Keith Payne VC was the fourth and final Australian to be awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) in the Vietnam War. He was awarded his VC for 'exceptional personal bravery' after rescuing 40 men under heavy mortar fire in Kontum Province in May 1969.
Payne was born during the Great Depression in 1933. The middle child of a large family of 13, Payne grew up in the sugarcane growing area of Ingham, North Queensland.
During World War II, his father Henry joined the army. He was posted to the islands north of Australia. Taught by his father to hunt, fish and develop a sense of '...the lay of the land', Payne helped feed his family during his father's war service. Payne and his siblings also helped the family make ends meet by selling tropical fruit to American soldiers.
Payne left school at 14 and began a cabinetmaking apprenticeship. He also joined the army reserve.
Payne didn't enjoy his apprenticeship 'one little bit' and applied to join the army as soon as he was old enough.
Because I had seen all the troops coming through the north, and everything, during the war, and everything, I said, well, I'm for the army. I like the army and I think I would have still joined the army had not Korea come along anyhow.
[Keith Payne, interview, 2001]
Since his war service, Payne has dedicated his life to advocating for veterans' health and mental wellbeing.
Payne's army career began in 1951. He was 18 years old when he was posted to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR) in December 1951.
Payne was sent to Korea, via Japan, in September 1952. He joined the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). Payne also served in:
- Headquarters, 28th British Commonwealth Brigade, in 1953
- Malaysia between 1963 to 1965, with 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR)
- Scheyville Officer Training Unit as an instructor, June 1965
- Papua New Guinea, with 2nd Pacific Islands Regiment, 1967 to 1968.
Payne joined the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) in February 1969. The AATTV was a specialist team first raised in 1962. Its job was to train and advise local soldiers, including the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), Montagnards, Territorial Forces (Regional Force and Popular Force) and Mobile Strike (Mike) Forces.
Although its role was to train and advise, AATTV members faced some of the most dangerous fighting during the conflict. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the AATTV during the Vietnam conflict and its members received 100 decorations in total.
Payne was the fourth Australian to receive an Imperial Victoria Cross in the Vietnam War. He was also the last Australian to receive the original VC and highest recognition of valour in the British honours system.
Payne commanded the 212 Company of the 1st Mobile Strike Force Battalion at Pleiku in Central Vietnam. He worked alongside Vietnamese Montagnards and American Special Forces.
On 24 May 1969, Payne and his company were attacked by a larger North Vietnamese force in Kontum Province. Surrounded and under heavy mortar and rocket fire:
'.. the indigenous soldiers began to fall back. Directly exposing himself to the enemy's fire, Warrant Officer Payne, through his own efforts, temporarily held off the assaults by alternately firing his weapon and running from position to position collecting grenades and throwing them at the assaulting enemy.
[Victoria Cross citation, The London Gazette, 1969]
Ignoring the pain from his wounded hand and arm, Payne continued hurling grenades and firing his gun, attempting to cover his troops.
Still under fire, he then ran across exposed ground to head off his own troops who were withdrawing in disorder. He successfully stopped them and organised the remnants of his and the second company into a temporary defensive perimeter by nightfall.
[Victoria Cross citation, The London Gazette, 1969]
That night, 'at great personal risk', Payne headed off into the darkness to find the men under his command who had scattered in panic during the fighting. Some were wounded.
Over 3 hours, amidst continuing enemy gunfire, Payne searched the area for his men. He organised the rescue of 40 wounded and stranded soldiers who had been separated from the rest of the unit. He also helped a seriously wounded United States. Several hours later, in the early hours of the morning, Payne and his men made it safely back to base after a long trek.
Payne received medals for his bravery from Britain, the United States and the Republic of Vietnam.
He was presented with his VC by Queen Elizabeth II in Brisbane on 13 April 1970. His wife, Florence, and sons Ronald, Gregory, Colin, Ian and Derek all attended the ceremony aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia.
Speaking about the events of the night that led to his VC, Payne said:
You have a responsibility and my responsibility was, I was the company commander, and it was my responsibility to look after my soldiers. And, basically, that's all that happened, but it happened under very arduous circumstances. You either accept the responsibility or you bloody well don't.
[Keith Payne, interview with Michael Madden, 2017]
Payne left the Australian Army in 1975. Australia's war in Vietnam had ended with the new Whitlam government. But, in an interview at the time, Payne said that he thought, despite the new government's policy, the threat of communism remained. He flew to Oman to serve as a captain in the Army of the Sultan of Oman during the Dhofar War. He remained there until 1976.
Life after the war
Like many veterans, life after the war was difficult for Payne and his family. The trauma of Payne's war service, particularly that of Vietnam, haunted his sleep and made his temper short. In a 2020 documentary by filmmaker Max Uechtritz, Payne and his family recalled his anger and drinking issues, in response to his war service. His sons learned how to avoid their father's quick change of mood. Flo, his wife, told him he needed to get help or risk losing his family.
Payne remembers telling himself:
Get yourself together, Payne, yer bloody donkey! What are you doing?
[Keith Payne, in An Australian Hero: Keith Payne VC, 2020]
From that point, Payne turned his life around, for his family and other 'diggers'. He worked tirelessly on behalf veterans and service personnel. He lobbied for the recognition of Indigenous service personnel. He asked the Australian Government, along with others, to recognise Edward Sheean with a VC. Payne also pushed for better health and mental care services for veterans. In 2020, he auctioned his slouch hat[ABC] to raise money for charity.
In 2006, Payne was recognised with a Medal of the Order of Australia. In 2015, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to veterans and their families.
Payne's medals and official portrait are held by the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
- Australian Broadcasting Commission, 13 July 2020, 'Keith Payne VC slouch hat raises $30,000 for charity and will remain in Mackay', accessed 15 September 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-07-13/keith-payne-vc-slouch-hat-handover/12448812
- Australian War Memorial, undated, 'Medal of the Order of Australia: K Payne VC', accessed 1 September 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/REL48055.002
- Australian War Memorial Oral History Program, 21 June 2001, Interview by Bill Fogerty with Keith Payne VC, accessed 1 September 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/S02290
- Australian War Memorial, n.d., 'Warrant Officer Class 2, Keith Payne', accessed 1 September 2021, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P10676775
- 1970 'Honoured by the Queen', The Canberra Times, 28 April, p 17, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article107922253
- 1975 'Australian VC will fight in Oman', The Canberra Times, 18 April, p 3, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article116343142
- Michael C. Madden, 2017, episode 11 Keith Payne VC AM, part 1, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WARooRBaQk0
- Robert Macklin, 2011, Bravest: Australia's greatest war heroes and how they won their medals, Allen & Unwin.
- SBS, An Australian Hero: Keith Payne VC, documentary, 27 May 2020.
- The London Gazette, 19 September 1969, 44938:9703, accessed 1 September 2021, https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/44938/supplement/9703
- Wikipedia contributors, 2021, 'Keith Payne' accessed 1 September 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Payne