Profiles of Valor: Larry Taylor — Medal of Honor Pending
“I told my men, ‘You never leave a man on the ground,’ and we never did…”
“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.” –Patrick Henry (1775)
(UPDATE: In July of 2023, the upgrade of Larry Taylor’s Silver Star to a Medal of Honor was approved, and the award was officially made on 05 September, and his citation posted accordingly. The upgrade effort was led by Gen. B.B. Bell (USA-Ret.), Advisory Board chairman of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, and Dave Hill (mentioned below) the last surviving member of the men Larry saved that deadly night 55 years ago. Bravo Zulu Larry and thank you Dave and B.B. for your vigilant persistence to ensure Larry’s valorous actions were finally, properly recognized!)
The word “hero” is too often grossly misapplied by those, especially in the media, who don’t have any context for what it actually means. Military members and veterans reject being called “heroes” for answering the call to serve our nation. First responders are ubiquitously called “heroes” and also reject that description. Though some have done heroic things, putting on a uniform does not make you a hero.
Never before was misuse of “hero” as prolific as during the ChiCom Virus pandemic, when we were inundated with “hero” proclamations, including plastic yard signs in front of homes occupied by those in the medical profession noting, “A Hero Lives Here.” Actually, not.
But in the case of Capt. Larry Taylor, the word “hero” as a reference to his valorous actions, is understated, and perhaps learning about his actions will help better define the word for those who misuse it.
It’s always an privilege on Veterans Day to recognize the service of generations of America’s Patriot Warriors. This year, I invite you to learn about one such veteran among them, who exemplifies the best character elements of all.
In the years since 1775, when the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord, generations of military Patriots have honored their solemn oaths “to support and defend” freedom. They have borne the price of extending the blessings of American Liberty from one generation to the next, and in doing so, they have left tens of thousands of accounts of heroic actions that, at their core, speak to who we are as a nation. Many of those accounts could only be told by survivors, because those most directly involved did not return.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting many of the 66 living Medal of Honor recipients, those among the 3,508 men and one woman who have been recognized by a grateful nation for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life,” valorous actions “above and beyond the call of duty.” I have profiled several of them who I knew best, including Desmond Doss (WWII Pacific), Charles Coolidge (WWII Europe), and Leo Thorsness (Vietnam).
To a person, they are among the most humble people I know — warrior bravado over good whiskey and cigars notwithstanding. Inherent in their willingness to “lay down one’s life for his friends” is a deep sense of humility, valuing the lives of others above one’s own.
Over the last century, there have been Medals of Honor approved and awarded for actions that occurred decades earlier, often posthumously. The verification process for actions that may merit a Medal of Honor are very strenuous. I profiled one such case earlier this year, the long-overdue award to Korean War Veteran Col. Ralph Puckett.
Because the nature of such actions are predicated on humility, successful petitions for those delayed awards are the result of advocacy by others, never the individual being nominated.
A pending Medal of Honor petition for consideration is that of Vietnam Veteran Capt. Larry Taylor, whom I first met two decades ago. The account of his actions follows.
To put his service into perspective, over the course of his multiple tours in Vietnam beginning with the 1st Squadron/4th U.S. Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division, Larry flew over 2,700 missions, including 1,200 combat missions in the UH-1 and Cobra, was engaged by enemy fire 340 times, and in his words: “I was shot down five times and people said, ‘you’ll get used to it.’ They lied. I never got used to it.”
He was awarded 61 combat decorations, including 44 Air Medals, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, two Bronze Stars, four Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Silver Star. There were many harrowing operations, and of course a few humorous tales associated with those awards, but one award for a death-defying rescue rises above the others.
Taylor received the Silver Star for his selfless role in a rescue operation on the night of 12 June 1968, while piloting his AH-1G “Cobra” helicopter gunship as the flight leader of his two-gunship fire team. As our military readers know, the Silver Star is the third-highest military award for valor, behind the Medal of Honor and the service branch Distinguished Service Crosses.
But in this case, his Silver Star award is not commensurate with the valorous actions of then Lt. Taylor, who provided direct fire support and then rescued an Army four-man Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) team surrounded by a numerically superior enemy force. That team was moments from being overrun and killed. The events of that dark night near the village of Ap Go Cong, Binh Duong Province, have been well documented by members of F Company, 52nd Infantry (LRP), 1st Infantry Division.
