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. 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 hand 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 his withdrawal by 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. He finally collected forty lost soldiers, some of whom had been wounded and returned with this group to the temporary defensive position 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 advisor 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 saved the lives of a large number of his indigenous soldiers 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. Reference:www.rememberancedriveway.org.au
IN THE WORDS OF MR. KEITH PAYNE
“The smell, the noise, the carnage you see, you can’t teach anybody those things. You can’t tell ‘em about battle and make them understand it until they are actually in the situation.
In 1968, I was called back to go on the course for the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam. I left Australia in February of 1969. In my case, I was allotted to the US Special Forces as a Company Commander of Mobile Strike Force, operating out of Pleiku. The troops were all indigenous Motagnard soldiers, who were closely related to the Gurkhas, which, as Australians would know, they were mountain people. They knew how to use the jungle, which was an advantage to us.
Didn’t matter where you went in Vietnam, you were likely to run into trouble. There was information coming down that Ben Het Special Forces Camp was under siege, which led, now, into 24th May. My company went in on the first afternoon and they assaulted us simultaneously from the left and right flank, and from the front. The volume of fire, and everything that was coming and out-going, it’s amazing how much ammunition can be expended in your direction and you don’t get hit.
The enemy had come onto the hill. He was firing single shots. It was quite obvious that he was shooting the wounded. Those sort of things will stick in my mind forever. As the Company Commander, it’s my responsibility to get as many soldiers out of the field as I can. I thought it was easier for me to get up there on my own, get some wounded off. I was pickin’ up people here, there and everywhere. I had a bit of a rest and a smoke – bearing in mind I’d been wounded earlier in the afternoon, and then I got hit again later in the afternoon. It’s starting to get dangerous to go up there again. And I thought, “Well, best I get all of these people back.” We arrived back in the other position about 2 in the morning, with about 40 little souls”
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