ONE of Australia’s four VC recipients Keith Payne celebrated his 80th birthday on the weekend, with a who’s who of guests at the Mackay, Queensland function.
Right in the midst of it all, mixing with the likes of Ben Roberts-Smith VC, Didy Grahame OBE MVO and Lady Joan Cutler, was secretary of the Nowra-Greenwell Point RSL Sub-Branch Rick Meehan and his family.
Mr Meehan has had a close association with Mr Payne over a number of years, bringing him to the Shoalhaven as special guest of the past two Digger Days at Shoalhaven Rugby Park.
The brainchild of Mr Meehan, Digger Day sees the Shoalhaven Rugby Club pay homage to veterans with a special match in their honour.
At those clashes Mr Payne has been flown into Rugby Park by helicopter from HMAS Albatross to meet the players from both teams prior to the Last Post and the Ode being recited and stayed as special guest for the match and post-game functions.
Mr Payne was awarded the VC in Vietnam following his heroic actions in May 1969, in which he saved 40 men under his command while under heavy fire.
He was commanding the 212th Company of the 1st Mobile Strike Force Battalion when it was attacked by a strong North Vietnamese force.
His company was isolated and surrounded on three sides as Payne’s Vietnamese troops began to fall back.
Payne was wounded in the hands and arms and under heavy fire he covered the withdrawal before organising his troops into a defensive perimeter.
He then spent three hours scouring the scene of the day’s fight for isolated and wounded soldiers, all the while evading the enemy who kept up regular fire.
He found some 40 wounded men, brought some in himself and organised the rescue of the others, leading the party back to base through enemy dominated terrain.
Mr Meehan said it was an honour to be part of the celebrations with such a star-studded guest list.
Around 120 guests including family, friends and dignitaries attended the birthday celebrations at the Sorvellos Italian restaurant.
“It was very humbling for my family and I to be invited to such a prestigious event,” Mr Meehan said.
“Keith Payne is held in high esteem throughout all pillars of society from Buckingham Palace and the White House to the guy next door.”
Mr Meehan said when he received the invitation he was overwhelmed with pride.
“I wasn’t just representing the Nowra-Greenwell Point RSL Sub-Branch, but I was also representing the Shoalhaven,” he said.
“Keith is a big fan of the area. He loves it here.
“He has travelled to the Shoalhaven every year for the past four years to either support the RSL or Digger Day.
“He always enjoys his time here, and being a former professional fisherman he particularly loves the fishing.
“He is an Australian icon and is always willing to do anything to raise money for the less fortunate.
“An incredible man and even at the age of 80 I don’t think he has any plans to slow down yet.”
Mr Meehan was joined on the trip by his wife Maryann, future daughter-in-law Meaghan Marshall-Creed, daughter Kylie and son Luke.
He said one of the highlights was meeting another VC recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, who he described as a lovely gentleman.
Also on the guest list were Bunting Doran OAM and Paul Finch OAM; former VC and GC Association secretary Didy Grahame OBE MVO from the UK; Robert Kenna and Marlene Day, the son and daughter of Ted Kenna VC; Lady Joan Cutler, widow of Sir Roden Cuter VC; Major General John Pearn Army Reserves (ret); and television journalist Ray Martin.