How a soldier saved by Signal Mountain’s Larry Taylor fought to see him receive the military’s highest honor

Staff photo by Olivia Ross  / A picture of a young Larry Taylor. The Vietnam-era helicopter pilot is set to receive the Medal of Honor this week.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / A picture of a young Larry Taylor. The Vietnam-era helicopter pilot is set to receive the Medal of Honor this week.


A few years ago, Dave Hill, a Vietnam War veteran living in Nevada, started noticing something intriguing. Presidents were retroactively awarding the Medal of Honor, the military's highest distinction, to veterans of conflicts long past. It gave him an idea.

Hill had always thought Larry Taylor — a Chattanooga-area helicopter pilot who, in a dashing never-before-seen maneuver, saved his and three other U.S. soldiers' lives in Vietnam — deserved the prestigious medal. When Hill learned years later the pilot had received a lesser honor, he figured there was nothing to be done.

That veterans received the Medal of Honor decades after their wars suggested the existence of some kind of appeals process. Several years ago, Hill made it his mission to see that process through.

Now, after mustering the help of several compatriots, including Chattanooga area military and political leaders, the last surviving member of the group Taylor saved in 1968 has nearly completed his task.

On Friday, the White House announced President Joe Biden will award Taylor the Medal of Honor on Tuesday.

Taylor was generally discouraged by officials from speaking with the media in the days preceding the official announcement. But surviving witnesses to the June 1968 battle in which the pilot earned his distinction were happy to tell his story.

 

Phu Loi

In early 1968, following a quick refueling stop in Guam, a young J.O. Ratliff landed at a military base near Saigon, South Vietnam. After a quick orientation, he was told to report the next morning to the helipad, where someone in his unit would meet him.

"They're going to fly you up to your new home," he recalled someone saying, "which is Phu Loi, Republic of Vietnam."

On the flight that followed, Ratliff saw a lush country of tree-lined rice paddies — scarred in places by bomb or artillery blasts. When the Cody, Wyoming, native landed at the U.S. Army base, he found that his clothes were stuck to his body. Everything was sandbagged. Lots of little fires smoked around — poop cans getting burned off.

It was a base full of aviators, Ratliff said by phone from Costa Rica, and Taylor was known to be a good one.

A Chattanooga native, Taylor attended the University of Tennessee and had arrived in Vietnam several months prior, in August 1967. In the new year came the Tet Offensive, a major escalation in the intensity of the war, and the base was constantly deploying gunships, scout helicopters, Aero Rifle Platoons — all scrambled in a matter of minutes via bullhorn when the call came in that someone in the field had made enemy contact and needed immediate help.

Like basically everyone else, Ratliff started as a co-pilot, and he recalls some early runs with Taylor on the retrofitted troop carriers with turrets and door gunners hanging on the sides, firing down at suspected enemy positions.

Soon those were replaced by the AH-1G Cobra gunship. Lean and fast, the attack helicopter carried dozens of missiles and a chin mini-gun capable of firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute — though Ratliff said practically no one ever fired at that speed because of ammunition limitations.

The Cobra had another distinguishing feature. A war machine, its only place for human beings was a small cockpit for a pilot and his co-pilot. It was not designed to carry passengers. It was designed to rain fire from above.

Pilots rotated through standby shifts. Meanwhile, they napped, played cribbage or had a Coca-Cola in the mess hall. At whatever hour, the bullhorn would sound, and Ratliff said he would put on his boots, strap his gun to his leg and "run like hell" to the helicopter.

There, he and his pilots found their flight helmets and unwieldy armored chest plates. They ran through a quick checklist, revved up their ship, radioed for clearance to take off, hovered and darted off in whatever direction they were told.

En route, they would exchange ideas over the mic as the pilot determined a vector and heading. Their purposes varied, but some things were consistent. It was extremely hot inside the cockpit. And among the first things the sweaty pilots had to do was figure out where the friendlies were — and were not. They radioed their troops on the ground, directed them to ignite colored smoke bombs in yellow, or blue, and throw red ones toward the enemy.