Larry Taylor grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, birthplace of the Medal of Honor and home of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. He was destined for military service: “I’d always known I’d join the military. My granddaddy fought in the Civil War, my great uncle in WWI, and my dad and uncles in WWII. I didn’t have to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. It was the honor of my life.”
His path into the Army during Vietnam was through ROTC at the University of Tennessee. Graduating in June of 1966, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He then graduated from the Armor Officers Basic Training course at Fort Knox, Kentucky, but decided Vietnam would look better from the air than the ground.
According to Larry: “I had been on the ground in Vietnam and it sucked, so I wanted to avoid all of that. So yeah, I’d rather be an ass kicker than have my ass kicked. That settles that question.”
Larry says: “My heart yearned for the clouds. I had my fixed-wing pilot’s license, and I figured a helicopter couldn’t be too difficult. There’s not much to say about helicopter school, other than it was harder than I thought. Knowing how to fly a fixed wing hadn’t helped much — if anything, the old habits made learning the helicopter a little harder — but as soon as I found the hover button, boy did my life change. I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam. Lord forgive my innocence.”
He transferred to flight training with the Fort Walters Army Flight School in Texas.
Upon graduation, Larry joined one of the earliest Army Cobra helicopter companies in Vietnam: “There were nine brand new Cobra attack helicopters waiting for us when I arrived at 1-4 CAV in Bien Hoa. We ran those things into the ground, supporting 1st Infantry Division’s Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols. Those boys wouldn’t be out 15 minutes before the Viet Cong surrounded them. The electromagnetic indicators we had in the Cobras showed us the direction of the LRRP team, and as fast as that aircraft flew, it didn’t take long to reach them; the indicators didn’t show us how to get back to base, which led to a lot of funny stories … and too many horrible ones for the Huey pilots. Not everyone who got lost made it back.”
Larry says of those flight operations that he was “scared most of the time, but that’s what we did.” He adds: “I don’t know if it was some spiritual connection or the fact that we shared a bond of brotherhood I’ve never seen anywhere else, but whenever I came in rocking my minigun … I swear I could feel the LRRP team’s relief. I was their savior. But to the enemy, I was the angel of death, come to collect their souls.”
Of all the missions he flew, one of those is epic among Army Cavalry combat helicopter pilots. It is taught in Ranger school to this day.
On one June night in 1968, he was called to action – he heard a desperate plea for help from a recon team with F Company, 52nd Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, who were surrounded by enemy VC on the northeast side of Saigon, about 30 clicks away: “The call that changed my life came at around 2100. Higher up had sent four LRRP teams to reconnoiter a small village. I’d known it was a doomed mission from the start, and told my CO as much, but sometimes the higher echelons of combat did not listen to the guys pulling the triggers. Chatter over the net crackled and screeched but the words came as clear as the desperation in the voice — ‘We’re surrounded!’”
It was Sgt. Dave Hill who radioed that he and his Wildcat 2 LRRP team — Team Leader PFC Robert P. Elsner, Sgt. Billy Cohn, and Specialist 4 Gerald Paddy, another Tennessean — were trapped. “We settled in and called for support,” Hill recounts, and Taylor, call sign “Darkhorse Three Two,” answered the call. (Larry says that “sometimes Dave’s rank varied depending on which CO he had offended that week.”)
With his co-pilot and gunner, CWO2 J.O. Ratliff, of Cody, Wyoming, alongside Taylor’s wingman, Capt. Roger D. Trickler, 31, of Daleville, Alabama, and his co-pilot and gunner, Capt. Richard Driggs LeMay Jr., 27, of New Britain, Connecticut, they fired up their birds. The next hour of their lives would involve one of the most daring rescues ever by Cobra pilots.
Notably, Taylor and Ratliff had undertaken a similar mission to extract an LRRP team under heavy enemy fire a week earlier, but in that instance as with others, a medical evacuation helicopter extracted the soldiers while Taylor and Ratliff provided cover fire. That mission earned him the first of four Distinguished Flying Crosses. But there would be no medevac on this mission.
Larry: “My heart pounded and I had to clench my fists to keep them from shaking. I’d flown over 2,000 missions, saved LRRP teams on hundreds of different occasions, but this time felt different. My copilot had drawn silent and focused after hearing the call, and he carried the same urgency that resonated in every booted step. I cursed the number of buttons and switches as I moved through the same sequence I’d done countless times before to get my Cobra started. Lights flickered to life with an electric hum as beeps and buzzes sounded through the helmet. The turbine engine whirred and the blades swatted the air. Lights, gauges, everything in check. Radio call, roger, all clear for take-off. ‘Hold on,’ I warned my copilot as I increased the throttle. The turbines screamed to life and I pulled on the collective. My stomach fell to my feet as we climbed into the sky.”
