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<p>Victoria Cross. Photograph Hans Reppin, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (AWM PAIU1994/157.12).</p>

Victoria Cross. Photograph Hans Reppin, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (AWM PAIU1994/157.12).

At Sea On Military Awards

Australia may soon anoint a new batch of military heroes. But high-level military and political correspondence suggests the pressure for the awards springs from disappointed supporters of the Australian Navy; no sailor has been awarded a VC.

Never let it be said that being Chief of the Australian Defence Force is not a political job. Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston filled the role for six years until July 2011. It was the ADF’s most testing time since the Vietnam War. He oversaw the Australian effort in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in between, he had to contend with the pet projects of civilian politicians. One such project was the long-running effort by a disparate band of politicians to have someone from the Royal Australian Navy awarded a Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery.

That pressure came to a head at a Senate hearing in October 2010, when the defence chief was lectured by then Senator Guy Barnett. The Tasmanian Liberal  pointed out that “of the 97 VCs awarded to Australians … none [has gone to] personnel of the Royal Australian Navy”. He went on to name four sailors, perhaps the best known of whom was another Tasmanian, 18 year old Ordinary Seaman Edward “Teddy” Sheean, who served on the corvette, HMAS Armidale, during World War II. When the vessel was attacked in the Timor Sea by no less than 13 Japanese aircraft, the injured Sheean ignored an order to abandon ship and returned to his anti-aircraft gun to protect his mates who were being machine gunned in the water. He went down with his ship. He received a posthumous award of Mentioned in Despatches. Another sailor nominated by Senator Barnett had served as the captain of a submarine in the Dardanelles in World War I, 85 years earlier.

<p>Tom Sheean from: Studio portrait of the Sheean brothers of Lower Barrington, Tasmania, both Australian sailors serving on HMAS Derwent. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial (<a href="" target="_blank"></a>).</p>

Tom Sheean from: Studio portrait of the Sheean brothers of Lower Barrington, Tasmania, both Australian sailors serving on HMAS Derwent. Image courtesy Australian War Memorial (

The Defence Department has been pointing out for years that the criteria for awarding the Victoria Cross for Australia are exceptionally stringent.

Candidates must be personally approved by Her Majesty the Queen. While she acts on the advice of her Australian Prime Minister, she alone is free to decide whether a nominee is worthy to join the ranks of the bravest of the brave, those who have displayed the most conspicuous acts of gallantry in the presence of the enemy.

It’s called The Royal Prerogative and it cannot be taken for granted, particularly as the Queen’s father, King George VI, decided in 1952 that no further imperial awards arising out of service during World War II would be made. The Returned and Services League of Australia (Australia’s peak ex-service organisation) declared in 2001 that any proposal to make retrospective awards of the Victoria Cross should be abandoned and that the issue should be kept out of the political debate.

So when the matter came up again at the Senate hearing, Houston, who by Christmas 2010 had fulfilled the awful duty of calling the loved ones of 10 soldiers killed that year in Afghanistan, showed the sort of patience the Scottish-born chief was known for.

“I guess we will … have a look at it,” he replied. “But we do not generally look at these things retrospectively because it creates all sorts of other follow-on difficulties for us,” he said, before explaining that there needed to be a recommendation from a senior officer supported by three eyewitness statements. Pretty difficult given that the WWI sailor on the list had been dead for 44 years and there are few eyewitnesses to events of World War II left alive.

Houston made it clear to the committee that Defence itself had uncovered no likely candidates on its files.

Indeed the various names suggested for VCs over the years have been put up by members of the public, enthusiastic and sometimes dogged amateur historians and authors, as well as associations of ex-servicemen and women. Nothing from Defence. Their books, as Houston made clear, are closed.

“We have had extensive searches of the archives both in Defence and also in the Australian War Memorial,” he told the 2010 Senate hearing, “and to date we have found no recommendations for any nominations for RAN staff, naval staff, to be awarded the VC.”

