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Published in The Drum 13 March 2012

The Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal has been set up by the Australian Government to ascertain whether certain individuals, who are said to have carried out exceptional acts of bravery during active service, but who remain unrecognised, should now receive that recognition in the form of a posthumous Victoria Cross (VC).

The Victoria Cross of Australia was instituted in 1991 and is a direct descendent of the British Victoria Cross which used to be awarded to eligible Australians.

Strong claims have been made over the years by concerned and well motivated individuals and organisations that a number of Australians who performed extraordinary acts of courage during wartime hostilities and whose acts went unrecognised or were insufficiently recognised, should now, after proper consideration and deliberation be awarded posthumous VC’s.

They include Private John Simpson of Gallipoli fame and Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean. Simpson and his donkey are an Australian legend, on a par with Ned Kelly for recognition by school children. Many believe that Simpson was awarded the VC. As Les Carlyon points out in his book, ‘Gallipoli’, Simpson did not easily fit the mould of hero, such as people like Albert Jacka, Harry Murray, Arthur Blackburn and ‘Snowy’ Howell.

Ordinary Seaman Sheean, aged nineteen, was a loader on the after Oerlikon gun on the Australian built Corvette HMAS Armidale, when it was attacked and sunk by Japanese planes in the Timor Sea in December 1942. Sheean refused to abandon ship, strapped himself to the gun he normally serviced, shot down a Japanese bomber and went down with the vessel.

The Australian historian G. Hermon Gill, who wrote the official history, “Royal Australian Navy, 1942 – 1945”, carries the information that the ship’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander David Richards, RANR(S), singled out Sheean for special mention in the Report of Proceedings of HMAS Armidale and Ordinary Seaman R. M. Caro in an account of the action, detailed the incident and the exceptional bravery of Teddy Sheean.

Recognition is due, indeed is overdue, to the former combatants being considered, for receipt of the VC by the Tribunal.

Of course we have to be careful at what is driving this push to redress forgotten recognition. No doubt there is a strong sense of righting an injustice, of giving credit where credit is due, and properly so. But we also have to be mindful and careful of recent trends to jingoism, overblown nationalism of the flag draping variety and xenophobia, expressed in its ugliest form recently by Scott Morrison, the Shadow Immigration Minister, when he accused refugees arriving by boat of introducing contagious diseases into Australia.

In seeking to anoint heroes we have to be careful that we don’t airbrush from the picture undesirables who might not fit the public perception of the type of person who should be worthy for elevation.

Historian Peter Stanley in his book, “Bad Characters”, says of the First AIF that, “It should come as no surprise to find that even VC–winners went absent, caught VD and came before courts-marshals…Other VCs ran up against the AIF’s disciplinary code as much as their less distinguished comrades. John Leak, for example, who received a VC for his conduct at Pozieres in July 1916, later had a troubled time. In 1917 he burst into the sergeants’ mess at Wareham demanding a drink and refusing a sergeant major’s order to leave, and then went AWL twice. The second time, in November 1917, he was sentenced to imprisonment for life, an extraordinarily harsh sentence. He admitted in his defence – honestly but foolishly – that ‘he could not stand shell fire’… Joe Maxwell, the AIF’s second-most highly decorated soldier after ‘Mad Harry’Murray, caught VD and was repeatedly in trouble with his superiors in the 18th Battalion. Even in the year in which he was awarded the DCM, MC and VC (and commissioned), Maxwell faced military and civil charges. Drunk and disorderly in London, he punched an MP in Bailleul, was expelled from a course for being drunk and neglecting duty…(he) ‘grossly insulted‘ his colonel and made a nuisance of himself through what his exasperated superiors called his ‘known excesses’. Maxwell, still only twenty-two, did little else with his life except write the racy and candid memoir, Hell’s bells and Mademoiselles.”

I hear you say, my sort of man, but is he the sort of man likely to be awarded a posthumous VC by a committee or tribunal? What would the public and school children make of a record like that? With the new wave of jingoism, Leake, and his sad story has been airbrushed out of our history. The Australian War Memorial, in their publication, Wartime Issue 32, Inspirational Bravery, which talks about bravery in battle and awards contains the following sentence, “In one case an Australian Victoria Cross winner of 1916 was charged with desertion the following year…” What is wrong in mentioning his name? Perhaps it is a case of ‘no names no pack drill’. It seems to me that both Leake and Maxwell might have been suffering from post traumatic stress, something unrecognised then but not now, why not say that and give him the dignity which he deserves. Not all heroes can fit into or behave according to a school boy stereo-type.

But the posthumous recognition of outstanding acts of wartime courage seems to me fraught with other possibilities. If the upside is for the Commonwealth, after consideration, to give an award for bravery hitherto unrecognised, surely the logical downside is to remove honours and awards unjustly, unfairly or dishonestly conferred.

Should Lieutenant-General Henry Gordon Bennett be posthumously stripped of his rank and all awards for deserting his troops of the 8th Division, when they were taken into captivity by the Japanese on Singapore?

Bennett slipped the noose and came back to Australia, ostensibly to explain and elaborate on Japanese tactics to a nation facing the prospect of invasion, but more likely to keep himself in the running to be Commander in Chief of the Australia Army, a post he coveted and for which he saw himself well suited. Bennett’s superior officer and the man in charge of the campaign, General Percival, stayed with his troops and went into captivity.

Should Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey be posthumously returned to the rank of General for his appalling handling of the Kokoda campaign, where he allowed the arrogant, over-bearing and vain US General MacArthur to bully, not only senior Australian officers including Blamey, but also the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin.

Stuart Braga, the biographer of Major-General ‘Tubby’ Allen, in the book “Kokoda Commander”, says, “In this culture of utter dependence on the Great Man, Curtin did not insist on the collaborative spirit of MacArthur’s appointment being met…Curtin’s failure to insist on an effective joint staff at MacArthur’s GHQ cost the Australian Army dearly. It was relegated to a subordinate role for the whole of the Pacific War, and employed on campaigns of minor significance. The Australian people were entitled to believe that their government was in control of the nation’s military affairs, but this was not the case. It was an abdication of responsibility that has affected Australia’s relations with the United States of America ever since.”

To protect his career Blamey stood by and watched this development, saying and doing nothing to advance Australian strategic input. He complied with a directive from MacArthur to go to New Guinea and take control of the Battle for Kokoda. The Australian generals on the ground had the situation under control, nonetheless Blamey sacked General’s Potts, Allen and Rowell, which pleased MacArthur but which ruined three fine military careers and made no difference to the campaign. To top it off at a parade in Port Morseby of the gallant 21st Brigade who had fought an outstanding, gallant and now recognised text book retreat along the Kokoda Track, Blamey accused the men of running away from the Japanese; it was all the officers could do to hold their men in check.

Finally should Chester Wilmot of the ABC be given a posthumous award for his honest reporting of the campaign, which Blamey so loathed that he had him withdrawn from PNG? And should Damien Parer be given a posthumous award for his outstanding photography and cinematography during WWII?

Where does one draw the line? Trying to justify issuing an award which should be recommended at the time the act of bravery was undertaken seems fraught with present and future difficulty. For instance the current value of an Australian VC on the open market is $750,000 to $1,000,000; a substantial gift to relatives should they wish a windfall.

In the cases under consideration by the Tribunal and others that might arise from the precedent created, why not institute a special posthumous award that can be issued by the Parliament of Australia for bravery and courage not previously acknowledged or recognised?

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator.