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Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Senator the Hon David Feeney
Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs AO, CSC, RAN
Chair of Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal, Mr Alan Rose AO
Director of the Australian War Memorial, theHon DrBrendan Nelson
DAVID FEENEY: Okay, well, welcome everybody. Today I have the privilege of being here with the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, the Chair of the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal, Mr Alan Rose and the Director of the Australian War Memorial, the Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson.
Today I am pleased to announce that the Defence Honours Awards Appeals Tribunal has completed its Inquiry into unresolved recognition for past acts of naval and military gallantry and valour. This has been a matter that has vexed the community for quite some time. Whether we can and whether we should retrospectively award Victoria Crosses decades after a particular event or events.
This important question will be answered today. A Victoria Cross is, of course, as you would be familiar awarded only for the most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of sacrifice or valour or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. The inquiry focused on the following 13 personnel: Gunner Albert Neil Cleary from Army, Midshipman Robert Ian Davies from Navy, Leading Cook Francis Bassett Emms of Navy, Lieutenant David John Hamer of Navy, Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick of Army, Lieutenant Commander Robert William Rankin of Navy, Ordinary Seaman Edward Sheehan of Navy, Leading Air Crewman Noel Irvine Ship of Navy, Lieutenant Commander Francis Edward Smith of Navy, Lieutenant Commander Henry Hugh Gordon Dacre Stoker of the Royal Navy and Leading Seaman Ronald Taylor of Navy and last, but not least, Captain Hector MacDonald Laws Waller of Navy.
As you would appreciate this was no easy task. It was an inquiry with implications not just for the families of the 13 personnel, but also forAustralia's Honours and Award System itself. To make sure that we had a systemic approach at looking at the awarding of retrospective Victoria Crosses I referred the matter formally to the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal on 21 February 2011. Headed first by Emeritus Professor Dennis Pearce, the role of chair then later passed to Mr Alan Rose who is here with us today. The tribunal committed to giving careful and comprehensive consideration to the matter and, indeed, that they have. The report of the inquiry was handed to me only a few short weeks ago on 6 February.
Today I will announce the recommendations of that report and the Government's response. This was a wide-reaching inquiry. It involved a nationwide call for submissions with some 166 submissions from 125 individuals and organisations in relation to the 13 personnel I have just named. Now, just over two years on from when their work began, we can release the findings and the Government's response.
The tribunal has made six recommendations in its report which will be publicly released today. Recommendation one called for no action to be taken by the Australian Government to award a Victoria Cross forAustraliaor any other form of medallic recognition for gallantry or valour for any of the 13 individuals named in the terms of reference. I have accepted this recommendation.
Essentially it goes to a matter of process and merit. Was the process of awarding an honour handled appropriately at the time? If yes, then we should not second guess the decision maker decades on unless there is compelling new evidence. If the process was not handled appropriately, do we have compelling evidence to demonstrate that an honour as high as a Victoria Cross should be awarded now? I will ask Mr Rose to speak further on this point in just a moment.
The second recommendation to government was that a Unit Citation for Gallantry be awarded to HMAS Yarra. It is a privilege to be able to accept this recommendation and I will speak further on this point in just a moment. Recommendation three was that the names of the ships HMAS Perth, Rankin, Sheehan, Waller and Yarra be perpetuated in the Royal Australian Navy after the present named ships are decommissioned. I have accepted this recommendation to the extent that it does not constrain the Chief of Navy as the lead custodian of the Royal Australian Navy's heritage. Most notably, this includes his or her right to make recommendations for the naming of Australian warships. These ship names will be included in future considerations.
Recommendation four were other proposals to recognise the gallantry of some of the individuals such as a permanent or rotating exhibition at the Australian War Memorial be explored further. I have accepted this recommendation. I have asked the Honourable Dr Brendan Nelson to explore proposals to this end and I will invite Dr Nelson to speak further on this point in just a moment.
Recommendation five was that the Australian Government continues to ensure that the memorial erected to commemorate the Sandakan Death Marches at Ranau East Malaysia is maintained in perpetuity. I have accepted this recommendation.
