Keith Payne VC
No One Left Behind
Keith Payne VC
Sydney, NSW: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2021
Hardback 448pp RRP $49.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, April 2022
Warrant Officer Keith Payne is the last Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross under the Imperial Awards prior to the adoption of the Victoria Cross for Australia in the Australian Honours System in 1991. Being an Imperial award, it is presented by Queen Elizabeth II, and Keith insisted it be presented in his home state of Queensland rather than at Government House, Canberra. Granted his request, the investiture took place on the Royal Yacht Britannia in Brisbane on Anzac Day 1970.
This story is not the ‘sanitised for public’ version suitable for a public figure, but a ‘warts and all’ account. Keith, as the fourth child born in 1933, grew up in Ingham Queensland and lived an almost ‘Huckleberry Finn’ existence – missing school, fishing, shooting, and trapping to help support the family and the four more siblings born after him.
Leaving school at 14 years of age, Keith turned his hand to cane cutting, droving and apprentice cabinet maker. He joined the Regimental Cadets and his officer commanding told Keith he was 18, [not 16 as Keith insisted] thus enabling him to be paid for parading! At 17 Keith joined the Regular Army at Enoggera Barracks, Brisbane and in 1952 joined Australia’s K-Force as part of the British Commonwealth Occupational Force on Shikoku, Japan. Two days before his 19th birthday, he was on his way to South Korea and in September, fired his first shot in anger. Keith fractured his cheekbone in a vehicle accident just before he was due to come back to Australia.
In 1954, whilst on a driving course, Keith met Flo, his wife to be, in the Soldiers’ Club at Enoggera and they married in December that year. By 1962, Keith and Flo had five sons, and the entire family accompanied Keith to Malaysia during the Confrontation. After that Keith became an instructor at the Officer Training Unit for national serviceman at Scheyville, NSW before being posted to the Second Battalion of the Pacific Islands Regiment [2 PIR] at Wewak in New Guinea, again with his family. Keith was now leading patrols along the PNG-Irian Jaya border.
In February 1969, after ‘pulling strings’ to overcome his non-combat medical classification, Keith arrived in Vietnam as part of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam [AATTV]. His role was to lead a company of Montagnard [indigenous mountain soldiers on patrols close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail that was used to infiltrate men and equipment into South Vietnam from North Vietnam. It was close to the Cambodian border in mountainous jungle that his force encountered a far stronger North Vietnamese Army force that wounded Payne and numerous of his men, placing them all in grave danger. In trying to withdraw to other friendly forces, it became evident in the darkness that many of the men were disoriented, and Keith went forward and directed them to a safe rendezvous before crawling on hands and knees for hours with a seriously wounded officer across his back in an effort to get medical help for him. The loss of this officer and not being able to get his body back then haunted Keith for decades. His actions on this patrol resulted in Keith Payne being awarded the Victoria Cross.
The next three decades became a roller coaster as PTSD wreaked havoc with Keith’s health and mental well-being. No employment fulfilled his needs, his alcohol consumption soared, and his family had to weather his extreme highs and lows. Financial stress saw Keith sell his VC, but fortunately his full set of medals now reside in the Australian War Memorial.
Making the most of old acquaintances and by spending time out in his beloved bush with indigenous soldiers in Northern Australia, Keith gradually began to make headway against his PTSD. Today he admits to still not having fully recovered from it. He and Flo have selflessly devoted their time and effort to fight for just treatment of veterans suffering from the defoliant Agent Orange, PTSD as well as the frightening number of veteran suicides.
This is a well-written and easy-to-read autobiography. It contains a good measure of expletives in the appropriate places, an insert of historic and current photographs, a lengthy glossary at the front and an excellent Index.
It is a fine work that enables the reader to look inside one of Australia’s few ‘Living Treasures’.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.