What Air Chief Marshall Houston did next was to pass the Navy VC campaign back to his political masters. On February 12, 2011, he approved and signed off on a ministerial submission about the issue. The primary addressee was the Parliamentary Secretary of Defence, Senator David Feeney. The document has since been released following a Freedom of Information request from persons unknown in July 2011 and was discovered in a random Google search by a Canberra researcher, Di Elliott.

In it, the senator is told “the most prudent course of action” would be to refer the matter on to the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal, the independent body that hears the cases of military personnel who may have been overlooked for awards.

The submission, signed by Houston, included the draft of a letter for Senator Feeney to sign and send to the Tribunal chairman asking him to investigate whether 13 listed servicemen should be recognised for their wartime service. Enclosed was a list of the men, and the brief details of their bravery.

The minister was also provided with proposed Terms of Reference for a public inquiry which directed the Tribunal to make recommendations on whether the 13 should receive the Victoria Cross and a briefing paper outlining the policy regarding the award of the VC, which makes clear just how difficult it would be to see such awards conferred so long after the events in question.

Senator Feeney embraced the idea of a nationwide hunt for long-dead war heroes, nominating the 13 likely candidates and ordering up what has become known as the “VC inquiry” with hearings Australia wide. “These Australians will now receive the national recognition that they deserve,” Senator Feeney said in his press statement to announce the inquiry in April 2011.

But in the months since then, there are signs that the inquiry has come unstuck. There are mutterings behind the scenes that the solemn and rigorous process of selecting candidates for Australia’s highest military honour could be undermined by allowing members of the public to lobby for VCs in a series of public hearings. Tribunal members themselves seem concerned about handing out VCs so long after the event.

Speaking to ABC TV’s 7.30 Report, the Tribunal spokesman said, “It's a complex, demanding and very emotional event ... We're talking about the whole issue of retrospectivity. Should we be doing this at all?”

A potentially more serious problem has also emerged. Earlier in 2012, as part of an investigation, The Global Mail revealed grave problems with the reliability of evidence relating to one of the 13 nominees, Gunner Albert “Neil” Cleary.

The 22-year-old Cleary from Geelong was one of 2,428 Australian and British soldiers who died of starvation, ill treatment and disease while prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army at Sandakan, on the notorious “death marches” through the jungle and in camps in the inland of Sabah, or British North Borneo, as it was called during World War II.

Following an inquiry by the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal in 2010, Cleary and 19 other POWs were deemed worthy of a posthumous military gallantry award called a Mention in Despatches, or MID, on the basis that they fulfilled the criterion “killed while trying to escape”. (They were awarded the modern Australian equivalent of that Imperial award, the Commendation for Gallantry.)

But that is not how Cleary died.

Instead, after a failed escape attempt, he was subject to brutal torture, survived and it seems he eventually succumbed to dysentery, the severe form of diarrhoea that claimed the lives of hundreds of the POWs, while he was tied to a tree to prevent another escape attempt.

Nevertheless, three POW guards were charged with murder, found guilty at a war crimes trial and hanged, based on the perjured evidence of two of Cleary’s fellow POWs. One of these POWs was Keith Botterill, who later confessed to Sydney military historian Lynette Silver that he had lied under oath to ensure the guards they considered to be particularly vicious got the death penalty, even though at least one was 40 kilometres away when Cleary died. That guard had earlier escaped the death penalty for murdering one of Botterill’s mates. The details were contained in Silver’s 1998 book Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence.

Silver has a deep connection with the Cleary story. After 20 years spent investigating the fate of POWs sent to Borneo during World War II, it was she who identified Cleary’s grave in Labuan War Cemetery, where he had been buried for decades as “unknown”. He is among the more than 30 POWs whose graves have been identified by Silver.

“This is a hard stand for me to take because I feel great empathy for Cleary, but try as I might I cannot see how it can be concluded that Cleary was killed while trying to escape or executed,” she says, adding that Cleary was no more a hero than any of the other POWs, all of whom were subject to vicious treatment. Regardless, she says the Tribunal cannot rely on perjured evidence in determining the Cleary matter.

Since her evidence came to light, the Tribunal’s inquiry into Cleary and other prisoners of war of the Japanese has come under scrutiny.

It was highly unusual.