Recommendation six is that the Department of Defence amend an internal manual to reflect some changes from this inquiry and I have also accepted that recommendation. With respect to Yarra, it is a privilege to be able to today announce that the crews of HMAS Yarra on 5 February and 4 March 1942 will be awarded a unit citation for gallantry. The ship's company showed extraordinary courage, skill and conspicuous devotion to duty in the face of a far superior enemy as they engaged against overwhelming odds. Despite their bravery, the tribunal concluded that the Yarra's case appeared to be one of a very small number where extraordinary gallantry had been mishandled to an extent that it would be unreasonable to not recommend some form of recognition to remedy the injustice. While it is no longer possible because of a lack of adequate evidence to determine what honours might or should have been awarded to respective individuals, the tribunal has recommended the award of a Unit Citation for Gallantry to HMAS Yarra and that the name of Yarra always remain a name of a fighting ship in the Australian fleet.
In accepting this recommendation, I am very pleased to announce that after 71 years those who served on HMAS Yarra will receive recognition for their gallant actions in those last days. Finally, I would like to mention that today is the 71st anniversary of the sinking of HMAS Perth. Captain Hector Waller, DSO and Bar, one of the 13 individuals who formed a part of this inquiry, was captain of HMAS Perth when she was sunk during the battle of the Sunda Strait in the early hours of 1 March 1942. We remember them. Ladies and gentlemen, I will now hand over to Chief of Navy.
RAY GRIGGS: Thank you, Senator. I would just like a few brief remarks. Firstly I would like to thank the members of the tribunal for the work that they have done over the last couple of years. This has been a very difficult and challenging task. Honours and awards are always an emotive issue and there has been a perception that in some way Navy had been disadvantaged over the years by not having sailors awarded the Victoria Cross. I support the recommendations of the tribunal. I think they've done a very good job in very difficult circumstances. Of course, I'm absolutely delighted about the recommendation for the Unit Citation for Gallantry for HMAS Yarra. The actions of Yarra on 5 February and 4 March 1942 were truly outstanding. It was a brave ship and a courageous ship's company and I think it's wonderful that that recognition comes on the eve of the 71st anniversary of her sinking. Thank you.
ALAN ROSE: Good morning. I thought it would be useful if I just very quickly outlined the task that we had and how we handled it, particularly with respect to considering each of the 13 for the award of a Victoria Cross.
We tackled those claims by first looking at whether the Imperial Victoria Cross could still be recommended by the Federal Government and found that following Prime Minister Keating's advice to the Queen which was accepted in 1992, advice that had the support of the opposition and each of the State Premiers and Chief Ministers, it's no longer possible for any Australian Government to recommend an Imperial Gallantry Award to an Australian serviceman. So our task was to look at how and whether we should recommend that retrospectively the actions that we were considering with the 13 should be recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross for Australia and in doing that we had, in line with our terms of reference, to keep in mind the consequences of such recommendations for the integrity of the Australian Honours System and also for the hundred years of the use of the Imperial Honours System and including all of those Australian servicemen who received an Imperial Honour during that period.
To try and balance those three interests, we settled some guidelines and essentially those guidelines meant that we looked first at what was the process followed when each of the 13 was first considered for an award. We found that with respect to 10, there had been an impeccable process followed. Nine of those 10 as a consequence had received an Imperial Award. With respect to the remaining three, all members of the crew of HMAS Yarra, our conclusion was that the then Australian Commonwealth Naval Board had mishandled that process to the point where we considered, that is the tribunal considered, it amounted to maladministration and that maladministration, in our view, led to a manifest injustice being all of the crew of HMAS Yarra having suffered a manifest injustice by not having their gallant actions properly considered at the time.
In accordance with our guidelines, we then had to determine whether we believed on the merits those actions needed to be now retrospectively, 71 years after the event, recognised by an Australian award. While it was difficult we decided that there was no question on the merits, they should, as a very clear exception, be awarded the Unit Citation for Gallantry and if I might just remind you that that means all the members of the crews in 1942 that fought in those two operations in Singapore Harbour and then finally in the Timor Sea will receive the emblem of the award. It is a citation for the ship. So as we've recommended, if in later years there are further HMAS Yarras, each one of those ships carries the citation and during the period in which those sailors are part of the complement of that later HMAS Yarra, they have the entitlement to wear the emblem of that citation.
