WASHINGTON — As an Army first lieutenant and Cobra helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, Larry Taylor flew hundreds of missions and saved countless lives. But no rescue flight was as daring, or as meaningful to Taylor, as the one for which he will receive the Medal of Honor from President Joe Biden.
Biden will recognize Taylor at a ceremony next week, the White House announced Friday.
On the night of June 18, 1968, Taylor took off in his attack helicopter to rescue a four-man, long-range reconnaissance team that had become surrounded and was in danger of being overrun by enemy troops. He had to figure out a way to get them out or “they wouldn’t make it.”
David Hill, one of the men Taylor saved that night, said Taylor’s actions were what “we now call thinking outside the box.”
Hill and the three others were on a night mission to track the movement of enemy troops in a village near the Saigon River when they were found by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. An intense firefight ensued and soon they were running out of ammunition. They radioed for help.
Taylor flew off in his attack helicopter, arriving just minutes later at the site northeast of what at the time was Saigon, since renamed Ho Chi Minh City. He asked the patrol team to send up some flares to mark their location in the dark. Taylor and a pilot in an accompanying helicopter started firing their ships’ Miniguns and aerial rockets at the enemy, making low-level attack runs and braving intense ground fire for about half an hour.
But with both helicopters nearly out of ammunition and the enemy continuing to advance, Taylor surveyed the team’s intended escape route to a point near the river and concluded that the men would be overrun if they tried to get there.
He had to think of something else.
Now running low on fuel and with the reconnaissance team also nearly out of ammunition, Taylor directed his wingman to fire the rounds left in his Minigun along the team’s eastern flank and then head back to base camp, while Taylor fired his remaining rounds on the western flank. He used the helicopter’s landing lights to distract the enemy, buying time for the patrol team to head south and east toward an extraction point he had identified.
After they arrived, Taylor landed under heavy enemy fire and at great personal risk. The four team members rushed toward the helicopter and clung to the exterior — it only had two seats — and Taylor whisked them to safety. He was on the ground for about 10 seconds.
“I finally just flew up behind them and sat down on the ground,” Taylor said during a telephone interview this week. “They turned around and jumped on the aircraft. A couple were sitting on the skids. One was sitting on the rocket pods, and I don’t know where the other one was, but they beat on the side of the ship twice, which meant haul a- -. And we did!”
What Taylor did that night had never before been attempted, the Army said.
Hill put their odds of survival at “absolutely zero” without Taylor’s outside-the-box thinking.
“His innovation was well beyond the call, as was his courage,” said Hill, the only member of the patrol team still alive. “And that’s the short of it, folks.”
Taylor basically concocted the plan as he flew along.
“There’s nothing in the book that says how to do that, and I think about 90% of flying a helicopter in Vietnam was making it up as you go along,” he said. “Nobody could criticize you ’cause they couldn’t do any better than you did and they didn’t know what you were doing anyway.”
Taylor said he flew hundreds of combat missions in UH-1 and Cobra helicopters during a year’s deployment in Vietnam. “We never lost a man,” he said.
“You just do whatever is expedient and do whatever to save the lives of the people you’re trying to rescue,” he said.
Taylor was engaged by enemy fire at least 340 times and was forced down five times, according to the Army. He received scores of combat decorations, including the Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Taylor left Vietnam in August 1968, a couple months after that flight. He was released from active duty in August 1970, having attained the rank of captain, and was discharged from the Army Reserve in October 1973. He later ran a roofing and sheet metal company in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He and his wife, Toni, live in Signal Mountain, Tennessee.
Hill said he and supporters of Taylor were astonished to learn decades after that harrowing night that Taylor had not been awarded a Medal of Honor.
Taylor had been awarded a Silver Star, one of the military’s top honors for valor in combat. But to his supporters, that medal represented a “failure by the Army to adequately, or his commanders at the time, to adequately recognize his valor, his courage, his dedication” in Vietnam, and “we were determined to turn that around,” Hill said.
They wanted Taylor to have a Medal of Honor, the military’s highest decoration given to service members who go above and beyond the call of duty, often risking their lives through selfless acts of valor.
So the team dug into the process, gathering documentation, witness statements and other information, including asking Bob Corker, then Taylor’s home-state senator, for his help. After more than six years of pushing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the Army’s recommendation and forwarded Taylor’s file to Biden.
Biden signed off and called Taylor in July with the news.