1942 when his ship came under Japanese fire. There was, however, nothing ordinary about the youth who, after being struck by bullets in the back and chest, strapped himself to a 20 mm cannon so that he could keep firing at the enemy in an effort to save the surviving members of the ship’s crew whilst going under with the sinking ship.

What was it that stirred him to such phenomenal bravery that, seventy-seven years after his death, the movement to award him the Victoria Cross continues? Perhaps more puzzling, why has the ongoing quest to recognize Sheean with this tribute of military bravery not succeeded, despite decades of attempts by those who feel that Ordinary Seaman Sheean performed an act of extraordinary valor?

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Perhaps it was the war itself which brought forth his courage in the alchemy of trial by fire which turns ordinary soldiers into sailors into heroes. There was nothing remarkable in his upbringing. He came from a humble background. Sheean, born December 28, 1923, was the youngest of the fourteen offspring of James and Mary Jane Broomhall Sheean, a working class couple in Lower Barrington in northern Tasmania. If not for the war, the youngest Sheean might have spent his life in peaceful obscurity. He attended Catholic schools and when his education was finished, he found work as a laborer on several farms in the neighborhood.

Studio portrait of the Sheean brothers of Lower Barrington, Tasmania, both Australian sailors serving on HMAS Derwent. On the left is H1646 Stoker Class II Thomas (Mick) Sheean and on the right is H1617 Ordinary Seaman (OS) Edward (Teddy) Sheean, RAN. (Credits: AWM)

After the outbreak of World War II, five of his older brothers had already enlisted in the military: four brothers went to the Army and one to the Royal Australian Navy. Teddy Sheean followed in his sailor brother’s path and signed up for the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on April 21, 1941.

He got his training at the Hobart naval base Derwent. After his initial training was finished, he was sent to the Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria for more training. In May 1942, he was billeted to the Kuttabul, a requisitioned ferry in Sydney Harbor. When Japanese midget submarines attacked and sank the Kuttabul on May 31, Sheean was home on leave. When Sheean returned to Sydney in June, he was assigned to HMAS Armidale, a new Bathurst-class corvette. Ordinary Seaman Sheean’s role on the Armidale was to serve as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun loader.

The new ship’s duties, performing as a convoy escort along the eastern and northern coasts of Australia, proved to be fairly tranquil at first.  In February 1942, most of the Allied garrison on the island of Timor had surrendered to the Japanese, but more than four hundred Australian commandos had remained to conduct a guerilla war against the occupying Japanese. The Australian Navy replenished their supplies and equipment and, since May 1942, ships had been making the naval run.  It was dangerous work. The Voyager ran aground at Betano Bay during a mission in September and underwent attack by Japanese bombers dropping incendiary and anti-personnel bombs. The crew, in order to make sure that nothing could be salvaged by the enemy, fired demolition charges in the Voyager’s engine room and set the ship on fire.

But as the year went on, the guerilla war in Timor was harder to fight. The Armidale was ordered to Darwin in October, 1942 and on November 29, left on a resupply and evacuation mission to Timor. The Kuru and Castlemaine were also on this mission to bring the weary 2/2 Independent Company back to Australia, deliver soldiers to reinforce the Dutch guerillas on Timor, and evacuate 190 Dutch troops and 150 Portuguese civilians. The Armidale and the Castlemaine were attacked by Japanese aircraft en route to their destination, arriving before dawn on December 1, but late for the scheduled rendezvous with HMAS Kuru. When the two corvettes did meet up with the Kuru south of Betano Bay, the Castlemaine’s commanding officer decided to send the Armidale and Kuru to Betano Bay the following night.

That put the Armidale in a perilous position, as it would be spending the day in enemy waters, a vulnerable target; the ship had already been spotted by Japanese reconnaissance pilots not long after it left port. That afternoon, ninety miles off the coast of Timor, the Armidale came under attack from Japanese aircraft. A torpedo struck the port side. A second torpedo hit the engineering area. Then a bomb struck aft. When the Armidale began to list heavily, the order was given to abandon ship. As the crew members jumped into the water, they became vulnerable targets for strafing by the Japanese machine gunners.