The importance of that, we believe, was although there had been a manifest injustice 71 years ago, in the future, for all of those concerned, they have the honour now of maintaining and retaining that emblem. In the future all those sailors in future, HMAS Yarras, in wearing that emblem, will remind both the Navy and all the Australian community of the gallantry of those 1942 members of HMAS Yarra's crew. Thank you.
BRENDAN NELSON: Thank you and good afternoon. The repository of the nation's soul, its values and the truths by which we strive to live is the Australian War Memorial. By any standard what these men and these crews have done is a standard of courage and bravery that is unknown to almost all Australians. The Australian War Memorial will do everything we can of course to implement recommendation four. That will include that next month we will initiate what I'm calling the Last Post Ceremony which is currently a small closing ceremony at the Australian War Memorial. The Last Post Ceremony will be significantly enhanced and on the date each year of the death of each of these individuals, we will read to the crowd who assemble for the Last Post the stories of these remarkable men and also these crews.
We will also establish the Gallery of Gallantry on our website and specifically tell the stories of each and every one of the men who have been examined for their acts of heroism and courage and, of course, profile the crews and the actions of the ships that have been named and been the subject of this tribunal inquiry. I've also asked the staff of the Australian War Memorial to specifically establish an honour board for each and every one of these men and we will permanently display one at a time, rotating them through on a monthly basis these stories so that Australians will know and understand them.
A number of them, of course, are already household names. John Simpson Kirkpatrick, of course, who is commemorated with a bronze, a brilliant bronze just outside the memorial and another equally magnificent bronze in the First World War Gallery. Teddy Sheehan, of course, is a household name to Australians and particularly Tasmanians and rightly so. We are about to publish a booklet which will play a significant educational role for young students. The first in this series was called Devotion which, of course, stems from the work done by nurses in the Australian military over the last 100 years. The next publication will be entitled Audacity and I have said to our staff that I want to see that each one of these men and these crews are profiled in Audacity and that, of course, will become an important part of the teaching library that teachers will use right across Australia in educating the next generation of Australians about what they have done. I would also say as the Director of the Australian War Memorial, we will be very open to any other suggestions or ideas that Australians may have in relation to commemorating not only the bravery of these men and these crews, but indeed, other Australians who have given their lives in our name over the last century. Thank you.
DAVID FEENEY: So, ladies and gentlemen, that concludes I guess the formalities of the press conference. I guess I and we are happy to take any questions that you may have.
QUESTION: Senator Feeney, did this go to Cabinet and do you accept that there will be some people who will be very angry about the decision that's been announced today?
DAVID FEENEY: This was a decision that was made by the responsible members of the executive and, yes, I do understand that inevitably there is disappointment for families and for others in this decision today. I suppose it's critical that we make the point that this was not an inquiry into whether these men were brave. Their sacrifice, their valour, their extraordinary service on behalf ofAustraliais and remains something that is cherished and the Director of the War Memorial has just taken you to how that will continue to be honoured, but, yes, I take your point, there will inevitably be some who are disappointed.
QUESTION: Mr Rose, why were the three men from the Yarra not given the Victoria Cross? Is it now the families that [indistinct]
ALAN ROSE: Part of the investigation, part of the inquiry we made was to establish that the records that had been maintained and what we expected to be the normal records that would have been produced, weren't produced. In other words, part of what the tribunal has described as maladministration by the then Naval Board really left us with very few reliable records on which we could decide whether either Rankin, Smith or Taylor or any other member of HMAS Yarra's crew should individually receive an award. That's what following our guidance directed us towards recommending a Unit Citation. The injustice that we found in the case of all the complement of HMAS Yarra, we believed should be remedied and on the basis of what we had by way of evidence and information not being able to distinguish one from the other effectively our solution was to recommend a Unit Citation, an award that didn't exist at the time, 1942, but now does under the Australian Honours System. So again applying our guidelines we considered that not only was that a proper way to remedy but adding HMAS Yarra to the Unit Citation List in the Australianised system could do nothing but enhance that award.