<p>Victoria Cross. Photograph Hans Reppin, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (AWM PAIU1994/157.12).</p>

Victoria Cross. Photograph Hans Reppin, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (AWM PAIU1994/157.12).

It is the only inquiry to be completed after a single day of hearings. And it is the only inquiry to hear from just one witness, in this case John Bradford, a retired Department of Defence scientist from Adelaide who has long campaigned to have Cleary awarded a VC. Other inquiries heard from a minimum of five witnesses and, in the case of the VC inquiry, more than 50.

It rather seems from reading the Defence submission to Senator Feeney that Cleary’s name was added as an afterthought, along with that of Simpson of Gallipoli, the little man who used his donkey to save wounded diggers in WWI. They are the only soldiers on the list, alongside the names of 11 other sailors.

While the submission recommended that Senator Feeney should ask the Tribunal to “consider an investigation into individual Navy cases of valour”, it warned that it would be “difficult and unwarranted to seek unique treatment for Navy personnel”. Thus the names of Simpson and Cleary were suggested to create what was called a 'wider review'."

To date, Senator Feeney has refused to initiate moves to withdraw Cleary’s award for gallantry or amend the terms of reference for the VC Inquiry to remove Cleary’s name from consideration for a VC, despite being urged to do so by Cleary’s nephew, Lindsay Patterson, who says, “I would be very happy if [the Commendation for Gallantry] was withdrawn because I think its been politicised. Neil tried to escape a couple of times but that was the thing that everyone tried to do and he had tremendous dysentery and malnutrition and all those sort of things.  He really died of that and not because of any heroic action. I think if [the awarding of a VC] proceeds and turns pear shaped, Neil’s name will be mud. It will be detrimental to his good name.”

Feeney has maintained in correspondence with The Global Mail that Cleary was not awarded the Commendation for Gallantry on faulty grounds, insisting “he was killed as a result of brutal treatment at the hands of his captors”.

However, the ministerial submission he received on February 12, 2011 makes clear that Cleary had dysentery. After documenting Cleary’s torture  following his re-capture by the POW guards, it states, “Cleary was … suffering dysentery and had been left to lie in his own excrement. He remained in this condition … until the guards could see he was dying. Finally his friends were allowed to … take him away to die.”

Senator Feeney received the submission three weeks before he made public the decision to award Cleary the Commendation for Gallantry, on the basis that he had been killed while attempting to escape.

To questions from The Global Mail citing the evidence that Cleary was not killed in such a way that would meet the condition laid down for an MID by the Imperial Prisoner of War Committee in 1943, Senator Feeney’s office responded: “Neither I nor the Tribunal have ever asserted that Gunner Cleary was "killed while attempting to escape." He died as a consequence of brutal ill-treatment and neglect following his recapture after escaping.”

The senator noted that he did not intend to revoke Cleary’s award and neither would he amend the terms of reference for the VC inquiry to remove Cleary’s name from consideration.

In previous correspondence with The Global Mail, Senator Feeney said, “I do not believe there is any political dimension to this matter. My concern is to uphold the integrity of the Defence honours and awards system and to ensure that due recognition is give to all Australian service men and women, past and present.”

On Wednesday morning, March 14, the Defence Honours and Appeals Tribunal will finally hear evidence from Lynette Silver, at their VC hearing in Canberra. Her friend Di Elliott, who stumbled upon the high-level correspondence that reveals the genesis of the inquiry, will be in the audience. Elliott’s father was a prisoner of war of the Japanese at the Burma-Thailand Railway.

The Tribunal will then have several options. It might review its decision to recommend Cleary for the Commendation for Gallantry; suspend the VC Inquiry until the Cleary matter is clarified; or simply wait until it reports to government later this year to decide whether to recommend any VCs for acts of bravery, so long ago.

Perhaps they will also consider Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston’s caution to senators in 2010, delivered with the classic understatement of a respected officer and military leader: “These things … create all sorts of other follow-on difficulties.”

They do indeed.

*The Global Mail apologizes to Senators Feeney and Ryan. The photo we published previously was in fact Senator Scott Ryan. The photo which now appears in this story is Senator Feeney.

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