WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden presented Larry Taylor, a Vietnam War Army helicopter pilot, with the Medal of Honor during a ceremony at the White House Sept. 5, 2023.
The president upgraded the Silver Star award that Taylor originally received for his heroic actions rescuing a four-person patrol team in 1968.
“When duty called, Larry did everything to answer,” Biden said. “Because of that, he rewrote the fate of four families for generations to come. That’s valor. That’s our nation at its very best.”
Taylor, a Chattanooga, Tennessee native, joined the Army to continue his family’s tradition of military service. His great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War; his great-uncle fought in World War I; and his father and uncles fought in World War II.
He commissioned through the Army Reserve Officer Training Program at the University of Tennessee in 1966. He volunteered as an armor officer before quickly switching to be a pilot, flying some of the Army’s first AH-1G Cobra attack helicopters.
After qualifying as an Army aviator, he was sent to Vietnam in August 1967 to serve with D Troop (Air), 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division. A distress call came into his unit late at night, June 18, 1968. A long-range reconnaissance patrol team of four Soldiers was surrounded and in danger of being overrun.
Taylor and his co-pilot had two minutes to fire up their Cobra and head out into the darkness. They only knew the general direction of the team. They were unable use the lights on the helicopter because they would give away their position and the position of the patrol team.
“I didn’t think I was ever going to find them,” Taylor recalled.
The reconnaissance team was hunkered down behind a cart path. They were on a mission in southern Vietnam to track North Vietnamese troop movement when they noticed a large enemy force positioned around them. They tried to escape the same way they came but were quickly surrounded.
Their only option was to take cover and prepare for the fight they knew was coming, said Dave Hill, rear gunner on the patrol team.
The team radioed for air support, which arrived not long after. As Taylor and his co-pilot flew overhead, they made radio contact with the men on the ground.
Taylor asked the patrol team to mark their location with flares so he and another Cobra crew could differentiate them from the enemy.
“We knew we would be discovered at some point because we were surrounded,” Hill said. “We popped the flares, and all hell broke loose.”
Bullets and rocket-propelled grenades started flying, some hitting the embankment in front of the Soldiers while others flew over their heads. Seeing enemy muzzle fire, the two Cobra gunships started making attack runs using their mini-guns and aerial rockets. According to reports, both helicopters took on intense ground fire from the enemy.
Each member of the ground patrol team engaged the enemy force with more than 600 rounds of ammunition, claymore mines and grenades. The grenadier of the unit had 75 rounds for the M-79 grenade launcher. After 35 minutes of fighting, they were nearly tapped out.
Both Cobras were close to being out of ammunition as well and running low on fuel. Thinking quickly, Taylor radioed the patrol team with a rescue plan.
He told the other gunship to fire its remaining rounds along the eastern flank of the patrol team. He would fire his remaining rounds along the western flank and then use his landing lights to draw the enemy’s attention.
He told the patrol team to reposition their claymore mines to the northeast and southeast. When the two Cobras made their attack runs, Taylor instructed the reconnaissance team to fire the mines and run to the nearby rice paddy clearing.
“That will give 'Charlie' something to think about,” Taylor said recalling his plan.
They all executed, and the patrol team met Taylor’s helicopter at the extraction point. The gunship was a two-seat aircraft with no room for passengers. It touched down under intense fire, and the Soldiers climbed under the helicopter onto the rocket-pods and landing skids.
Taylor immediately took off and got the helicopter out of firing range. He then dropped the patrol team off at a nearby safe location. Before the Cobra took off again for its return flight to base, the four Soldiers looked up at Taylor and all saluted.
“[Taylor’s] innovation was well beyond the call [of duty], as was his courage,” Hill said. Asked what chance of survival the team had without Taylor’s actions, Hill responded empathically, “absolutely zero.”
Taylor served in Vietnam until August 1968, flying more than 2,000 combat missions and taking enemy fire 340 times. It wasn’t easy but throughout the war Taylor never lost a man, he said.
“You do whatever you can to save the lives of the people you’re trying to rescue,” he explained. “Today, I’ve become lifelong friends with several of these people.”
Hill is now one of those people. Having not seen each other since that fateful night in Vietnam, they finally met at a long-range reconnaissance patrol reunion in 1999. They’ve been friends ever since and take turns attending their respective unit reunions.
The eight soldiers involved in the battle received several awards, including a few Silver Stars. Hill and a several others thought Taylor had done more to distinguish himself that night.
"Larry not only did his job, he went way above and beyond his duty at great risk of life,” Hill said. "It was a failure at the time to adequately recognize his valor, his courage, his dedication, and we were determined to turn that around."
The group contacted a congressman in Tennessee and started the process for nominating Taylor for the Medal of Honor. After more than seven years of work, they finally proved, with witness statements not previously seen, that Taylor deserved the military’s highest honor for valor.
“That’s the ultimate,” Taylor said of receiving the Medal of Honor. “You can’t get any better than that. I’m thankful that we were able to get the [Soldiers] out that night, and all four of them became lifelong friends.”
During his time in the Army, Taylor received more than 50 combat decorations, including the Silver Star, 43 Air Medals, a Bronze Star and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. He finished his military career as a captain and returned home to Tennessee where he has lived ever since.
A Patriot’s Day parade is scheduled in Chattanooga to honor him, Sept. 17, 2023.