Capt. Larry Taylor, Medal of Honor recipient and Signal Mountain resident, dies at 81

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Following the death of Capt. Larry Taylor, Medal of Honor recipient, a condolence book is placed in the lobby of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center on Monday. Scott Saunders, gallery and communications manager at the center, signs the book.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Following the death of Capt. Larry Taylor, Medal of Honor recipient, a condolence book is placed in the lobby of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center on Monday. Scott Saunders, gallery and communications manager at the center, signs the book.


Larry Taylor, who received the Medal of Honor in September for his daring 1968 helicopter rescue during the Vietnam War, died Sunday at his Signal Mountain home, according to a news release from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Taylor, a retired Army captain and Chattanooga native, was 81. A cause of death was not released.

President Joe Biden presented Taylor the medal — the military's highest honor — at the White House on Sept. 5.

"Larry's mission on this earth is now over and he is forever safe and indeed home in God's forever attack helicopter base camp," retired Army Gen. Burwell "B. B." Bell, who worked on the petition to get Taylor the medal, said in a news release.

Taylor's remains will be buried at the Chattanooga National Military Cemetery, near those of other Chattanooga-area recipients Charles Coolidge and Desmond Doss, Bell said.

"Sacred ground. More sacred now with Larry's remains to be interred there," Bell said in the release. "Chattanooga, the birthplace of the Medal of Honor. Larry Taylor, one of those born here who fought for us so we could live quiet, protected, safe lives. Where do we get such men?"

(READ MORE: At White House, Biden awards Chattanooga-area man the Medal of Honor)

Taylor was the fifth Chattanooga man to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

He earned it based on his actions one night in June 1968.

Dave Hill, of California, had been on a reconnaissance mission with three other young men in South Vietnam. Soon, they realized, they were surrounded by enemy troops.

They called via radio for help, Hill previously told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and Taylor headed a team of two Cobra helicopters that flew to the scene from a nearby base. Intense fighting ensued, witnesses said, and eventually it became clear that Taylor's helicopter team, despite running low on fuel and ammunition, would not be relieved by reinforcement helicopters as was typical.

Meanwhile, the helicopter sent to retrieve the men on the ground was not coming either.

Taylor hatched a plan. His Cobra helicopter had no cabin for passengers — its cockpit snugly seated just him and the co-pilot, J.O. Ratliff. But it did have skids, which the men on the ground could theoretically hold on to.

In a maneuver military observers said had never before been attempted with the new-to-the-battlefield Cobra, Taylor landed amid enemy fire as the four men on the ground ran toward him. From that position, the Cobra represented a large and vulnerable target for enemy fighters, Ratliff said in an interview last summer.

The Cobra could spare just a few seconds on the ground. The four soldiers hopped on the skids and the rocket pods, which jutted out sideways.

They held on tight, and Taylor flew them to safety.

Taylor received a Silver Star for his deeds, but decades later, Hill, who always felt the pilot deserved the Medal of Honor, realized there was an appeals process.

In 2017, Hill began to petition the Army on Taylor's behalf, and in the ensuing years worked with Chattanooga-area military and political figures to push the effort to the finish line — moving with a sense of urgency to get Taylor the prestigious medal before he died.

When Taylor learned in July he would be awarded the medal, he told the Times Free Press he "just got caught doing my job."

But the award meant the world to Taylor and perhaps kept him alive a few months longer, his friend Carl Poston said by phone Monday.

Raised in St. Elmo, Taylor attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he joined the U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Program. He joined the Army after graduating in 1966 and qualified as a pilot the following year.

Taylor served in Vietnam from August 1967 to August 1968. He flew in more than 2,000 combat missions, encountered enemy fire 340 times and was forced down five times, retired Marine Corps Col. Frank Hughes said in a release.

After returning home to Chattanooga, Taylor took over his father's roofing and sheet metal company.

He was also an avid scuba diver and world traveler. He was well-read and a master craftsman — a true renaissance man, Hill said by phone Monday.

Hill hadn't seen Taylor for years after the 1968 rescue, but the two eventually encountered one another at a military reunion and periodically connected during subsequent meetups over the years.

Hill said he was in Chattanooga recently to see Taylor and his wife. He knew Taylor was in poor health and they kept the conversation light, he said.

"We both knew the situation and didn't dwell on it," Hill said. "We're just all lucky that we knew him when he was here. And particularly in my case — or I wouldn't be here at all."

Taylor also received a Bronze Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, 43 Air Medals and a Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star, according to news releases.

His Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House was attended by a variety of political figures and old military comrades, some of whom had a connection to the mission for which Taylor was being awarded.

In interviews at the ceremony, they described the surreal experience of watching the president of the United States repeat what for them had long been a crazy war story. It was transformed into American lore.

"In a few days, young women and men from across the country are going to arrive at Fort Worth, Georgia, to attend Ranger School, one of the toughest military courses in the world," Biden said at the September ceremony. "For nearly 20 hours every day, they'll run, march, swim and climb some of the most challenging obstacles under the most grueling of conditions. But most importantly, they'll learn how to lead, studying the stories of our greatest nation's warriors.

"They include the story of a pilot who, 55 years ago, risked his own life to save a group of young soldiers like them."

(READ MORE: Medal of Honor recipient Larry Taylor celebrated with downtown Chattanooga parade)

Taylor is survived by his wife of 53 years, Toni B. Taylor; his sister Barbara T. Lemley; two sons, Larry T. Hough of Knoxville and Grady T. Hough of Reston, Virginia, and five grandchildren, Vince Butler of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center said by phone Monday.

The family requested memorial contributions to the Larry Taylor Exhibit Fund at the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center instead of flowers.

Several admirers issued statements of condolences Monday.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Southest Tennessee, said in a news release that he regarded getting to know Taylor — and advocating for him to get the Medal of Honor — as one of the great privileges of his life.

"Those who knew Capt. Taylor understood he was a larger-than-life person," retired Army Maj. Gen. William Raines said in a news release. "He was a living John Wayne who did the right thing and would not leave a soldier behind!"

Contact Ellen Gerst at egerst@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6319.

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

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / A photo of Captain Larry Taylor, Medal of Honor recipient, is placed in the lobby of the National Medal of Honor Heritage Center by Steven Thomas on Monday, following the death of Taylor.
 
 


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