QUESTION: So are you saying they may well have been gallant enough, those three men, to have received the Victoria Cross but we simply don't have enough evidence?
ALAN ROSE: It's a hypothetical question, but the answer is we didn't. We weren't able to find that evidence.
QUESTION: Question for the Minister. Senator Feeney, hundreds of thousands of Australians have fought in wars over - well over a century. Now, they faced unspeakable horrors and have shown remarkable heroism in greater numbers. Many of those people have gone unrecognised inevitably because of the conditions they were fighting under. Was the outcome of this inquiry not inevitable and the Commission had come up with a different answer and started handing out VCs to any one of these 13 people you would be bombarded with requests from at least it appears from the inquiry at least another 150 or so people, relatives, sets of relatives demanding VCs for their grandad or whoever it might be. Would this all not have been best left alone?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, it was part of the terms of reference that the tribunal have regard for the integrity of the Australian Awards and Honours System and I believe in making the recommendations and accepting them we have kept faith with that very important requirement.
As to your point about - obviously I strongly concur with your thoughts about the sacrifice, the valour and the unknown acts of courage that must obviously be a feature ofAustralia's history, military history, but I guess it's only natural that we can only do what we can do. We can only judge from those stories and those pieces of evidence that have come to us.
I think your point is well made but that any other result would have inevitably involved controversy just as perhaps this result does, but I do believe that these were matters of significant public interest, that they had been raised in the public domain. They had been raised in the Parliament and it was appropriate for us to deal with them in a comprehensive way and that had been done.
QUESTION: Senator, was the decision a foregone conclusion? And are you disappointed that no VCs or other awards were [indistinct] apart from the [indistinct].
DAVID FEENEY: Well, the Awards and Honours Tribunal is an independent body. It is not - it is obviously given by Government terms of reference and then it conducts its own inquiry and it is an independent body that then makes recommendations to government. We have accepted its recommendations. We have done so reasonably swiftly and, as I've indicated today, I am comfortable with the recommendations they've made to Government.
QUESTION: On another issue, Senator, are you happy with our position in Afghanistan, with the reports that civilian casualties have been [indistinct] at the hands of ABM members?
DAVID FEENEY: Do you mind if I come back to that and we might just exhaust the room of questions pertaining to this and then I'm happy to come back to you. Sure.
QUESTION: Can I ask Mr Rose, Australian school kids have built into them, some primary school [indistinct] I think a lot of them are probably fairly surprised to hear that you've decided that his [indistinct] decided he shouldn't be given a VC. Can you explain exactly why you decided to give him a VC?
ALAN ROSE: Certainly. There's no doubt that Simpson and his donkey are Australian icons and they were from the very first moment that news of Simpson's exploits were published in Australia back in 1915. What we were asked to do and what we did was look very closely at the way Simpson's recognition of Simpson's activities in the 25 days that he was at Gallipoli were handled and to see whether in the light of any new evidence, or whatever, there was a ground or a base for recommending a Victorian Cross for Australia.
What we found was that Simpson, along with hundreds of others who were either members of the field ambulance, the stretcher bearers which Simpson was or as battalion stretcher bearers, displayed incredible bravery in those early weeks and Simpson, along with the others, was considered very, very closely by the commanders of the field ambulance and all the way through the command structure in the Australian Army on Gallipoli.
The outcome of that was that Simpson was recommended and awarded a mention in dispatches. We found no nomination. We found no supporting material that suggested as many of our submitters have put to us that he be awarded a Victoria Cross.
He was a curiosity. He was an individual who fought his own war. He largely operated outside the command structure of the field ambulance and because he adopted a donkey as his method of transport he was largely only able to bring lightly wounded men, wounded in the leg or the foot to the beach.
So that the judgment made his peers, by his Commanders at the time was that he had displayed considerable bravery but that it didn't reach the very high levels either for the award of a second or third level award, a Distinguished Conduct Medal or a Military Medal, much less a Victoria Cross.
We agree with their judgment, having looked at all of those documents, having tracked everything. There are meticulous records with respect to the Gallipoli campaign and particular the field ambulance to leave us at the end of the day with no doubt that the MID that Simpson was awarded in 1915 was the appropriate recognition.
