Army Pilot Receives Medal of Honor

Army Pilot Receives Medal of Honor

Capt. Larry Taylor
Photo by: Lewis D. Ray

More than 55 years after a harrowing rescue in Vietnam, former Army aviator Capt. Larry Taylor received the Medal of Honor during a Sept. 5 ceremony at the White House.

In June 1968 near Ap Go Cong, Vietnam, Taylor, flying an AH-1 Cobra gunship, repeatedly braved enemy fire to rescue a four-man long-range reconnaissance patrol team that was surrounded by a much larger enemy force.

Taylor “refused to give up, refused to leave a fellow American behind, refused to put his own life above the lives of others in need,” President Joe Biden said during the ceremony. “When duty called, Larry did everything to answer, and because of that, he rewrote the fate of four families for generations to come,” Biden said. “That’s valor. That’s our nation at our very best.”

A native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Taylor was a first lieutenant and a team leader of a helicopter light-fire team with D Troop (Air), 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division on June 18, 1968. The soldiers were deployed to support a long-range reconnaissance patrol near the hamlet of Ap Go Cong.

“It was pitch black, no moon, no stars, no light beyond the glow of Lt. Taylor’s cockpit controls, when he heard a whisper coming through his radio, ‘We’re surrounded,’ ” Biden said.

The four-man team had set out earlier in the day on a reconnaissance mission, but “in the dark, the men had found themselves in the middle of a Viet Cong stronghold,” surrounded by nearly 100 enemy soldiers, Biden said.

Taylor and his wingmen raced toward team. The soldiers were trapped “in the middle of a rice paddy larger than a football stadium, surrounded by a reinforced company of North Vietnamese,” Taylor told Freedom Sings USA, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit that pairs professional songwriters with veterans, service members and their families to help tell their stories through song.

“I heard the plink of enemy bullets as they found their mark on my Cobra and returned in kind,” Taylor said, according to Freedom Sings. “No one shot at me twice. No one ever shot at a Cobra twice. Miniguns ripped the air with a stream of lead and rockets smashed the ground with explosive death, but the enemy refused to surrender with their prey so close.”

Taylor radioed the patrol team, asking the four soldiers to mark their location with flares, according to the White House. “The flare went up, and the fight was on,” Biden said. Enemy fire lit up the night, and the Cobras flew “dangerously low” for nearly half an hour, he said.

Using the illumination as a reference point, Taylor and his wingman strafed the enemy with miniguns and aerial rockets. “Then Lt. Taylor heard a sound that only meant one thing—his helo was hit,” Biden said. “And it was hit again and again and again.”

At that point, Army standards said he could have left the fight, Biden said. “But Lt. Taylor had his own sacred standards. You never leave a man on the ground,” he said.

With both helicopters nearly out of ammunition and the enemy still closing in, Taylor learned that a plan to rescue the soldiers with a UH-1 Huey helicopter had been canceled because it was deemed too dangerous. “Running low on fuel, with the patrol team nearly out of ammunition, Taylor decided to extract the team using his two-man Cobra helicopter, a feat that had never been accomplished or even attempted,” according to the White House.

Taylor directed his wingman to fire his remaining minigun rounds along the eastern flank of the patrol team and return to base camp. Taylor then fired his own minigun along the team’s western flank, using his Cobra’s landing lights to draw the enemy’s attention while the patrol team moved to a nearby extraction point.

“Taylor landed his Cobra under heavy enemy fire and with complete disregard for his personal safety,” according to the White House. The team climbed aboard, grabbing on to rocket pods and skids, and Taylor flew them to safety.

David Hill was one of the men Taylor saved. “Hell, we were dead,” Hill said, according to Stars and Stripes. “The fortunes of war had turned against us that night.”

The two men became friends after that night. Last year, on the 54th anniversary of the rescue, Hill thanked Taylor for his valor. “Who would have bet that any of us would have even seen the sun come up on the morning of 19 June 1968, let alone the dawns of another 54 years,” Hill said, according to the Army. “Words are inadequate to describe your actions, nor my humble gratitude, for the many years of friendship given you and me since then.”

Taylor said he was just doing his job, according to Stars and Stripes. “I knew that if I did not go down and get them, they would not make it.”

For Hill, Taylor’s actions were worthy of the nation’s highest award for valor. “Larry not only did his job. He went way, way above the call of duty,” Hill said, according to Stars and Stripes. Hill, the only surviving member of the four-man reconnaissance team, spent more than seven years trying to get Taylor’s Silver Star upgraded.

When Biden called Taylor earlier this summer to tell him he would be receiving the Medal of Honor, the former captain had a simple response. “His response was, ‘I thought you had to do something to receive the Medal of Honor,’ ” Biden said. “Well, Larry, you sure as hell did something. You ask anyone here, I’m pretty sure they’d say you did something extraordinary.”

A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Taylor was commissioned in 1966. He qualified as an Army aviator a year later, serving in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot from August 1967 to August 1968, according to the White House.

Taylor flew more than 2,000 combat missions and was awarded 61 combat decorations, including the Silver Star for his actions to save the patrol team, 43 Air Medals, a Bronze Star and two Distinguished Flying Crosses, according to the Army.

“I’d flown thousands of missions in Vietnam and saved countless lives, but none had meant so much to me as the four I’d saved that night,” Taylor said, according to Freedom Sings.

He always knew he wanted to serve in the military, Taylor told Freedom Sings. “My granddaddy fought in the Civil War, my great uncle in World War I and my dad and uncles in World War II,” Taylor told Freedom Sings. “I didn't have to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. It was the honor of my life.”