Less than half-an-hour into the mission, they arrived at a scene of total chaos and immediately started providing much-needed fire support: “We found the LRRP team in the middle of a rice paddy larger than a football stadium, surrounded by a reinforced company of North Vietnamese. We flew around that rice paddy for what seemed like an eternity providing cover while the LRRP team repositioned for extraction. I heard the plink of enemy bullets as they found their mark on my Cobra and returned in kind. 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.”
It soon became clear to Taylor and his weapons officer Ratliff the extent of the danger the LRRP faced. “They were gonna die,” says Taylor. “There were four of them and they were surrounded by about 60 [enemy combatants] in a ring.”
Larry: “It was dark, there was nothing down there with a light on and I didn’t think I was ever gonna find them. I called in illumination rounds that cast a portentous glow over the battleground, then asked when the hell the extraction would get there. ‘Stand by’ they’d told me. ‘I need those damn Hueys,’ I told them, wishing my ammo gauge had another zero after the 110. I don’t care how many helos are down, get that extract here now! More bullets plinked against the hull. A few more squeezes on the trigger and I’d be a flying chunk of metal.”
From the ground: “We’re pinned down, get us out! God, we’re going to die out here.”
“‘Not on my watch!’” I said, drawing enemy fire even as I exposed their positions. There were still too many. I radioed higher but they were about as helpful as tits on a boar. ‘I’m going to extract them myself.’ The response was ‘negative-negative-negative, you will belay that.’ They’re going to die. ‘Standby … Standby … Standby …’“
Hill, the only member of the Wild Cat 2 team still living today, described the actions of Taylor and his WO Ratliff: "Over the next 35 minutes, they continually made rocket and gun runs around us.”
Under heavy fire, Larry says, “We began to run out of rockets and run out of ammunition and you couldn’t see anything.”
When the two Cobras were dry, having spent the last of their 152 rockets and almost all of their 16,000 rounds of 7.62-mm minigun ammo, and low on fuel, Larry radioed his flight team leader and requested to “Run out to 100 yards and lay down.” By all accounts, survival prospects after making that landing were slim to none, but there were no transport helicopters in the area capable of making the extraction, and time was up.
Taylor to headquarters: “What the hell are you waiting for? Either get me a Huey, or I’m extracting them.”
Permission denied: “The area is too hot, the team needs to move two clicks southwest.”
Taylor: “What part of ‘they’re surrounded’ don’t you understand? Forget it. I’m getting my men out. … I am exercising my prerogative as the senior commander on the scene!” Taylor violated direct orders but said, “What the hell are they going to do to punish me, send me to Vietnam?”
The tactical operations center tried to wave Taylor off. They said the team was trained to escape and evade. They could handle themselves. “I told them there’s no place for them to escape and evade to,” and concluding that conversation, “Stay off my radio,” or some more colorful variation of that request.
“I switched the radio channel back to the LRRP team. ‘You guys still have your claymores?’ The answer was ‘Roger’ so I let them know, ‘I only got enough rounds for a quick pass. Set up them claymores, aim them toward the village, blow them after I make my pass, then sit tight. I’ll come find you.”
Larry: “One hundred and ten rounds from a minigun sounds like a small burp, but the explosion from a few claymores will rock the dust off a shelf from a hundred yards away.”
Hill says in the deadly darkness of that night, “We were all tapped out, we had nothing left.” As Taylor flew over us we radioed, “You’re over us now.” And, “All of a sudden we feel this down draft of wind, and here comes Taylor’s Cobra and he’s landing.”
As they descended on Hill’s position, Taylor’s co-pilot asked, “What are we going to do with them?”
Taylor responded, “I don’t know, I didn’t think that far ahead.” He turned on his landing light, so the LRRP team could find their way to him – “I didn’t have to tell them to get on.” Hill and Cohn straddled the rocket launchers like horses, but facing backwards, “Which is exciting in the dark,” Hill said. Elsner and Patty hugged the skids.
Larry’s Cobra had 17 hits before they exfilled out of the area.