What we've also said in the report is that there are a number of Australian icons, Simpson and his donkey just one of them. Others in other fields maintain their importance in the Australian culture because of their community recognition.
We were asked to deal with a much narrower field, that is, whether he had received the appropriate military recognition and we have no doubt that he did.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral Griggs, I just wanted to ask, you spoke a little bit more about VCs earlier, but why do you think nobody from the Navy has been awarded a VC?
RAY GRIGGS: Well, in part it goes back to the history of the VC and, in fact, one of the things that I put in my testimony to the tribunal was that maybe it's time for us to have a fairly deep philosophical discussion around the criteria for the VC because certainly in contemporary naval warfare and contemporary war in the air it is very, very difficult to meet those criteria.
Those criteria really come down to close quarters combat in the land environment and, of course, that's where the medal originated from back in the Crimea and while there has been a number of VCs awarded in the Royal Navy we have not received one.
I see in one of the 11 sailors who was considered by the tribunal, Able Seaman Rudd, who was part of the Zeebrugge raid in the First World War was actually part of a ballot for a VC.
So the way the VC's been awarded over the years has varied too. Where there were a number of individuals who were considered to be worthy of recognition, in this particular case they all participated in a ballot to decide who will get it. It could have been Rudd. So it's, again, that was a land action that occurred.
QUESTION: I just want to ask, I think Waller as well. The tribunal also found that there were some significant failures in the process. What sort of failures were they and why then if there were failures was there not a recommendation for further honours?
RAY GRIGGS: I think that's probably one for Mr Rose.
ALAN ROSE: Yes, we did find a number of shortcomings. If I can just briefly go to those. Because of the policy that was followed and still is followed with respect to those servicemen who are prisoners of war or missing in action, the final consideration of whether they should receive awards or not is usually held until they either return from prisoner of war camp or are confirmed as dead.
In the case of HMAS Perth that didn't occur until after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945. That is, there were still members of HMAS Perth's crew, you know, in prisoner of war camps in what is now Indonesia.
When they returned there were reports made and the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board put its mind to whether they should make recommendations, but at that point they had not declared the 300-odd crew members of Perth that were killed in the Sunder battle as dead, and so they didn't consider them. They put them to one side.
That was the first failure in procedure that we found. They even made their recommendations to the admiralty before they confirmed the 300 were dead but the admiralty came back in response to their first recommendations and pointed out the fact that they didn't have Hec Waller on the list and it was the admiralty that said do you have any objections to us, the Royal Navy Admiralty including Waller on the list for the award of an MID to which the very quick response was, no we don't include him but we haven't yet declared the crew dead.
The admiralty came back a yet a further time and asked whether one other member of the crew who had been killed, a Royal Navy sailor whose name was Heighton, whether they had comments and recommendations they could make about him and it took them a further couple of months before they responded to that request.
So we saw that overall process as being defective in part, in part remedied by later action taken by the ACNB. So in terms of our guidelines that I keep referring to, we consider that that failure of process, later remedied, did not reach the threshold of the failures, for example, in the board's handling of recognition for HMAS Yarra's crew.
As a consequence and finding that there was no new evidence, we know as we had the full story of Waller's actions in that week in Indonesia we didn't believe there was a basis for us to go behind the judgments made by the ACNB and the admiralty, the appropriate authorities at the time in awarding Hec Waller an MID.
As you might know, he could have only been awarded a VC or an MID because he was dead at the time of the making of the recommendations. So effectively, we saw the ACNB catching up after the event and, as I say, we didn't see the threshold of our guidelines being reached where we could now recommend some other award to either Waller or to HMAS Perth.
QUESTION: Mr Rose, can I just ask in the case - another of the cases that's going to be a high profile one is Teddy Sheehan. Now, young man, anti-aircraft gunner on a ship sinking, stays on board, desperately wounded and apparently is said to have shot down at least one Japanese plane. Now, around the other side of the world there's a guy called Jack Mantle, I think, was a gunner, young gunner on a British ship in a British harbour attacked by German bombers and he was killed at his post while shooting down apparently a German dive bomber and he received a Victoria Cross. Can you explain - that would appear to be a fairly clear case if you were going to seriously consider retrospectively giving a medal. That would seem to be a fairly clear case. If one got it, the other probably should have. Do you go into that?