The mission

Hill, the man at the center of the fight to get Taylor the Medal of Honor, worked on a long-range reconnaissance patrol team. They spent days in the field on quiet, delicate missions — prisoner snatches, ambushes.

One day in June 1968, Hill and three team members approached the rice farmer village of Ap Go Cong, about 1.2 miles from the Dong Nai River. Their mission was reconnaissance.

Hill was in the rear as his group left the tree line and waited in the rice paddies. A humid drizzle gave way to a clear night, he said. Then they saw it — they had wandered into a transit area as North Vietnamese troops made their way toward Saigon, Hill said.

The enemy fighters were spread out around them, but not tactically deployed. Hill and his teammates spotted low firelight as enemy soldiers lit cigarettes.

They hunkered down. The reconnaissance team known as Wildcat 2 was led by Bob Elsner, of upper Manhattan, who was known to say the hackles on the back of his neck went up when things didn't feel right. Next in line was the radio man Gerald Patty, from Maryville, Tennessee. The grenadier was Bill Cohn, from Connecticut. Hill, the rear security, came from a small farming community in California.

All, he said, were about 19 years old.

They rarely talked in the field, but Hill saw a signal from Elsner to turn around. He did as instructed, but soon, he said, he felt a tap on his shoulder. There was another enemy group on the move between them and the wood line. They were trapped.

The team deployed mines around them to repel a potential close-quarters attack, and ducked into a water buffalo path, Hill said. When the mud in Vietnam got wet and then dried, it became a mighty barrier, a kind of parapet. By radio, Elsner told commanders of their situation.

The call for help went out, relayed from point to point, onward toward Phu Loi.

The appeal

One evening about 30 years later, Hill was sitting his office and got a call. An old buddy he hadn't seen since the war told him to be in Branson, Missouri, the next month. Elsner would be there. So would Taylor.

"I said, 'Larry Taylor?' Hill recalled. "'You mean the pilot?'"

The opportunity to see Taylor was something Hill had been seeking for a very long time. Hill said he hadn't seen Taylor since that June 1968 night.

He had tried. A few days after the dramatic escape, he and his teammates tried to track the pilot down, but Taylor was already out on another mission.

And within another day or two, they had a new patrol mission of their own.

Every day in the weeks after the rescue the war got worse, Hill said. Soon, his teammate Cohn was killed on a reconnaissance mission with a different group. The rescue helicopter was shot down, too, Hill said, leaving no survivors.

Ratliff, too, recalled periods of heavy fighting. He lost his roommate and gunship platoon leader. Soon after, he was airborne, he said, when he heard the mayday call from the aircraft carrying a commanding general. Ratliff said he turned and watched the aircraft, trailing smoke, going down in the Vietnamese countryside.

In that intense atmosphere, Hill never learned what came of Taylor, but he said he and his comrades had long assumed the pilot must have received a Medal of Honor.

So at the meeting in Missouri in 1999, Hill said Elsner pulled him aside and asked whether he know Taylor only got a Silver Star.

That was the same medal they got, but in Taylor's case, it seemed to Hill inadequate. Still, he assumed there was nothing to be done — until several years later when he noticed other Vietnam era soldiers receiving the Medal of Honor retroactively. Seeking sponsorship for a medal upgrade, Hill contacted Bob Corker.

(READ MORE: look at Tennessee's Medal of Honor recipients and their stories)

Swiftly rejected

The former Chattanooga mayor, then a U.S. senator for Tennessee, agreed to help, Hill said, opening communications with the Army. Hill prepared a nomination packet and sent supporting documents, including his own testimony.

The application was swiftly rejected. So many years removed, the military said it was not in a position to question the decisions of Taylor's commanders who awarded him the Silver Star.

Undeterred, Hill reached out to others in Chattanooga and they formed a group, seeking support from the ressional delegation. Again, in 2019, they were rejected, he said.

