Australian bravery ignored
Incompetence, inertia and injustice mar the fighting record of our World War II Navy, and our government has refused to correct this.
Australian Navy honours were decided by Britain, while Army and RAAF had theirs processed in Canberra. Despite enormous bravery in a multitude of actions, the Navy has never received a Victoria Cross.
There are numerous examples of wrong decisions, lack of action, and mistakes.
For example, in 1942 the captains of the cruiser HMAS Perth and USS Houston took their ships into action against a superior Japanese force. They both died fighting, as did most of their ships’ companies. The USA gave their hero, Captain Albert Rooks, America’s highest honour, the Medal of Honor, just a few months later. But our Captain Hec Waller was not to be so distinguished. The paperwork was mishandled. Australia did nothing for four years, until someone noticed, and then gave him not even a medal, but rather a Mention in Despatches, a badge to be affixed to a medal.
That injustice continues today. Waller could be given a much higher honour, but nothing has been done. It should be the Victoria Cross – his action paralleled that of Rooks.
In another epic sea fight in 1942, the fighting commander of HMAS Yarra, Robert Rankin, died in action with most of his men, defending a small convoy against a massive Japanese force. Again incompetence ruled, and as a result no decoration at all has ever been given him or his sailors. Leading Seaman Ron Taylor, bravely refusing to leave his gun, was one of those on board who should have been given the VC, as should Rankin. But he remains unhonoured. The paperwork was never processed.
No one in government cares enough to fix this.
Teddy Sheean on HMAS Armidale was given one of the Mention in Despatches – a badge – for refusing to abandon his gun while Japanese aircraft swarmed the ship. He should have been given a Victoria Cross.
Sheean’s case is the stuff of Boys’ Own adventure tales. The corvette HMAS Armidale was attacked south of Timor by Japanese bombers with torpedoes, bombs and with strafing. Hit and severely damaged, she began sinking, and the ‘Abandon Ship’ order was given. Sheean, on the aft Oerlikon gun, obeyed the order, but when the Japanese began strafing his shipmates in the water, although wounded, he went back to his gun and resumed firing. He continued shooting even as the ship sank underneath him.
Naval orders precluded making a recommendation for what type of posthumous decoration could be given – another difference to the other forces. There were only two: a Mention in Despatches, and the Victoria Cross. But RAN procedures dictated application had to be made through the Admiralty in London. Britain was fighting for its survival at the end of 1942: it was being starved by submarine warfare, and relentlessly bombed by the German air force. The naval offices were beset by the necessity to arrange convoys; fight the Germans, find enough men for its huge forces, and survive the attacks on themselves and their infrastructure. The Royal Navy had little knowledge of the Armidale action, and Timor was not in their part of the world. Processing the first Victoria Cross for the Australian Navy was likely too onerous.
Inquiry has followed inquiry. Statements have been made in Parliament. But the general finding has been that this was the system at the time, so we should not rectify the wrongs of the past.
Navy has indeed named six submarines after its heroes – the first vessels ever to be so honoured. That in itself was an overdue practice – the USA has for decades named its ships after its bravest. So too has the RAN’s parent navy – HMS Nelson for example, was built after WWI.
But in Australia there is massive inertia about bucking the system. Even when injustice is found, nothing has been done to remedy it. Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin took HMAS Yarra into action in water north of Australia to defend his convoy – it was a ‘turn and face’ moment which paralleled another action across the other side of the world. As the sole escort for a convoy making its way across the Atlantic, HMS Jervis Bay defended her convoy to the end as the sole warship present, and her Captain Fogarty Fegen was quite rightly given the VC. But in the same war when Rankin – by trade a naval surveyor – charged the many Japanese warships bearing down on his charges, the paperwork was never processed, and he and his men never have been honoured. An inquiry made no difference. Not one medal was given.
A new inquiry is sitting at the end of March, due mainly to the perseverance of a few dedicated Tasmanians. Guy Barnett, a minister in the present State government, has been tireless in his efforts over the years to have one of the bravest Tasmanians ever – Teddy Sheean – properly recognised. By his side has been Garry Ivory, a nephew of Sheean’s, and now in failing health. The two of them have never given up.
A general theme of previous inquiries has been that if no maladministration or mistakes were made then the decisions of yesteryear should stand. But it seems that they have missed the elephant in the room.
The massive maladministration was to treat the Navy differently from the other two forces. If the system in use in World War II was the right one, then why was it changed post-war so decisions for honours were made in Australia? And if extreme bravery in the face of the enemy has characterised so many Australian naval actions, why has a Victoria Cross never been awarded to one of its members?
Dr Tom Lewis OAM, a military historian, is the author of Honour Denied, an analysis of the Sheean, Waller, and Rankin actions. He is a retired naval officer.