Larry Taylor: Medal of Honor Award, 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)
It’s always an honor to take time on Veterans Day to recognize the service of generations of American warriors. This year, I invite you to learn about one such veteran among them, Capt. Larry Taylor, 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 the 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 some 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, who I first met two decades ago. The account of his actions follows.
For context, 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 was forced down five times. 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 action rises above the others.
Taylor received the Silver Star for his heroic role in a rescue operation on the night of 18 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 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. 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 went on to the Army Flight School at Fort Walters, Texas.
According to Larry: “I was in Armor branch [and] they said, ‘Well, what do you think about this tank?’ I said, ‘It sucks. I want to go to flight school.’”
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. I couldn’t wait to get to Vietnam. Lord forgive my innocence.”
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 was 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, “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 Larry survived in order to ensure the members of an LRRP would also survive is epic among Army Cavalry combat helicopter pilots.
On that June night in ‘68 he was called to action: “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 Wild Cat 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.”)
Larry: “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.”
He says in less than a half hour: “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 Bill 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.”
From the ground: “God, we’re going to die out here.”
Larry: “Not on my watch!”
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 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!”
According to 1-4 CAV folklore, at some point in the communication exchange that night, “one of the pilots” inadvertently expressed, over an open mic, his frustration with the denial to land, accusing the officer in the chain of command above him of “having unnatural relations with their mother.” (Combat vets will get that reference immediately.)
Hill says in the deadly darkness of that night, “All of a sudden we feel this down draft of wind, and here comes Taylor’s Cobra and he’s landing.”
The LRRP team was out of ammo as they ran for Taylor’s bird, but Dave Hill had a bag of grenades. He intentionally fell back behind the other three, providing cover by stopping every ten yards and throwing grenades toward the enemy lines. He was also awarded a Silver Star for his actions that night.
Of course, 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.” Hill was one who straddled a rocket pod and “rode it like a horse backwards” out of harm’s way.
Ratliff advised Taylor that their low fuel warning lights had come on before setting down in that rice paddy. As they lifted off he said they had less than 20 minutes. But the flight time to get the LRRP out of harms way and then 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.
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 of the LRRP’s 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.”
Of his actions, Larry simply observed: “That is your job. 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. … 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.”
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, “One of the gaps in my life is Larry never got his due, so, that’s our crusade in our lives at this point.”
The advocacy for Larry’s DD149 Request for Reconsideration review and upgrade of his Silver Star to a Medal of Honor is being led by 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.
Larry Taylor, thank you.
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(Visit the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center website.)
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