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Warrant Officer Class 2 Keith Payne

Wednesday 29 April, 2020

Warrant Office Class 2 Keith Payne

Australian Army Training Team Vietnam

24 May 1969, Kontum Province, South Vietnam

Keith Payne was born at Ingham in Queensland on 30 August 1933, the son of Henry and Romilda Payne.  From an early age he enjoyed hunting in the surrounding bushland with his brothers.  After leaving school he found work as an apprentice cabinet maker and later joined the Militia’s 31st Battalion.  Preferring the life of a soldier than that of a cabinet maker, Payne enlisted in the Australian Regular Army in August 1951.  After training, he was posted to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR).

In July 1952 Payne transferred to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) and was sent to Japan as an infantry reinforcement.  In September 1952 he was sent to Korea where he joined his unit.  Returning to Queensland, Australia in August 1953,  Payne married Florence Plaw of the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps in December of 1954.  Together they raise 5 sons. 

Queen Elizabeth II awarded Payne the Victoria Cross aboard the Royal Yacht Brittania in Brisbane on 13 April 1970.  He was also awarded the United States Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star, while the Republic of Vietnam honoured him with its Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star.

Payne left the Australian Army in March 1975 and went on to see further action in a private capacity as a captain with the army of the Sultan of Oman.  

Following a battle with post-traumatic stress, Payne and Florence became staunch advocates for the Australian veteran community.  He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 ‘for service to the community, particularly through support for youth programs and veterans groups’.  In 2015 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia ‘for significant service to veterans and their families as an ambassador, patron and as an advocate for veterans health and welfare’.

His citation reads:

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 alternately 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 Office 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.  His sustained and heroic personal efforts in this action were outstanding and undoubtedly save the lives of a large number of indigenous solders and several of his fellow advisors.  Warrant Officer Payne’s repeated acts of exceptional personal bravery and unselfish conduct in this operation were an inspiration to all Vietnamese, United States and Australian soldiers who served with him.  His conspicuous gallantry was in the highest traditions of the Australian Army.


The London Gazette

19 September 1969

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