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This pilot rescued troops in Vietnam and earned the Medal of Honor

On September 5, 2023, President Joe Biden presented the Medal of Honor to Captain Larry Taylor for conspicuous gallantry.
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On September 5, 2023, President Joe Biden presented the Medal of Honor to Captain Larry Taylor for conspicuous gallantry displayed as an attack helicopter gunship pilot during the Vietnam War. Taylor’s previous award of a Silver Star was upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award.

larry taylor portrait
Prior to the formation of the Army’s Aviation branch, aviators like Taylor came from other branches like the Armor or Engineer branches (U.S. Army)

Taylor attended the University of Tennessee and commissioned as an Armor Officer through ROTC in 1966. However, he volunteered to fly the Army’s new AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter and attended flight school. In August 1967, after earning his wings, Taylor was sent to Vietnam with D Troop (Air), 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division.

larry taylor medal of honor
Taylor flew both the UH-1 Iroquois and AH-1 Cobra in Vietnam (U.S. Army)

On the night of June 18, 1968, a distress call came to Taylor’s base; a four-man long-range reconnaissance patrol team was surrounded and in danger of being overrun. In two minutes, Taylor and his co-pilot spun up their Cobra and flew into the pitch-black night. They kept their gunship’s lights off to avoid giving away their position or that of the patrol. “I didn’t think I was ever going to find them,” Taylor recounted via Army News Service.

The recon team was tracking North Vietnamese troop movement when a large enemy force took up positions around them and cut off their escape. Air support was the only chance that the four soldiers had of surviving the night. Luckily, Taylor and another Cobra crew arrived in the area of the surrounded patrol. Needing to identify the Americans in the darkness to prevent friendly fire, Taylor radioed for them to pop flares. “We knew we would be discovered at some point because we were surrounded,” said Sergeant David Hill, one of the LRRP soldiers, via Army News Service. “We popped the flares, and all hell broke loose.”

With the American position marked, bullets and rocket-propelled grenades impacted all around the surrounded troops. From above, Taylor and his wingman fired on the enemy muzzle flashes with rockets and mini-guns. Flying low over the battlefield, both Cobras took heavy enemy ground fire as they made attack runs to protect the troops on the ground. After 35 minutes of fighting, the patrol expended nearly all of their ammunition. Both Cobras were also running out of ammo and, crucially, fuel.

Taylor devised a daring rescue plan which he relayed to his wingman and the patrol. The Cobras expended the last of their munitions on the flanks of the American positions. Then, Taylor switched on his gunship’s landing lights to distract the enemy. Meanwhile, the patrol repositioned the last of their claymore mines and fired them to cover their escape into a nearby rice paddy where they linked up with Taylor.

The Cobra was developed from the Iroquois as a dedicated attack helicopter gunship (U.S. Army)

The Cobra is a two-seater aircraft, with barely enough room for Taylor and his co-pilot. Desperate times call for desperate measures though, so the patrol went for a spur ride. Taylor landed in the rice paddy and the four soldiers climbed under his helicopter, onto the rocket pods and skids. With his fellow soldiers hanging on for their lives, Taylor lifted off and flew them out of the battle zone.

According to President Biden’s speech during the Medal of Honor ceremony, Taylor took off for the rescue mission with 1,600 pounds of fuel; when he took of from the rice paddy, he only had 6 pounds left. Unable to make it back to base, and with the wind freezing the soldiers outside his Cobra, Taylor located a friendly area to land. Once on the ground, the four-man team dismounted the helicopter and disappeared into the jungle once more, stopping only to turn and salute Taylor. It would be over 30 years before Taylor met some of the men he saved at Vietnam veteran reunions. During his Army career, Taylor flew over 2,000 combat missions and earned 43 Air Medals, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

larry taylor unit photo
Dave Hill (left), Larry Taylor (center), and Paul Elsner, patrol team lead, pose for a photo at annual unit reunion in 1999. This was the first time Hill and Elsner met Taylor since he rescued them in 1968 (Dave Hill via U.S. Army)

All eight soldiers involved in the battle received awards, including Silver Stars. However, they agreed that Taylor distinguished himself that night. “Larry not only did his job, he went way above and beyond his duty at great risk of life,” Hill said. “It was a failure at the time to adequately recognize his valor, his courage, his dedication, and we were determined to turn that around.” Hill is the only other surviving soldier from the battle to witness the upgrade of Taylor’s Silver Star to the Medal of Honor. On September 17, 2023, Taylor’s hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee is holding a Patriot’s Day parade in his honor.

Feature Image: U.S. Army