There was never any doubt the exceptional bravery of Teddy Sheean earned him the Victoria Cross, but it took almost 80 years for the courageous young sailor to get the justice he deserved.
That's the view of Launceston-born Dr Brendan Nelson the former director of the Australian War Memorial and ex-Defence Minister who headed the expert panel that made the long-awaited recommendation accepted by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to award Sheean the VC.
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It was for 18-year-old Sheean's heroism on December 1, 1942, as he strapped himself to a gun to fire at Japanese bombers attacking the HMAS Armidale and shooting at sailors in the water with Teddy's actions saving lives as he went down with the ship.
"At the first meeting of the panel, I said 'there's a reason this keeps coming back...and we need to satisfy ourselves as to what precisely is that reason," Dr Nelson said.
"In life, there are times when you have a degree of uncertainty. Thinking have I made the right decision? There is no uncertainty in my mind, nor that of the other three panel members that we have done anything other than giving the correct advice. I think it is a credit to the PM that he has recognised that having decided not to take the 2019 tribunal's advice, he accepted the advice we have given him. As a panel, we are unanimous in our decision.
"Teddy Sheean could have come from any part of Australia, but he came from Tassie, and he came from a family of 16 kids born at Lower Barrington before moving to Latrobe. While this is a VC for Australia, for the Royal Australian Navy (it's first) and for all Australians in particular, it's one for the family and the people of North-West Tasmania.
"There is a higher per capita representation of Tasmanians in the military, and it's the same with the AFL. Tassie has given more than its fair share and produced more than its fair share of heroes on a per capita basis, and that is certainly the case in terms of service and sacrifice for our country.
"I grew up in Launceston and lived in Hobart as an adult, and I think it's a case that because it's the smallest state by the population of wanting to prove Tasmanians were not just as good as everybody on the mainland, but we're better."
Dr Nelson said there was "no single point at which the panel said Teddy deserved the VC."
SERIES OF EVENTS AND MISTAKES
"There were a whole series of events and missteps, missed opportunities and mistakes made over the last 78 years or so. In the same way that it is a consolidation of all of the evidence right through to the examination of the Japanese records where you say 'yes, this action is worthy of the VC and should be so awarded,'" he said.
"In my opinion, the evidence was always there. The evidence was in the Japanese records, which no one had gone to look at. It was there from the moment the ship got sunk when you've got Ray Leonard swimming from the starboard side across to shipmates in the water, and they're saying 'did you see what Teddy did?'."
"It was discussed in the boat back to Darwin, and the evidence was there five months before the end of the war in Russell Caro's written account in the Australian Journal."
Dr Nelson saidmore events came out in the decades after the war and got collected by the 2013 review, but it did not reach the conclusion the appeal tribunal reached in 2019 to award Sheean the VC only then to be rejected by the government.
He said there was no deliberate attempt to prevent the VC being recommended. It started with a series of events going back to the report of proceedings lodged by Armidale's Lt Cmdr David Richards, which was incomplete and inaccurate in places. The ship's survivors were ordered not to discuss the sinking.
Dr Nelson said the 2013 review relied heavily on Richards' ROP and working under referral from the Minister was required to be guided by government policy not to award VCs retrospectively.
The expert panel went back through everything and did what no one had done by finding out what the Japanese records showed.
Dr Nelson said he was satisfied with the expert panel's recommendations, but to go to the National Institute of Defence Studies in Tokyo and have the Japanese air unit battle records available confirmed it was the right decision. Due to the precise way in which the Japanese documented their actions on that day.
"That in itself was not the deciding factor, but it certainly gave us the reassurance we were making the right recommendations," he said.
In 2019 when the tribunal considered the appeal, it wasn't constrained by government policy.
Dr Nelson said the expert panel agreed with the tribunal assigning great weight to testimony from Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Michael Noonan, who said Sheean's actions absolutely were amongst the most conspicuous and gallant in the history of the Navy.
The Japanese records show it took six minutes from the first torpedo hitting the ship to its final sinking, which laid to rest any doubt that Sheean had time to do what he did.
The records confirm the Japanese took enemy fire from the ship as it was sinking and recorded an aircraft got hit by that fire as well as damage to the second aircraft was found when they got back.
Dr Nelson said the Japanese records show the zeros expended 510 rounds of machine gun ammunition, and they only had one contact that day with Armidale. He said the Japanese only used the type of bullets for shooting at people.
"In other words, Sheean's motives in defending his shipmates who were being shot at in the water are confirmed by those records and the fact Japanese zeros were shooting at men in the water," he said.
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