8 July 2023

Victoria Cross recipient Keith Payne ready to drop in for Shoalhaven Digger Day

| Katrina Condie
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ex-soldier wearing medals

Keith Payne, VC, AM was awarded the Victoria Cross by Queen Elizabeth II in 1970. Photo: Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group.

Australia’s oldest surviving Victoria Cross recipient, Keith Payne VC AM, will be a special guest at the 2024 Shoalhaven Digger Day celebration on 22 July.

Mr Payne and other special guests will be flown into the event by a fleet of army helicopters before two friendly games of rugby union kick off at the Shoalhaven Rugby Park at South Nowra.

The former Australian Army soldier was awarded the Victoria Cross by Queen Elizabeth II in 1970 after being nominated for his actions as part of an Australian Army Training Team mission in May 1969 during the Vietnam War.

Mr Payne, who will turn 90 in August, is a regular face at the Digger Day event, organised by the Keith Payne VC Veterans Benefit Group (KPVCVBG), but this year spectators will see even more of him, with his face featuring on special green-and-gold jerseys.

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Event organiser Rick Meehan, from KPVCVBG, said players from the Shoalhaven Rugby Club’s first and reserve-grade teams would don the jerseys for their clash against Kiama in the annual friendly game.

“The jerseys honour Keith and he is as proud as punch,” Mr Meehan said.

“Digger Day is a celebration of our defence personnel and this year we will be lucky to have two Victoria Cross recipients coming along.”

As well as Mr Payne, New Zealand’s Bill ”Willie” Apiata VC and Australia’s last living George Cross recipient, Constable Michael Pratt of the Victoria Police, will also be in attendance.

Mr Apiata, a former corporal in the New Zealand Special Air Service, was the first recipient of the Victoria Cross for his country when he received the award in 2007 for bravery under fire during the war in Afghanistan.

Special footy jersey

The special Digger Day jersey featuring Keith Payne VC. Photo: Rick Meehan.

Mr Meehan said six descendants of VC recipients Reg Rattey VC, Albert Jacka VC, Reginald Judson VC, Dasher Wheatley VC and Teddy Sheean VC, would also be flown into the event by three helicopters from nearby HMAS Albatross.

He said the free day was open to the public and he encouraged people to come and meet the veterans, join in the festivities and watch two cracking games of rugby.

“We’ll have the Red Berets from the Albatross Army Parachute Training School dropping in and three helicopters landing on the oval right in front of you, so it will be a fantastic display and a great family day out,” Mr Meehan added.

“It will be a chance to meet the Victoria Cross recipients in person. Keith loves talking to the kids, having his photo taken and talking about his book, No One Left Behind.

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“He’s about to turn 90 and wants to slow down a little, so this could be the last time he attends our Digger Day after 13 or 14 years.”

Renowned Gold Coast violinist Rachel Bostock will also be flown in to sound a haunting string rendition of Last Post.

The military celebrations will get underway at 11:45 am on 22 July, with the rugby action to kick off at 12:45 pm. A limited number of Keith Payne VC jerseys will be available for purchase on the day for $100, with proceeds going to local veteran programs.

As well as providing a fun day out and showing support for past and serving defence personnel, Digger Day is a fundraising event for the KPVCVBG, which assists vets and funds social groups such as veterans’ surfing, music, art, and martial arts groups in the Shoalhaven area.

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