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Teddy Sheean was first seen going to the port side as if he intended to join his mates and jump in the water, but then he appeared to change his mind. Wounded in the back and chest, he pulled himself to his station, strapped himself to his gun, and began firing on the Japanese aircraft while the Armidale was going down. The entire episode may have taken no more than three minutes according to estimates from the witnesses watching from the water, but Sheean never stopped firing. He shot down one bomber and damaged two more. As the stern of the ship disappeared into the Arafura Sea, Teddy was still firing.

Dale Marsh's painting of Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean depicting him strapped to a gun on HMAS Armidale.
Dale Marsh’s painting of Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean depicting him strapped to a gun on HMAS Armidale. (Credits: AWM)

Even as the ship surrendered to the waters that were overcoming it, Sheean could be seen, first as he disappeared below the surface of the water and then, after he was dragged below, by the tracer fire coming from beneath the water.


During the attack a plane had been brought down and for this the credit went to Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean. Teddy died, but none of us who survived, I am sure, will ever forget his gallant deed … When the order ‘Abandon ship’ was given, he made for the side, only to be hit twice by the bullets of an attacking Zero. 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. (Source: Ordinary Seaman Russel Caro)

Of the one hundred forty-nine men aboard the Armidale, only forty-nine would survive the attack.  It’s impossible to estimate how many of those forty-nine owe their survival to the gallantry of Teddy Sheean. Upon the recommendation of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander David Richards, Sheean was Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD), an honor which cites his name in an official report.

In 1991, Ivy Sheean Hayes, Teddy Sheean’s sister, launched the HMAS Sheean, a Collins Class submarine, the only Royal Australian Navy vessel to be named after someone with the rank of ordinary seaman. His bravery was  recognized in a painting with the Australian War Memorial commemorating the last moments of his life. In 1992, the town of Latrobe opened the Sheean Walk and Teddy Sheean Memorial to honor the life of a young man who died too soon, but whose courage made it possible for others to survive.

But he has not received the Victoria Cross.  Australians wonder why, of the one hundred Victoria Crosses that have been awarded, no one from the Australian Navy has ever been recognized as worthy of the honor? Surely, they feel, Teddy Sheean, regardless of his humble background and his youth, performed deeds of valor which merit the Victoria Cross.

To his nephew, Garry Ivory, who has spent three decades trying to win the Victoria Cross for his uncle, Teddy Sheean’s altruism deserves the highest award designated for military bravery. “He sacrificed his life to save his mates, so to me, I don’t think there’s been a more heroic deed in the armed forces, Army, Navy or Air Force.”

The families of the forty-nine men who survived the attack on the Armidale would probably agree.

Edward “Teddy” Sheean held the rank of ordinary seaman on December 1, 1942 when his ship came under Japanese fire. There was, however, nothing ordinary about the youth who, after being struck by bullets in the back and chest, strapped himself to a 20 mm cannon so that he could keep firing at the enemy in an effort to save the surviving members of the ship’s crew.

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What was it that stirred him to such phenomenal bravery that, seventy-seven years after his death, the movement to award him the Victoria Cross continues? Perhaps more puzzling, why has the ongoing quest to recognize Sheean with this tribute of military bravery not succeeded, despite decades of attempts by those who feel that Ordinary Seaman Sheean performed an act of extraordinary valor?

Perhaps it was the war itself which brought forth his courage in the alchemy of trial by fire which turns ordinary soldiers into sailors into heroes. There was nothing remarkable in his upbringing. He came from a humble background. Sheean, born December 28, 1923, was the youngest of the fourteen offspring of James and Mary Jane Broomhall Sheean, a working class couple in Lower Barrington in northern Tasmania. If not for the war, the youngest Sheean might have spent his life in peaceful obscurity. He attended Catholic schools and when his education was finished, he found work as a laborer on several farms in the neighborhood.

After the outbreak of World War II, five of his older brothers had already enlisted in the military: four brothers went to the Army and one to the Royal Australian Navy. Teddy Sheean followed in his sailor brother’s path and signed up for the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on April 21, 1941.

He got his training at the Hobart naval base Derwent. After his initial training was finished, he was sent to the Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria for more training. In May 1942, he was billeted to the Kuttabul, a requisitioned ferry in Sydney Harbor.  When Japanese midget submarines attacked and sank the Kuttabul on May 31, Sheean was home on leave. When Sheean returned to Sydney in June, he was assigned to HMAS Armidale, a new Bathurst-class corvette. Ordinary Seaman Sheean’s role on the Armidale was to serve as an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun loader.

