President Joe Biden awarded the Medal of Honor on Tuesday to Capt. Larry Taylor, a Vietnam War pilot who flew his attack helicopter into heavy enemy gunfire until he ran out of ammunition, then led a daring rescue of a small team of soldiers who had been left for dead.
It was June 18, 1968. A four-man, long-range reconnaissance patrol team was surrounded and about to be overrun by more than 100 Vietnamese enemy fighters.
Taylor, flying one of two AH-1G Cobra helicopters, reached the battlefield just northeast of Saigon. He slammed the advancing enemy with rockets and minigun fire for nearly an hour, trying to buy time for a rescue helicopter to arrive. But that rescue mission was called off when leaders determined the four-man team on the ground were certain to die and that rescue craft would be shot down.
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Taylor’s aircraft was so heavily damaged that it was at a huge risk of losing function, and he was ordered to retreat back to base.
But he refused the order.
Taylor, piloting his two-man attack helicopter, initiated his own unconventional and dangerous rescue attempt.
“It’s incredible. How he refused to give up, refused to leave a fellow American behind. … When duty called, Larry did everything to answer,” Biden said at the White House award ceremony.
Taylor was at the White House ceremony on Tuesday, where Biden draped the highest military award for valor around his neck.
He flew over 2,000 combat missions in Cobra and UH-1 helicopters, and was forced down by enemy fire five times. After his Army service, he worked for a sheet metal and roofing company in Tennessee where he and his wife live today.
During the fighting in 1968, Taylor served with D-Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division.
The soldiers on the ground fired a flare, showing then-1st Lt. Taylor exactly where they were to avoid friendly fire. But doing so also showed the Vietnamese forces their location, inviting more intense, and precise, attacks. The enemy was so close, the helicopters were firing directly in front of the recon team.
The soldiers were directed to open ground, where the Cobra could land. In a typical situation, as the troops on the ground broke away from the enemy, they would be covered by another friendly force — in this case, attack helicopters — to rain down fire to keep the enemy pinned down and distracted.
But after some final minigun bursts, the Cobras were out of ammunition. Taylor then flew dangerously close to the enemy and did all the maneuvers of an attack run to draw their fire. Not knowing the helicopter was out of ammo and no longer a threat, the Vietnamese fighters targeted Taylor, giving the recon team time to escape.
“He drew the enemy fire himself, tricking the enemy into thinking he still had ammo,” Biden said.
Taylor, with his helicopter painted with bullet holes, landed to retrieve the recon team. But a Cobra has no cargo room for passengers; it has space only for the pilots. So the reconnaissance team held onto the skids and rocket pods outside of the helicopter. Soaked in mud, those would likely have frozen on a flight all the way back to base, so Taylor landed in a safe location, from which they made their way back on foot.
“He rewrote the fate of four families for generations to come,” Biden said. “That’s valor; that’s our nation at its very best.”
— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
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