The Medal of Honor has been handed out to just over 3,500 servicemen since its inception during the American Civil War. It’s a symbol of gallantry and bravery in the face of danger, and is only presented to the best of the best the US military has among its ranks. On September 5, 2023, retired US Army Capt. Larry Taylor received the honor for the daring rescue of four ground troops amid heavy enemy fire during the Vietnam War.
Larry Taylor’s early life
Larry Taylor, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on February 12, 1942, is the son of a World War II veteran. He grew up in the St. Elmo neighborhood, below Lookout Mountain, and while attending Chattanooga High School continued his family’s history of dedicated service.
In 1960, during his junior year, Taylor joined his school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program as a member of the drill team. He performed at events across the city, and by his senior year had become a Cadet Captain. He also commanded the drill team.
After high school, Taylor attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Following his graduation in 1966, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the US Army Reserve.
Opting to serve in the air
Just two months after receiving his commission, Larry Taylor entered active service with the US Army. He initially attended the Armor School at Fort Knox, Kentucky, but felt he was better suited to serving in the air, as he already had his fixed-wing pilot’s license.
After switching disciplines, Taylor was sent to the Primarily Helicopter School at Fort Wolters, Texas, after which he attended advanced helicopter training at Fort Rucker (now Fort Novosel), Alabama. On June 30, 1967, he became qualified as an Army Aviator.
In August of that year, Taylor was deployed to South Vietnam with D-Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division as a first lieutenant. During his year-long deployment, he’d fly some of the first Bell AH-1G Cobras in combat.
Launching a daring rescue against overwhelming odds
On the night of June 18, 1968, a four-man, long-range reconnaissance patrol (LLRP), codenamed Team Wildcat 2, was walking some 80 miles behind enemy lines, near the village of Ap Go Cong. Before long, the men – David Hill, Robert Elsner, William P. Cohen and Gerald Patty – became surrounded by more than 100 North Vietnamese fighters.
Aware of the situation that was unfolding, Larry Taylor, his co-pilot CWO2 J.O. Ratliff and his wingman Capt. Roger Trickler took off from base in their AH-1G Cobras, call sign Dark Horse 32. Upon arriving on scene, they found a dire situation, with the men on the ground sorely outnumbered – and outgunned.
The aim was to buy time for a rescue helicopter to arrive and save the trapped reconnaissance patrol members. As such, Taylor and his wingman spent the next hour firing their rockets and miniguns at the enemy down below. Despite their crafts suffering intense damage, the light-fire team didn’t give up.
A canceled rescue mission didn’t stop Larry Taylor
Despite the efforts of Larry Taylor and his comrades, military officials on the ground ultimately determined the four patrolmen couldn’t be saved, citing the likelihood that the rescue craft would be shot down by the North Vietnamese. Taylor and the other AH-1G Cobra were told to return to base, an order the first lieutenant refused to obey.
Taylor ordered his wingman to attack the treeline and return to base while he continued to rain down fire on the enemy. He asked the four men on the ground to light flares to assist, but this wound up revealing their location to the enemy fighters, who used the opportunity to increase the amount of gunfire.
However, Taylor’s minigun eventually ran out of ammunition. Not one to give up, he pretended to launch an attack run, all the while not letting the North Vietnamese know of his lack of firepower. This distracted the enemy long enough for the team down below to escape.
Finally in an area with enough clearance to land, Taylor waited while the four men grabbed onto the skids and rocket pods of his Cobra, which didn’t have enough interior room for them to all fit. Knowing it was impractical to fly back to base, the group went to a safe location, at which point they made the rest of journey on foot.
For his heroics, Taylor received the Silver Star.
Flying 2,000 combat missions in Vietnam
Larry Taylor served in Vietnam from August 1967 to August ’68, flying a total of 2,000 combat missions in both AH-1G Cobra and Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters. He was engaged by enemy fire 340 times and was only shot down in five instances. For his service, he was awarded 44 Air Medals, two Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and four Distinguished Flying Crosses, among other honors.
Speaking about that time of his life, the veteran told CNN, “I think about 90% of flying a helicopter in Vietnam was making it up as you go along. Nobody could criticize you because they couldn’t do it any better than you did and they didn’t know what you were doing anyway.”
Following his service in Vietnam, Taylor completed his time as an active-duty soldier in command of one of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s combat engineer companies in Nuremberg, West Germany. He was honorably discharged from active duty service on August 31, 1970, with the rank of captain, and was discharged from the US Army Reserve on October 17, 1973.
An effort to award a war hero the Medal of Honor
Larry Taylor didn’t see the members of the reconnaissance patrol for over 30 years. He met David Hill in 1999 at a reunion, and the pair became fast friends. In fact, Hill was among those to spearhead a campaign to have Taylor’s Silver Star upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
“Larry not only did his job, he went above and beyond his duty at great risk of life,” Hill told the US Army in a press release. “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 effort took years. Several of Taylor’s supporters dedicated their time to filing reports, providing written appeals, conducting interviews, and lobbying both military and government officials. They were eventually successful, with US President Joe Biden personally calling the retired Army captain to inform him of the update.
“I thought you had to do something to receive the Medal of Honor,” was Taylor’s response.
Larry Taylor receives the Medal of Honor
Just over 55 years after Larry Taylor’s heroics in Vietnam, the veteran was awarded the Medal of Honor in a ceremony held at the White House. The event was attended by other Medal of Honor recipients, including Paris Davis, Walter Marm Jr., Leroy Petry and James McCloughan.
“It’s incredible. How he refused to give up, refused to leave a fellow American behind,” Joe Biden said at the ceremony. “When duty called, Larry did everything – did everything to answer. He rewrote the fate of four families for generations to come.
“That’s valor,” he added. “That’s our nation at its very best.”
Upon receiving the decoration, Taylor said, “That’s the ultimate. 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.”