ALAN ROSE: We certainly did and what we found is not only that no imperial Victoria Cross can now be recommended by an Australian government, but secondly both the Imperial Honour System and the Australian Honour System does not operate on a like case precedent basis.
In other words, each action, each event is handled on the basis of nominations and recommendations made by the Commanders at the time. So it's not like an action in a court where you can turn to precedent and plead like circumstances.
We therefore looked at all of the material on Teddy Sheehan. We found from the beginning of Richard, his Captain's nomination to the officer in charge, Pope in Darwin all the way to the ACNB in Melbourne and then to the admiralty that that process was followed absolutely according to the rules.
The judgment made at the time was that of the two awards again that were open to Sheehan, the Victoria Cross and the Mention In Dispatches posthumous that his actions, gallant of course as they were, did not quite meet that higher standard for the Victoria Cross and so the admiralty recommended that he receive an MID.
We were given many, many submissions, both written and oral. We did hours of research. We have the record, I think, complete including the whole of the handling of the operation, that is, Operation Hamburger, the whole of the reporting of that to the Naval authorities, to the Prime Minister, the Government of the day and again we could find no new compelling evidence to change the judgment that Sheehan, he was an extremely gallant Australian Naval - member of the Navy. He did what we all know he did. We confirmed every bit of that, but that, in a judgment of the commanders of the time, was that it matched with the second of the two awards, that is, MID.
So finding nothing which allowed us either on the process or the merits to go behind that judgment as we've said in our guidelines, we endorsed. We confirmed the judgment made in 1942.
DAVID FEENEY: Okay. Do we have any more questions about the report? Going, going, gone. Very good, all right. Thanks gentlemen. Now -
QUESTION: Sorry, can I just ask [indistinct]. Firstly, two questions, Senator, but firstly can you tell us what you do know about the incident in northern Afghanistan first, in northern Nuristan province?
DAVID FEENEY: Listen, I'm aware that the - that Australian Forces have been involved in an operational incident in the north western part of Nuristan province. I understand that details of that operational incident are at the moment unclear but I can confirm that no member of the Australian Defence Force is a casualty.
QUESTION: Are you - we understand that there has been civilian casualties. Does that concern you and does it put our soldiers at risk and put our mission at risk in Afghanistan?
DAVID FEENEY: I'm aware of that allegation. I have no particulars about it and I understand that the Australian Defence Force will be making the appropriate investigations in conjunction with ISAF our International Security Assistance Force.
QUESTION: But broader, broader speaking though are you concerned about civilian casualties?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, of course. We are always concerned about civilian casualties but I have no broader remarks to make about this particular operational incident. I have literally told you all I know.
QUESTION: And what about - are you happy with our general mission in Afghanistan. I mean, soldiers are putting their lives on the line every day, happy with the timetable and the mission over there?
DAVID FEENEY: Yeah, I think the mission has clear goals. We have a clear strategy going forward and the Minister has outlined in great detail to the Parliament and on occasions to yourselves how it is Australia is deporting itself in Afghanistan and what the future holds.
QUESTION: Are you specifically briefed on this incident by Defence?
DAVID FEENEY: Sorry, I beg your pardon.
QUESTION: Have you been specifically briefed by Defence about this incident?
DAVID FEENEY: Well, I'm not really clear what the - I mean, I have information from the department about what details we have at the moment. I don't know what your threshold is there but the department has certainly furnished me with what details are available at the moment.
QUESTION: Can you explain why ISAF is saying there are civilian casualties but the Australian Defence Force is not giving us that information?
DAVID FEENEY: What we are saying is that we are investigating the matter and that we are investigating the matter in conjunction with ISAF.
QUESTION: Were Special Forces involved, Senator, or was it conventional forces?
DAVID FEENEY: I'm not in a position to provide any further details than the details I've given you.
SPEAKER: Gentlemen, thanks very much. [Indistinct]