During that process, B.B. Bell, a retired general who served on the advisory board for the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga — where the medal has a deep history — heard incidentally in a meeting about a group working on behalf of a local guy who many believed was deserving of the medal but did not receive it.

Some time passed. Then a couple of years ago, Bell said, he heard from Bill Raines, a local businessman and another retired general, who asked for Bell's help with a third effort to convince the Army to reconsider. Bell asked to see the documentation.

"They brought me all kinds of hodgepodge things as you're apt to get in a situation like that," he said by phone recently. "And I concluded pretty quickly that there was one individual who was key in all this, and everybody else that was working on it were just well-intentioned good friends."

The key individual was Hill. Bell called to ask who he was and what his purpose was. Hill told him. Bell asked why the Army would turn them down. That was not clear. Hill said he had submitted the appeal twice, signed by all sorts of business leaders, dignitaries, whoever they could get to sign it.

Bell invited Hill to Chattanooga. In their meeting, Bell developed a theory.

First, it became clear the Army had not considered the packet on its merits, and rightfully so, he said, given that Army officials had no solid basis on which to second guess the judgment of the commanders who were there decades ago.

Bell said he told Hill that, if the chain of command knew Taylor's story at the time, the Army's judgment that no action to upgrade his medal was probably correct.

Hill looked him in the eye, Bell said, and told him the Army didn't know the whole story at the time.

"I was flabbergasted," Bell said. "I said 'Dave, when I read your packet, it doesn't say that. It just lays out all the heroics of Larry Taylor.'"

Conspicuous gallantry

Bell began an investigation, he said, and the history began to make sense.

In a time of near-constant combat, the Army division in question was spread out between several base camps, Bell said. Based in Phu Loi, Taylor's air cavalry group was stationed about 25 miles) from the base of Hill's reconnaissance team — with enemy fighters between.

The four men Taylor saved talked about what happened to them and were debriefed, but they were never interviewed by the awards guy, who was at a distant base and just had some radio calls and a quick interview with pilots at his disposal as he made his decision.

And Bell said he wasn't that surprised Hill's strategy, however natural, of trying to get local leaders to endorse the appeal did not help the case. He imagined the Army's annoyance upon reading letters signed by him and high political figures.

"'What does retired Gen. Bell know about what the hell went on with Wildcat 2 in 1968?'" Bell asked, imagining the Army's response. "'What does Bob Corker — senator — know?' It just infuriates people."

He worked with Hill to reframe the appeal packet, and after some back-and-forths with military officials, it began, at last, to make its way up through the Army.

A Medal of Honor must be approved at several levels of the command before reaching the desk of the president, who alone has the power to approve or deny it. In early July, Taylor has told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, he received a telephone call at his home in Signal Mountain. Biden was on the line.

On Friday, the White House announced the award officially.

"Taylor's conspicuous gallantry, his profound concern for his fellow Soldiers, and his intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service," the White House said, "and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army."

In an interview late last year, Taylor told the Times Free Press he was just doing his job on June 18, 1968.

After revisiting his case, the leaders of the U.S. Army have come to disagree.

Parade of honor

On Sept. 11, a Patriots Day and Welcome Home parade will honor Taylor for his heroic actions. The parade will begin at 11:30 a.m. at Market Street and M.L. King Boulevard and head toward the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, which is planning to erect a temporary gallery detailing Taylor and his actions.

 

The battle

Taylor, Ratliff, and the others in the fire team were not far off when Hill first saw them from the ground in the rice paddy.

Taylor recalled establishing contact via radio, even called one of them out by name, Hill said. Hill said the best pilots conveyed calm feelings down the radio waves to the fighters on the ground.

"He sounded like a tour bus driver in Beverly Hills, California, pointing out Lucille Ball's home, which had a very calming effect on us," Hill said.

By radio from the ground, Elsner told Taylor that he and the others were surrounded, but undetected.

Taylor could not see them — rural Vietnam was like an "inkwell," Hill said — and Taylor asked the reconnaissance men if they had any flares. They did. Elsner, then Hill and the others, popped their flares — exposing their position.

