The Overlooked Heroes of HMAS Yarra

After 78 years of injustice, in December 2020 naval 18-year-old sailor Teddy Sheean received a Victoria Cross. Strange then that two naval heroes who fought just as bravely still have nothing, as the 80-year commemoration of the action of HMAS Yarra on March 4, 1942, is with us. Although retrospective VCs might not be in order for Robert Rankin and Ron Taylor, surely the federal government should look at Stars of Gallantry for these neglected men.

Imagine today if every approval for an Australian gallantry award had to be ticked off by someone in London. That was the case in World War II. What’s more, unlike Royal Navy commanders, Australian warship captains were not allowed to recommend the nature of the award. That was what our Navy had to endure.  The other two forces had their awards approved in Australia. Navies take a long time to grow, and ours had been “parented” by the RN. When war arrived, there was no time for revision. Fighting for its life against Germany and Italy, and later Japan, Britain was understandably under extreme pressure.

Perhaps due to maladministration under pressure, there are at least five WWII naval personnel, and likely several more, who could have received a VC.  Some received what was called a “Mention in Despatches”, not a medal, rather a badge, albeit a prestigious one. Many thousands of Aussies were awarded a MID before it was phased out in 1975.

But some of the bravest Navy personnel received no recognition whatsoever.

Ship’s cook Francis Emms fought at his machinegun against Japanese aircraft until wounded, later dying aboard HMAS Kara Kara in Darwin Harbour on February 19, 1942. He received a Mention.

Only weeks later, Captain “Hec” Waller commanded HMAS Perth in battle until it was sunk, losing his life in the process. Fighting alongside the Australian cruiser, also sunk, was USS Houston. Her Captain Rooks received the very highest American award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Why do the Americans reward their people so much more readily?) In fact, no-one noticed Waller had not been recommended for anything at all, except when – ironically – someone from the RN in Britain post-war noticed the anomaly. The paperwork was hurriedly filled in, only for Waller to receive the MID.

And at the end of 1942 – surely a terrible year for the Navy – Teddy Sheean manned his 20mm anti-aircraft gun even as the corvette Armidale sank underneath him, having disobeyed the order to abandon ship in an effort to save his shipmates’ lives.

At least these three were given a MID, with Sheean’s now removed and replaced by the VC. Others received nothing.

ON MARCH 4, 1942, Lieutenant Commander Robert Rankin (above on his wedding day), captain of HMAS Yarra, the sole escort of a small convoy, turned and charged the enemy in the shape of an overwhelming number of Japanese warships. Fighting in waters north of Australia, this man was a naval surveyor from Sydney,who had been ordered to command a warship. Yarra was a sloop, smaller than a destroyer, and Rankin took her into combat against a combined force of Japanese cruisers and destroyers. He was outgunned, outranged, and out-numbered, yet he faced and fought his enemies to try to give his convoy of three vessels time to get away.

The fight was a hopeless one. Yarra made smoke to confuse the enemy’s sightings, and repeatedly fired her guns. The Japanese found the range quickly though, and the Australian vessel was mortally hit. When a salvo hit the bridge, Rankin died at his post, but his ship’s company fought on to the end as the enemy closed the range and poured in fire mercilessly. As the ship sank beneath them, young Leading Seaman Ron “Buck” Taylor (left), from Carlton in Victoria, stayed at his gun despite the order of Abandon Ship, so he could defend his shipmates. In total, 138 men went down with Yarra, with the other vessels all sinking – few survived to be either rescued or taken prisoner over the next days.

Rankin, Taylor, and the rest of the ship’s company have received no individual recognition at all, as once again the paperwork was not done. At least, many decades later in 2013, the ship received a Unit Citation for Gallantry.

The RAN in 1942 was in chaos. Administration was not completed, the force was undermanned and terribly over-committed. If paperwork for the Yarra people was started, it was never finished. Hardly easy to follow up too, given the thousands of kilometres of separation between Australian and Britain, and with communications not what they are today. Indeed, one of the best known and most senior naval officers of the war, John Collins, who commanded HMAS Sydney in a cruiser action in the Mediterranean, found when he inspected his own paperwork it was a mess: “These files are far from complete. I hope that other officers’ files are not in the same state,” he wrote acidly. If one of the most senior Navy people noted that of his own records, what hope was there for lesser mortals?

An inquiry of some years ago was not charged with examining the moral situation of the times, merely whether procedures were correctly followed. As a result, Yarra’s people still did not receive anything, although strangely, a commendation for the ship itself was recommended. But there is an award, the Star of Gallantry, which “recognises acts of outstanding heroism in action in circumstances of great peril” which could be given to these two. It is the nation’s highest decoration for combat bravery after the Victoria Cross.