The new ship’s duties, performing as a convoy escort along the eastern and northern coasts of Australia, proved to be fairly tranquil at first.  In February 1942, most of the Allied garrison on the island of Timor had surrendered to the Japanese, but more than four hundred Australian commandos had remained to conduct a guerilla war against the occupying Japanese. The Australian Navy replenished their supplies and equipment and, since May 1942, ships had been making the naval run.  It was dangerous work. The Voyager ran aground at Betano Bay during a mission in September and underwent attack by Japanese bombers dropping incendiary and anti-personnel bombs. The crew, in order to make sure that nothing could be salvaged by the enemy, fired demolition charges in the Voyager’s engine room and set the ship on fire.

But as the year went on, the guerilla war in Timor was harder to fight. The Armidale was ordered to Darwin in October, 1942 and on November 29, left on a resupply and evacuation mission to Timor. The Kuru and Castlemaine were also on this mission to bring the weary 2/2 Independent Company back to Australia, deliver soldiers to reinforce the Dutch guerillas on Timor, and evacuate 190 Dutch troops and 150 Portuguese civilians. The Armidale and the Castlemaine were attacked by Japanese aircraft en route to their destination, arriving before dawn on December 1, but late for the scheduled rendezvous with HMAS Kuru. When the two corvettes did meet up with the Kuru south of Betano Bay, the Castlemaine’s commanding officer decided to send the Armidale and Kuru to Betano Bay the following night.

That put the Armidale in a perilous position, as it would be spending the day in enemy waters, a vulnerable target; the ship had already been spotted by Japanese reconnaissance pilots not long after it left port. That afternoon, ninety miles off the coast of Timor, the Armidale came under attack from Japanese aircraft. A torpedo struck the port side. A second torpedo hit the engineering area. Then a bomb struck aft. When the Armidale began to list heavily, the order was given to abandon ship. As the crew members jumped into the water, they became vulnerable targets for strafing by the Japanese machine gunners.

Teddy Sheean was first seen going to the port side as if he intended to join his mates and jump in the water, but then he appeared to change his mind. Wounded in the back and chest, he pulled himself to his station, strapped himself to his gun, and began firing on the Japanese aircraft while the Armidale was going down. The entire episode may have taken no more than three minutes according to estimates from the witnesses watching from the water, but Sheean never stopped firing. He shot down one bomber and damaged two more. As the stern of the ship disappeared into the Arafura Sea, Teddy was still firing.

Even as the ship surrendered to the waters that were overcoming it, Sheean could be seen, first as he disappeared below the surface of the water and then, after he was dragged below, by the tracer fire coming from beneath the water.

Of the one hundred forty-nine men aboard the Armidale, only forty-nine would survive the attack.  It’s impossible to estimate how many of those forty-nine owe their survival to the gallantry of Teddy Sheean. Upon the recommendation of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander David Richards, Sheean was Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD), an honor which cites his name in an official report.

In 1991, Ivy Sheean Hayes, Teddy Sheean’s sister, launched the HMAS Sheean, a Collins Class submarine, the only Royal Australian Navy vessel to be named after someone with the rank of ordinary seaman. His bravery was  recognized in a painting with the Australian War Memorial commemorating the last moments of his life. In 1992, the town of Latrobe opened the Sheean Walk and Teddy Sheean Memorial to honor the life of a young man who died too soon, but whose courage made it possible for others to survive.

But he has not received the Victoria Cross.  Australians wonder why, of the one hundred Victoria Crosses that have been awarded, no one from the Australian Navy has ever been recognized as worthy of the honor? Surely, they feel, Teddy Sheean, regardless of his humble background and his youth, performed deeds of valor which merit the Victoria Cross.

To his nephew, Garry Ivory, who has spent three decades trying to win the Victoria Cross for his uncle, Teddy Sheean’s altruism deserves the highest award designated for military bravery. “He sacrificed his life to save his mates, so to me, I don’t think there’s been a more heroic deed in the armed forces, Army, Navy or Air Force.”

The families of the forty-nine men who survived the attack on the Armidale would probably agree.

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