The guns roared. Taylor and another Cobra helicopter pilot made runs across the rice paddy, shooting off missiles as Ratliff and his counterpart in the other co-pilot's seat ran the mini-guns, which with their bright tracer bullets looked like red fire hoses flying through the night.

Meanwhile, cracks racked Hill's ears as passing bullets broke the sound barrier. Rocket-propelled grenades flew overhead or hit the embankment protecting him and his comrades. He and the other men popped up, shot where they saw a muzzle flash, ducked down.

"You're trying to avoid getting hit, and so is the bad guy across the rice paddy from you," Hill recalled. "Everybody's trying to kill each other."

No room inside

The helicopters alternated attack runs as the battle carried on for 20 minutes, then 30. Taylor also worked the radio, talking to the men on the ground, his fellow pilots, far off commanders and artillery personnel, Ratliff said.

Soon, ammunition was running low. Typically, the attack helicopter teams would get relieved by another, but no other Cobras were available, and it became clear the "Huey" extraction helicopter that was supposed to retrieve Hill and the other men on the ground was not coming. They were alone.

Ratliff recalled a quick conversation aboard the Cobra with Taylor.

Taylor said he thought they could pick the guys up themselves — there was no room inside but they could grab onto the skids — and fly them to someplace safe.

They communicated the plan to the other Cobra and at some point, Ratliff said, there was a radio conversation with the distant command unit. Do not pick the soldiers up, Ratliff recalled being told over the airwaves. You are not authorized to do that, they were told. It was not a proper use of the two-man Cobra aircraft.

According to Ratliff, Taylor decided they would not obey. Their plan seemed to them like common sense. Taylor radioed Elsner to give a quick set of instructions, Ratliff said. The helicopter was going to distract the enemy fighters and then swiftly land. Those on the ground were to make a run for it; Taylor could give them only a few seconds to grab whatever they could on the Cobra and hold on tight.

The maneuver began. With ammunition just about exhausted, Taylor turned on his landing lights and feigned a final gun run at enemy fighters. In that moment the patrol team on the ground took off running.

Hill recalled holding a bit behind his sprinting fellow soldiers, furiously throwing his remaining grenades to his rear and left and right, setting off explosion after explosion. He caught up as Taylor's Cobra landed.

Two men jumped onto the skids. Two jumped onto the rocket pods jutting out sideways. Someone banged the rifle against the fuselage. Taylor's helicopter, taking fire, shot upwards to safety. Hill and his three comrades held on for their lives, carried through the open air high above Vietnam.

Marveling

A few years back, Ratliff returned to Vietnam at the encouragement of his wife, he said. He found families at play and perceived a warm welcome from a Vietnamese people who did not seem to see him as a foreign intruder or a raider of the land — as many, he said would be entitled to.

He drove the whole area of operation of the First Infantry Division, where he flew. He went to division headquarters, basically a ghost town now, he said. He went to the building where he said the last of the South Vietnamese leadership made a final stand. He went to the crash site where his roommate and platoon leader perished.

"It was healthy, for me," he said. "It was restorative. That may sound strange."

Where there were scabs, he said, he's finally growing new skin.

Hill too marvels at how the present grows over the violence of the not-so-distant past. He said he looked up Ap Go Cong, the site of the battle where he nearly perished, and found that the location is now a country club.

"I'm a golfer," he said, "so I really appreciate that."

But the memories remain. High in the air whizzing away miraculously from the battle, Hill remembered, it was cold and wet. Taylor — after pulling the Cobra high out of light gun range — lowered them, tenderly almost, to a more comfortable flying altitude of 100 feet as he approached a water treatment plant near Saigon, Hill said.

There, he descended and dropped the men behind a barrier of armored vehicles. The men jumped off, Hill said, and scurried around to the front of the helicopter. Taylor was just a vague shadow with a helmet on behind the glass. The men on the ground popped a quick salute, Hill said, as the helicopter revved and took to the sky.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at aschwartz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.