In celebration of his 90th birthday on 30 August 2023, we are grateful to have the opportunity to speak with Keith Payne VC about his military career and life after Army.
Twenty-seven years ago, Keith and his loving wife Flo made the sea change to live in Mackay and it's been ‘a ball of a time’! With regular travel around Australia and visits to Norfolk Island, Keith has enjoyed catching up with old mates and spending time with his family.
WHAT WAS YOUR JOURNEY INTO THE MILITARY?
My earliest job was cutting sugar cane as a 14 year old and then my mother found me an apprenticeship at a furniture factory. Due to the Manpower Act 1946, I had to leave school at the age of 14, and I was allowed to do Regimental Cadets from the age of 15. When I was 17, I trained alongside the Citizen Military Forces because all of the ARA units were full to capacity in QLD with men volunteering for action. Keith was posted to 1RAR and 2RAR before fighting in Korea between 1952-1953 and then Malaya. Promoted to Warrant Officer Class II in 1965, Keith was posted to Pacific Islands Regiment (2nd Battalion) between 1967-1968, then in 1969, Keith was posted to Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV).
In September 1969, it was gazetted that Keith Payne would receive an Imperial Victoria Cross due to his selfless bravery and leadership during the Vietnam War. Queen Elizabeth II presented the VC in Brisbane in April 1970 and Keith received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2006 (upgraded to Member of the Order of Australia in 2015), as well as a number of other medals and awards received throughout his life. Flo Payne also received an OAM in 2011. Keith retired from the Australian Army in 1975.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE RECEIVED?
I have always been willing to learn and truly listen to other people, which has helped me to collect lots of thoughts and helpful advice in private conversations. I also learned so much in the military, especially from my Company Commander in Korea.
I became a close friend of Cutler (Sir Roden Cutler VC) and our wives were friends. He was my mentor, and his wife was my wife’s mentor – they were wonderful people.
WHAT IS YOUR FUNNIEST MEMORY FROM THE MILITARY?
There were so many moments of laughter and camaraderie throughout my military career, but one memory that I think about often is about an air mattress that I used to carry everywhere. We used it for sleeping, shelter and river crossings – it was such a handy thing! I asked one of my lads to inflate it while we were in Vietnam and once inflated, he leaned it against a tree. After days of heavy fire fights, all sorts of weather and running around trying to survive, we found the air mattress still propped up against the tree like nothing had happened! For a weary group of soldiers, this seemed like the funniest thing we had ever seen and it still makes me laugh to this day.
WHERE IS YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE TO VISIT?
Norfolk Island – it’s a favourite spot of mine. There’s so many nice people and it’s a peaceful island, with damn nice fishing! We have very close friends on Norfolk and sadly over the years, I have lost a number of friends. I recently traveled there for the 50th anniversary of Vietnam Memorial Day and it was good to catch up with lots of friends - I always make an effort to visit people while I’m there.
WHAT LIFE SKILLS DID YOU LEARN IN THE MILITARY?
We did a lot of work with Commandos and SAS, so we went through a lot of extra training for specialist skills, including diving and parachuting. I also learned a lot about life in the jungle and the challenges of that environment.
And giving orders to people – I still use that daily [laughs]!
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU GIVE TO OTHER VETERANS?
If you’re having a big problem and your life feels a bit ‘off track’, reach out for help. At this time, there are some delays in accessing support and veterans need to help other veterans as much as they can. Also, get to know your advocates and discuss your options.
We sincerely thank Keith Payne VC and Col Payne for assisting with our interview.
Interviewed by Deb Herring Community Contributor The Top Ender Magazine