The LRRP team was out of ammo but as they ran for Taylor’s bird, Dave Hill intentionally fell back behind the other three, with his bag of grenades, and provided cover by stopping every ten yards and throwing grenades toward the enemy lines. (Hill was also awarded a Silver Star for his actions that night.)
“I didn’t have to tell them to get on,” Taylor said. Of course they couldn’t get in because a Cobra gunship has no internal troop transport capability.
So the LRRP team jumped on the helicopter skids and rocket pods and held on for life. Taylor says: “Two of them jumped on the far side. They were sitting on the skid holding on to the strut and the other two jumped on the rocket pods.” They banged hard twice on the frame, that was technical military code for “haul ass.”
Elsner and Patty hugged the skids, while Hill and Cohn straddled the rocket launchers, and “rode it like a horse backwards” out of harm’s way, which Hill says, “was exciting in the dark.”
Ratliff advised Taylor that their low fuel warning lights had come on before setting down. As they lifted off, he said they had less than 20 minutes. But the flight time to get the LRRP out of harm’s way and to make the short hop to their base would take at least 25 minutes. Larry declared, “So we are going to make a 25-minute flight on 20 minutes of fuel.” No problem.
Once on safely on the ground, the four men the rescued ran to the front of the aircraft so Taylor and his co-pilot could see them, saluted the men who’d saved their lives and then they were gone. Of that moment Taylor concluded: “Well, nobody got killed. So, we managed to pull everybody out and we pulled it off. There were times when I thought, 'oh God, we’re all going to get killed.’”
Of his heroic actions and that of his copilot, Larry simply observed: “I just got caught doing my job. I didn’t plan on it. Didn’t expect it. It just happened. That’s what you do. I told my men, ‘You never leave a man on the ground,’ and we never did, and I never lost a man. Not one. We lost some aircraft, but we never lost a man. … I’d flown thousands of missions in Vietnam and saved countless lives. But none had meant so much to me as the four we saved that night, for life had never become so sweet as the night I became the angel of death … no man left behind.”
As described in the 1st Infantry Division account of his flight out: “Moving carefully but steadily upward and away from the area, still taking hits from VC small arms fire, Taylor was finally able to level off at 2,000 feet (out of small arms range) and turn southwest toward Saigon. After about 15 minutes of ‘white-knuckle’ piloting, the ‘Cobra-turned-troop-transport,’ with all four LRRPs still aboard, landed gingerly within the fenced confines of the Saigon Waterworks, near Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The team quickly jumped off, motioning their thanks to the Cobra crew via ‘thumbs-up’ and salutes, as Taylor lifted off for his Phu Loi base.”
Over the last five years, LRRP team members Dave Hill and others initiated a Department of Defense petition to review and upgrade Larry’s Silver Star to a Medal of Honor. According to Hill: “Larry Taylor is a true American hero. He literally saved my life. One of the gaps in my life is Larry never got his due, so, that’s our crusade in our lives at this point.”
But the advocacy for Larry’s DD149 Request for Reconsideration review and upgrade of his Silver Star to a Medal of Honor languished until being revitalized by my friend, Gen. B.B. Bell (USA-Ret.), advisory board chairman of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. That review is now at the Pentagon and underway and can take more than a year. Larry is battling cancer, and it is our hope that a determination on this award will come soon.
Notably, according to 1-4 CAV folklore, at some point in the communication exchange that night after being denied his request to rescue the team, “one of the pilots” accused, over an open mic, the officer in the chain of command above him of “having unnatural relations with his mother.” But the original refusal to recommend Taylor for a Medal of Honor has less to do with that insult than his direct defiance of orders. However, it is notable that many Medals of Honor have been awarded to those defying order – and that makes sense given those orders related to just how deadly the situation was.
After his Army service, Larry and his wife Toni returned to his hometown where the raised their family. He operated a successful roofing and sheet metal company until his retirement, and devoted a lot of time and energy serving other veterans through several organizations.
Larry Taylor, thank you, and we will not rest until the recognition you have earned has been confirmed.
Footnote: I should mention that when Larry returned to the U.S. in 1973 after his final combat tour, he and other veterans changed into civilian clothing before leaving the plane in San Fransisco in order not to be targeted by anti-war protestors. Unfortunately for one protestor in the airport terminal confronted Larry, ultimately spitting on his shoes, and predictably that did not end well. No word on how well that protestors broken jaw healed, but it was a fitting response.
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