In May 1969 Australian Keith Payne was leading a mobile strike force when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA
) attacked from three directions. What followed was to put Payne into the select band of men who have earned the Victoria Cross and survived.
Born in Queensland in August 1933, Payne became an apprentice tradesman after leaving school. He subsequently joined the Army in 1951 and served in Korea and Malaya before being appointed to the elite Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV
) in February 1969.
On May 24th of that year, Chief Warrant Officer (WO-2) Payne was commanding the 212th Company of the 1st Mobile Strike Force
in Kontum when the NVA launched a powerful assault. With the company isolated and coming under heavy rocket and mortar fire, Payne’s Indigenous troops began to retreat. Despite being wounded in the hands and arms, he covered the withdrawal before successfully establishing a defensive perimeter.
With night falling, Payne rushed back alone into enemy territory to search for survivors. Evading the Communist’s fire, the 35-year old Australian spent three hours rescuing forty men who’d been wounded or stranded during the initial attack. Despite the danger, his injuries and undoubted fatigue, he successfully led the party, which included a wounded American advisor, back behind the defensive perimeter and on to the battalion base, arriving at 3am.
Payne’s bravery on that night earned him the Victoria Cross, Britain and the Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by the United States, and the Republic of Vietnam presented him with the Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star.1
After Vietnam Payne was posted to the Royal Military College of Australia as an instructor, before retiring from the Army in 1975.
Keith Payne was one of only four men to earn the Victoria Cross in Vietnam. The others were:
WO-2 Kevin Wheatley – AATTV (posthumous award)
Maj. Peter Badcoe - AATTV (posthumous award)
WO-2 Ray Simpson - AATTV
1. A soldier must be in the U.S. military in order to qualify for the Medal of Honor.