The system the Navy endured in World War II is one of the most unfair ever perpetuated on Australian military personnel. It is more than time it was remedied. Sheean is the best known of the unrecognised members – the award of a VC to him has at least symbolized the righting of the wrong. The award of Stars of Gallantry to Rankin and Taylor would help further repair this damage to our Navy.


Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a former naval officer and the author of 18 military history books. His work Teddy Sheean VC, from Big Sky Publishing, examined the Sheean case. He has also just released Eagles over Darwin, a study of how the United States Army Air Forces provided the fighter defence of northern Australia for much of 1942, and Medieval Military Combat, an analysis of battlefield tactics in the Wars of the Roses. In February this year, his book for upper primary and junior secondary age children, Australia Remembers 4: the Bombing of Darwin, was launched in Darwin by 101 Hudson  bomber gunner Brian Winspear.


3 thoughts on “The Overlooked Heroes of HMAS Yarra

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    A shame that so many Australian heroes have gone unrecognised. Referring back to Britain has doubtless done great injustices to some very brave men (and women?). I wonder how much this lack of good record-keeping in the RAN can be traced to the administrative slackness that results when ultimate authority was so far away. Long and loose bureaucratic chains of command can’t have been helpful.
    When it comes to matters naval, I am a fan Forester’s of Hornblower, and the Captain Jack Aubrey books of Patrick O’Brien. Like many female readers, I became introduced to them by TV’s Hornblower and Russell Crowe’s role in the Movie Master and Commander. I’ve only read a couple of each, but they bring alive and make explicable the British Naval traditions of trade, piracy and exploration, the established culture around long voyages as well as sea battles, and the associated politics. As does Margaret Cameron-Ash’s book on Beating France to Botany Bay. It’s a page turning read woven around sea-faring during the eighteenth century period of exploration and competition in the Pacific. Seems it took Australia a long time to drop the Colonial chains in the RAN.
    I hope your pressure on Australian naval authorities now can at least get recognition for those who clearly deserve more.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Mike Carlton, in his excellent book “Cruiser” about HMAS Perth and its Captain Waller, examined this issue thoroughly. He believed that part of the problem was that Perth was operating in the territory of the then Netherlands East Indies and under the operational command of the Dutch Admiral. Thus, the chain of communications was even more tangled than it might otherwise have been. Add to that the normal barely competent bureaucracy at all stages of naval and military administration and it would not have been surprising if the Royal Navy had even been aware that Perth had been lost until months had passed.
    I spent much of the last 10 years or so of my RAAF career in a position where I needed regular access to the files of former members of the RAAF who had served during World War II. As Admiral Collins lamented about his Naval records, this situation was, and remains, pretty much the norm for wartime members of the RAAF.
    There are a number of reasons for this situation. Shameful as it is to admit, government bureaucracies are rarely fully staffed with highly competent and well-motivated people prepared to deal with other people’s records as scrupulously as they would with their own. Then when the Commonwealth Government decided to move the Defence group of departments from Melbourne to Canberra in the 1960s, they faced the enormous logistical problem of what to do with shelf miles of historical personal files. Part of the solution chosen, again by bureaucrats, was to strip RAAF discharged members’ files of material considered to be redundant or unimportant, thus significantly reducing the volume of material to be stored. I am personally aware of a significant number of war veterans who were denied repatriation benefits because documentary evidence of their active service in a war zone had been arbitrarily or just plain carelessly culled.
    So, I would not be so ready to blame the RAN’s subordinate relationship with the RN as solely responsible for the failure adequately to recognise our heroes with appropriate rewards.
    Our own native bureaucracies, military and civilian, are more than capable of administrative incompetence.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Further to my last, here’s a comment I wrote in the Australian when efforts were being made to grant honours and awards retrospectively to people thought to have been unfairly denied recognition for bravery at the time. General Campbell’s remarks typified the attitude of much of the senior bureaucracy on these issues. We ourselves are more than capable of screwing these things up without blaming the British.
    “General Campbell’s reported concern for the Queen’s alleged opinion about retrospective awards of the Victoria Cross is extraordinary. That in itself suggests that the views expressed go well beyond his brief as Commander of the Defence Force who, as such, as no business worrying about what the Queen might or might not think about such an award. The Governor-General is there to fulfil that role. If there is a professional military objection to the retrospective awards, ie that the deeds fell short of the essential criteria, then he should put those objections forward. But his opinion about the Queen’s potential reaction is both presumptuous and entirely irrelevant.”

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