On 1 December 1942, Teddy Sheean, serving aboard the HMAS Armidale, displayed extraordinary bravery by manning an anti-aircraft gun to defend his shipmates from Japanese aircraft, despite the order to abandon ship.

Wounded and knowing he faced certain death, Sheean managed to shoot down several enemy planes, providing crucial cover for his crewmates in the water.

His selfless action, which ultimately cost him his life, became a legendary example of valor and sacrifice in the Royal Australian Navy, earning him a posthumous Victoria Cross in 2020, the first ever awarded to a member of the RAN for actions during World War II.

Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean was born on 28 December 1923 in Lower Barrington, Tasmania, to a large family. With the outbreak of World War II, Sheean felt a strong sense of duty to serve his country.

At the age of 18, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) on 21 April 1941. After completing his initial training, Sheean was assigned as an Ordinary Seaman to the newly commissioned corvette HMAS Armidale in June 1942.

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Teddy Sheean’s Act of Sacrifice

The act of heroism displayed by Teddy Sheean on 1 December 1942 is a remarkable testament to the courage and self-sacrifice of an individual under the most dire circumstances. During this fateful day, HMAS Armidale, tasked with a critical resupply and evacuation mission in the Timor Sea, faced an unexpected and ferocious attack by Japanese aircraft.

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This was a perilous moment in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, where Allied naval forces were frequently challenged by Japanese superiority in air and sea combat.

As the Armidale attempted to navigate through the treacherous waters, laden with the responsibility of delivering supplies and evacuating troops amidst the Japanese advance, it was ambushed by a squadron of Japanese planes.

HMAS Armidale pictured just a couple months before she sank.

The attack was sudden and intense, leaving the crew little time to react. The Armidale, despite its valiant evasive maneuvers, sustained direct hits from torpedoes and aerial bombs, causing catastrophic damage. The order was given to abandon ship, a command that spelled imminent danger as it meant the crew would be exposed to the relentless strafing runs of enemy aircraft in the open sea.

It was within these chaotic and panic-stricken moments that Teddy Sheean, a young sailor from Tasmania, showcased an extraordinary act of valor. While his shipmates scrambled for lifeboats and jumped overboard, Sheean, already wounded from the initial attacks, made a pivotal decision that would forever mark his place in history. Instead of seeking safety, he chose to confront the enemy head-on to protect his comrades in their most vulnerable state.

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Strapping himself to the ship’s aft Oerlikon 20 mm anti-aircraft gun, Sheean took aim at the Japanese aircraft, which were swooping down to strafe the sailors in the water.

His actions were not just about engaging the enemy; they were a selfless attempt to draw fire away from his shipmates and give them a chance to survive. Sheean’s gunfire was accurate and deadly, hitting several enemy planes and deterring their attacks on the sailors in the water.

Despite his severe wounds and the ship sinking beneath him, Sheean continued to fire until the very end. His dedication to his duty and the protection of his fellow sailors never wavered, even as he faced certain death. Sheean’s last stand was a vivid demonstration of courage under fire and an unwavering commitment to his comrades, characteristics that embody the highest traditions of military service.

Recognition for Teddy Sheean

For decades following World War II, Sheean’s act of heroism aboard HMAS Armidale was celebrated within the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and among the Australian public, yet it did not receive the official recognition many believed it deserved—the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for valor “in the face of the enemy” to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previously, the British Empire.

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The campaign for Teddy Sheean’s recognition with the Victoria Cross was long and fraught with challenges. Initially, his actions were recognized posthumously with the Mention in Despatches, an honorable but comparatively lesser acknowledgment of his bravery.

A portrait of Teddy Sheean in 1941.

Over the years, the Sheean family, supported by veterans’ groups, historians, and a section of the public, began to advocate more vigorously for Sheean’s valor to be acknowledged with the Victoria Cross. They argued that his selfless actions under fire went above and beyond the call of duty, embodying the very essence of the criteria for the Victoria Cross.

The call for Sheean’s recognition gained momentum over the years, with various inquiries and reviews conducted by the Australian Government and the Department of Defence. Despite initial reluctance and several setbacks, public and political support for the cause grew, leading to a reassessment of Sheean’s case.

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In 2020, after a comprehensive review by an expert panel, the Australian Government announced that Teddy Sheean would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia. This landmark decision marked him as the first member of the RAN and the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross for actions during World War II.