First appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Apr 18 2020
Keith Payne knows all about unusual Anzac Days.
Australia’s oldest surviving Victoria Cross recipient will spend April 25 in social isolation at home with his wife Flo.
The 86-year-old will listen to the dawn service on the radio and “say hello to those who never made it home”.
The Australian flag will be flying in the front yard of their Mackay home in Queensland and Colin, one of their five sons, will be on hand to help.
“This is a strange old Anzac Day under the circumstances … but from the veterans’ point of view, they’ve had some Anzac Days in some strange bloody places” Mr Payne told AAP.
In a decorated army career over a quarter of a century, April 25, 1952 stands out.
“Standing in a hole on a bloody hill, looking down over a valley into North Korea – it wasn’t pleasantly cold, it wasn’t pleasantly warm, it was a bugger of a morning to be on picket,” he said.
“The circumstances weren’t as comfortable as they could have been, but that made me a veteran.
“I was a whole 19.”
Seventeen years later, at Ben Ket in Vietnam, Warrant Officer II Payne was wounded when his unit came under attack.
He helped 40 comrades to safety and the incredible details in his Victoria Cross citation underscore two truths about the medal.
Very few service personnel are awarded the peak award for gallantry and fewer still survive what happened to receive it.
Mr Payne left the army in 1975 and the oldest of the four Australian surviving VC recipients is a proud supporter of veterans’ causes.
This year he is helping to promote Diggers Tribute, a website where the public can donate to veteran charities.
Online fundraising will be crucial this year, given there will be no public gatherings and traditional tin rattles.
“The public always find a way to dip into the purse and help the veterans,” Mr Payne said.
“I have no doubt even though there’s no parade, the general public will find some way.”
The optimism is typical of Mr Payne – a 15-minute telephone interview is punctuated with roars of laughter.
The hearing isn’t the best, but he knows his is a good life.
“I’m young and good looking and the ladies are still chasing me,” he said.
But life also has been hard – Ian, the fourth of their five sons, has died.
As Mr Payne talks about the loss of Ian, soon he is drawn to other memories.
“There were two fellows at an Anzac Day luncheon, sitting together and enjoying a beer and having a laugh,” he said.
“I recall the time they shared a bit of shrapnel from a mortar bomb and they were lying together in a shelter and the blood from the field dressings was mingling.
“Here they were, all these years later, like brothers. Probably closer than brothers.”