Australian Army Training Team
Warrant Officer Class Two
Keith Payne was born at Ingham in Queensland, Australia, on 30 August 1933. After leaving school he worked as an apprentice cabinetmaker and spent a short period in the Citizen Military Forces as a reserve soldier. He enlisted in the regular army on 13 August 1951, and was posted as an infantryman to the 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) in September 1952.
He served in Korea with 1 RAR from April 1952 until March 1953, followed by service with the 28th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade before returning to Queensland in September 1953. He married Florence Plaw, a female soldier, on 5 December 1954.
After a period of service training cadets and national servicemen, he was posted to the 3rd Battalion (3 RAR) in February 1960. He saw further overseas service with that Battalion in Malaya, and was promoted to sergeant on 1 June 1961. He joined the 5th Battalion (5 RAR) in February 1965 and was promoted to Warrant Officer in June of that year. This was followed by postings to the Officer Training Unit and with the 2nd Pacific Islands Regiment in Papua New Guinea. He was appointed to the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam on 24 February 1969.
Payne's initial duties in Vietnam were with a mobile strike force that was reconnoitering enemy infiltration routes from Laos into Vietnam. These routes were being used to surround the newly established Ben Hut Special Forces camp. On 24 May Payne was commanding the 212th Company of the 1st Mobile Strike Force Battalion when the unit's hilltop position was attacked by a large North Vietnamese force. A barrage of rockets, mortars and machine gun fire hit the two forward companies from three directions simultaneously. The indigenous soldiers under Payne's command faltered, forcing Payne to mount a vigorous single-handed defence, firing his rifle and throwing grenades to keep the enemy from over-running his panicked soldiers. In the process, he was wounded in the hands, upper arm and hip by shrapnel from rockets and mortar rounds.
The US officer commanding the battalion decided to make a fighting withdrawal back to base. With a small number of soldiers from his company, which had suffered heavy casualties, Payne covered the withdrawal of the rest of the force, again relying heavily on gunfire and grenades to hold off the enemy. By nightfall Payne had gathered a composite party of survivors from his own and another company into a small defensive perimeter about 350 metres from the hill they had previously occupied, and which was now in the hands of the North Vietnamese enemy.
In darkness, Payne, on his own initiative, set off to find other survivors who had been cut off during the confused withdrawal. At around 9 p.m. he found one such group, having followed the fluorescence created by their movement through the rotting vegetable matter on the ground. This was followed by similar searches over hundreds of metres of dark jungle over the next three hours. Throughout, enemy soldiers were also searching the area and occasionally firing, but Payne was able to locate 40 men, several of whom were wounded, some of whom Payne personally dragged to safety. He organised for others who were not wounded to crawl out taking the wounded with them.
He led his group of rescued soldiers back to the temporary perimeter only to find that it had been abandoned when the remaining troops withdrew back to the battalion base. Undeterred, he led his party, along with another group of wounded he encountered on the way, back to the battalion base, arriving at around 3 a.m.
Payne was evacuated from Vietnam in September 1969 and received a warm public welcome back in Australia. He was presented with his Victoria Cross by the Queen aboard the royal yacht Britannia at Brisbane on 13 April 1970. He was also awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, while the Republic of Vietnam honoured him with its Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star. He served as an instructor at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and as a cadre staff with a reserve infantry battalion before his retirement from the army in 1975. He saw further action when he fought with the army of the Sultan of Oman as a captain in 1975 and 1976.
Keith Payne is still living in Queensland, Australia.
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