b. 30/08/1933 Ingham, Queensland, Australia.
Keith Payne (1933-) was born at Ingham, Queensland, on 30th August 1933, the son of Romilda (Millie) Hussey and Henry Thomas Payne. He attended Ingham State School and later became an apprentice cabinet-maker. Dissatisfied with working as a tradesman, Payne joined the Australian Army in August 1951 and, after brief period in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF), was posted to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in September the following year.
Payne served with his unit in the Korean War from April 1952 to March 1953. He married Florence Plaw, a member of the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps, in December 1954, and was promoted to Corporal the following year. Payne served in Malaya with this unit and in 1965, now a Sergeant, he joined the 5th Battalion. In June 1965, by now a Warrant Officer Class II, Payne was a fieldcraft instructor on the staff of the Officer Training Unit, Scheyville, established to commission national servicemen. In February 1967 he was posted to Papua New Guinea where he served with the 2nd Battalion, Pacific Islands Regiment. He remained there until March 1968 when he returned to Brisbane. On 24th February 1969 he was posted to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV).
On 24th May 1969, in Kontum Province, Warrant Officer Payne was commanding 212th Company of 1st Mobile Strike Force Battalion when the Battalion was attacked by a North Vietnamese force of superior strength.
The enemy isolated the two leading companies, one of which was Warrant Officer Payne’s, and with heavy mortar and rocket support assaulted their position from three directions simultaneously. Under this heavy attack, 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 alternatively firing his weapon and running from position to position collecting grenades and throwing them at the assaulting enemy. While doing this, he was wounded in the hands and arms.
Despite his outstanding efforts, the indigenous soldiers gave way under the enemy’s increased pressure and the Battalion Commander, together with several advisors and a few soldiers, withdrew. Paying no attention to his wounds and under extremely heavy enemy fire, Warrant Officer Payne covered this withdrawal by again throwing grenades and firing his own weapon at the enemy who were attempting to follow up.
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. Having achieved this, Warrant Officer Payne of his own accord and at great personal risk, moved out of the perimeter into the darkness alone in an attempt to find the wounded and other indigenous soldiers. Some had been left on the position and others were scattered in the area.
Although the enemy were still occupying the previous position, Warrant Officer Payne, with complete disregard for his own life, crawled back on to it and extricated several wounded soldiers. He then continued to search the area, in which the enemy were also moving and firing, for some three hours. He finally collected forty lost soldiers, some of whom had been wounded, and returned with this group to the temporary defensive perimeter he had left, only to find that the remainder of the battalion had moved back. Undeterred by this setback and personally assisting a seriously wounded American adviser, he led the group through the enemy to the safety of his battalion base.
Payne’s actions that night earned him the Victoria Cross, which was gazetted on 19th September 1969. He was evacuated to Brisbane in September suffering from an illness, receiving a warm reception at the airport before entering hospital. In January 1970 Payne was posted to the Royal Military College, Duntroon as an instructor. Payne received his VC from the Queen aboard the Royal Yacht, Britannia, in Brisbane on 13th April 1970. He was made a Freeman of the City and of the shire in which his hometown was located. A park in Stafford, Brisbane, (where Payne lived) was also named after him. He also received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star from the United States of America and the Republic of Vietnam awarded Payne the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star.
He was later posted to the 42nd Battalion, Royal Queensland Regiment. Payne subsequently retired from the Australian Army in 1975, but saw further action as a Captain with the Army of the Sultan of Oman against communist forces in the Dhofar War in 1975 and 1976. Payne joined the Legion of Frontiersmen in 1975 and holds the rank of an Honorary Chief Commissioner. After returning to Australia, he became active in the veteran community, particularly in counselling sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder. Payne and his wife raised five sons, and live in Mackay, Queensland. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his service to the veteran community in 2006, while Flo Payne was recognised with an OAM for her service to the community, particularly through surf lifesaving and veteran’s families, in 2011.
In September 2012 he became a Patron of the Victoria Cross Trust. The mental health ward at Greenslopes Private Hospital in Brisbane is named the Keith Payne Unit (KPU), in his honour. Payne was advanced to a Member of the Order of Australia in June 2015. The award recognised his “significant service to veterans and their families as an ambassador, patron and as an advocate for veterans’ health and welfare.” Keith is a proud member of the VC and GC Association and has attended regularly over the last 38 years. In 2014, Keith donated his medal group, then comprising of 23 medals, to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. I had the pleasure of meeting Keith and his wife Flo at the Union Jack Club in 2016, where I proudly got to buy the great man a glass of red wine, and hold his VC medal group.
Payne is a patron of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. On 19 September 2022 He attended the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by his son Colin. He represented recipients of the Victoria Cross at the 2023 Coronation of King Charles III, accompanied by his grandson, Felix.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL, CANBERRA.