Larry Taylor, Vietnam War Pilot Lauded for Daring Rescue, Dies at 81

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Larry L. Taylor, a helicopter pilot who staged a daring rescue of four U.S. Army rangers under enemy fire in the jungles of Vietnam 55 years ago, died on Jan. 28 at his home in Signal Mountain, Tenn., five months after he was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics. He was 81.

His death was confirmed by the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, which is just south of Signal Mountain, where Mr. Taylor was born and raised.

Mustered out as a captain in 1971 after serving as a first lieutenant during his one year in Vietnam, 1967-68, Mr. Taylor earned more than 50 decorations for flying more than 2,000 combat missions in Cobra and UH-1 “Huey” copters. He was engaged by enemy fire 340 times and forced down five times.

On June 18, 1968, Lieutenant Taylor was piloting one of two helicopter gunships supporting a four-man long-range reconnaissance patrol in Binh Duong Province, northeast of Saigon, when the Rangers, trudging through a rice paddy on a moonless night, were surrounded and about to be overrun by some 100 Vietcong guerrillas. A rescue mission by two other helicopters was canceled because it seemed hopeless.

But Lieutenant Taylor, along with his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer James Ratliff, was determined to extract the four soldiers from the jungle floor — despite coming under enemy gunfire, and even though the craft was running low on ammunition and fuel. After strafing the Vietcong and diverting them with his craft’s landing lights, he ignored an order to return to base and gambled on a maneuver that the military said had never been tried before with a two-person Cobra, which has seats only for the pilot and co-pilot.

The copter alighted in a secluded spot 100 yards from the firefight, with Lieutenant Taylor giving the patrol only seconds to race to that spot. Once they got there, the Rangers clambered aboard the craft’s skids and rocket pods and clung to them as the copter flew off to a secure landing area. Deposited on the ground, the Rangers saluted their saviors and vanished into the forest before making their way safely back to their base.

Lieutenant Taylor was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. One of the four Rangers, Sgt. David Hill, lobbied three times over two decades through the military chain of command to have the White House upgrade that award to the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor. On the third try, he won the support of Burwell B. Bell III, a retired four-star general. On Sept. 5, 2023, President Biden presented Mr. Taylor with the medal in a White House ceremony.

Larry Lowe Taylor was born on Feb. 12, 1942, in Chattanooga into a family steeped in military service. A great-great-grandfather fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, a great-uncle in World War I and his uncles and his father, Robert Lee Taylor, in World War II. His father ran a roofing and sheet metal business, and his mother, Frances Taylor, managed the household.

Larry Taylor joined the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve when he graduated in June 1966. Two months later, he joined the regular Army.

Already certified as a pilot before joining up, he was trained and qualified as an Army aviator. As a member of D Troop (Air), First Squadron, Fourth Cavalry, First Infantry Division, he was assigned to fly one of the first Bell AH-1G Cobra attack helicopters deployed on combat missions in Vietnam. When his copter landed after the rescue mission in June 1968, it was riddled with 16 bullet holes.

He went on to serve with the Second Cavalry Regiment in West Germany and left active duty in 1971. He later took over his family’s roofing and metal company.

He is survived by his wife, Tony (Bechtel) Taylor; two sons, Larry and Grady, from his first marriage, to Dolly Caywood, which ended in divorce; his sister, Barbara T. Lemley; and five grandchildren.

At the White House ceremony, Mr. Taylor said he still relived the rescue every time people asked him, “What possessed you to do that?” His reply, he said, was always the same: “It needed doing.”

“I was doing my job,” he told Stars and Stripes. “I knew that if I did not go down and get them, they would not make it.” As he was often quoted as saying, “We never leave a man behind.”

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