Volume 58, Number 8, September 2020
Looking back at it THE biggest story in the medal world this month has to be the decision of the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to recommend to Her Majesty the Queen that 18-year-old Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) should be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in December 1942 when he strapped himself to an anti-aircraft gun on board HMAS Armidale and carried on shooting at the Japanese fighters that had attacked the ship even as she sank (see “News and Views”, page 6). That Sheean’s actions were incredibly courageous is not in doubt, and for many years campaigners have fought to have his bravery recognised by a medallic honour. At the time only MiDs and the Victoria Cross were awarded posthumously and so Sheean simply wasn’t eligible for another medal that might well have reflected his gallantry on that day; so the campaigners, his nephew Garry Ivory amongst them, have long fought for him to be awarded a VC. His case has been reviewed on a number of occasions; in 2013 an inquiry recommended against the award, a decision backed up by the British Ministry of Defence in 2017. Then in 2019 another tribunal recommended that it should be given, only to have PM Morrison reject that decision. He later backtracked by announcing that there would be a furtherreview. This review has now decided that Sheean SHOULD receive the Victoria Cross, Mr Morrison has accepted that and made the recommendation. On August 12, 2020 Her Majesty approved the award, a first Victoria Cross for the RAN; although we may now be in the rather odd situation that Sheean could well be awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia, a decoration that simply didn’t exist in its current form in 1942. This decision has been greeted with delight by many yet despair by others. Naturally, those campaigning for the bestowal of the award are over the moon but others fear that this will set a dangerous precedent and that now every disputed case will have to be looked at again. Could we see a sudden surge of new Victoria Cross awards? And if not the VC why not look at other medals instead? Gallantry medals are, today, awarded posthumously, why not backdate that and start recognising the heroism of those who died whilst performing their act of bravery? In short, the detractors say, we could now start seeing a huge amount of revisionism where decisions made at the time are overturned when looked at through the perspective of 21st century hindsight. Those arguing against this latest decision point to numerous cases of similar heroism—of men manning machine gun posts to cover their comrades’ retreat, of going down with a ship whilst still manning their posts, etc. They say that if Sheean is to be awarded a VC then there are dozens, if not hundreds, of similar cases that need re-examining. The problem we have is that any retrospective award made today for an action nearly eight decades ago is going to be viewed through the prism of our own experience, and that simply doesn’t allow us the same perspective as those who made the original decision had. Look at Sheean’s actions now and we immediately think he should be honoured, but if the panel looking at the original recommendation had had a dozen similar cases put before them that month then they would perhaps view the 18 year old’s actions differently. Long term MEDAL NEWS reader and contributor Mike Charteris, who first alerted us to the story and who is himself ex-RAN, vehemently disagrees with the detractors. His view is that “the decisions made in regards to not awarding the Victoria Cross to Teddy Sheean and many other Australians during the conflicts we have fought in were incorrect and wrong. They robbed these men of what they truly deserved, as the string of decisions was made by people who were not even there. The citations stand up for themselves and should not be subject to a time warp under the term retrospective. If truly correcting a definite wrong from the past falls into and is categorised as ’retrospection’ then so be it. The description of their actions is there for all to see, and the awarding of a Victoria Cross, though it be at a later date should not be ruled outright just because it is allocated the term retrospective”. Mike has a very good point, of course, but there is another worry. Sheean has a VC recommendation now because people fought for it, they fought long and hard and didn’t back down. Are we therefore not in danger of seeing new awards made only because people demand them for long enough? After all, if Sheean’s family hadn’t lobbied for as long as they did then the original decision not to award the VC would have stood. What then of those who have no one to fight for their cause? No one to lobby and barrack for them? If we are to now start awarding more and more “retrospective” awards will we only give them to those who have a campaign behind their cause or will every case be looked at individually? I hardly think the latter is practical, we simply cannot revisit every single award ever given, or not, so that really only leaves the former, that awards, or the lack of them, are only looked at again when someone champions the cause, and that in itself is an injustice is it not? Perhaps leaving things alone may be a better option all round. What do our readers think?
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