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Larry Taylor, gunship pilot in Vietnam who led daring rescue, dies at 81

President Biden awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Captain Larry Taylor at the White House last year.Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post

The call came over the radio on the Cobra attack helicopter: Return to base to resupply. The gunship’s ammunition was almost exhausted. Fuel was running low.

The Cobra’s commander, Lieutenant Larry Taylor, flicked off the radio. He had made his decision. Somehow, he would attempt to rescue four members of a US military reconnaissance team surrounded by guerrillas allied with North Vietnam near the village of Ap Go Cong, northeast of what was then the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon.

He turned on the Cobra’s lights to draw fire away from the recon unit, pinned down in a rice paddy. The gunship had only two seats, pilot and co-pilot. Even if he managed to reach the four Army rangers, they would have to hang on to whatever they could grab to be flown to safety.

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“Before I started the approach in, I thought, ‘This is a good idea,’” he recalled. “And when I got about halfway through it, I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”

The nighttime gambit on June 18, 1968, became one of the Vietnam War’s most daring airborne rescues and, 55 years later, brought him the Medal of Honor after a long campaign to recognize the mission with the military’s highest award for valor.

In September, President Biden presented the medal to the former Army aviator, who retired at the rank of captain. He was 81 when he died Jan. 28 at his home in Signal Mountain, Tenn.

“He could have left the fight,” Biden said at the ceremony in September, recounting how the helicopter was facing intense rocket and machine gun fire. “You did something extraordinary,” the president added.

Two AH-1 Cobra gunships were dispatched on a moonless night to aid the reconnaissance patrol. “The fortunes of war had turned against us that night. We were in a Custer-like situation,” one of the rangers, Sergeant David Hill, recounted to Stars and Stripes. The Cobra crews pinpointed Hill and the others by having them radio just one word - “now” - when the helicopters flew over their location.

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The two Cobras then made strafing runs for the next 45 minutes, skimming just above the jungle canopy, to try to push back the 100 or so guerrillas, known as the Viet Cong.

Over the radio, Lieutenant Taylor heard that commanders had scrapped a rescue mission using a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter because of the high risks and relentless Viet Cong fire. That meant the recon team had to either manage an escape on their own or face almost certain death. Lieutenant Taylor directed the other Cobra pilot to fire his remaining rounds on the eastern flank of the guerrillas and then return to base closer to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

At the same time, Lieutenant Taylor and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer James Ratliff, blasted the western side of the battle zone with whatever ammo they had left. When they were out, Lieutenant Taylor used the Cobra’s landing light in attempts to fool the guerrillas into thinking that the gunship was still making attack runs.

The ploy worked long enough to give the reconnaissance scouts time to make their way to a place near the Dong Nai River, where there was room for the Cobra to touch down for just a moment.

The rangers were told they had 10 seconds to make it to the Cobra. Covered in mud, Hill and another man straddled the Cobra’s rocket pods; the two others coiled themselves around the landing skids. Never had any such rescue been tried with the newly introduced Cobras.

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“Someone slapped the side of the ship, which meant haul ass,” Lieutenant Taylor said. “And we did.”

They reached a landing zone with the Cobra’s fuel tanks nearly empty. The gunship had 16 bullet holes. Remarkably, no one aboard was hit. The rangers scrambled away from the helicopter. Lieutenant Taylor and his co-pilot exchanged salutes with the four men they rescued, and then the Cobra was aloft and racing back toward base with the fuel that remained.

It would be 31 years before then-retired Captain Taylor would formally meet some of the men he carried to safety. At a 1999 veterans’ reunion, Hill learned that the pilot had received the Silver Star and other honors for his more than 2,000 combat missions but had not been considered for the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award for valor. The pilot’s direct commanders in Vietnam, who normally would have filed the paperwork for high-level honors, were killed in the war soon after the rescue.

Hill spearheaded two attempts over the next 20 years to win military support for the Medal of Honor for Mr. Taylor. A third submission in 2021, aided by retired Army General Burwell B. Bell III, was successful.

“People ask me about that night. ‘What possessed you to do that?’ Well, it needed doing,” Mr. Taylor said at the White House ceremony in September. “Then they’ll say, ‘You’re insane, aren’t you?’ I’d say, ‘Well, Cobra pilots are a little weird anyway.’”

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Larry Lowe Taylor was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Feb. 12, 1942. His father ran a roofing and sheet metal company, and his mother was a homemaker.

He 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 after his graduation in 1966. He entered the Army that August and trained as a helicopter pilot. He already had his private pilot’s license and moved quickly through the helicopter program, qualifying as an Army aviator in June 1967.

He served in Vietnam from August 1967 to August 1968, flying some of the first Cobra attack helicopters in the war. He finished his military service in 1971 as a captain with the Second Armored Cavalry in West Germany, then returned to Chattanooga to take over the family roofing and metal company.

His first marriage, to Dolly Caywood, ended in divorce. In 1971, he married the former Toni Bechtel, who confirmed the death of her husband and said the cause was cancer. In addition to his wife, Mr. Taylor leaves two sons from his first marriage and five grandchildren.

“I’ve thought long and hard about that night, over and over,” Mr. Taylor once said. “I don’t know what we could’ve done to make it any better, but we didn’t lose a man. Everybody we came with went home with us.”

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