As Larry Taylor (’66) sits for a photograph in the Vietnam War section of the Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a young soldier wearing an orange Vols shirt stands to the side looking on at the country’s most recent Medal of Honor recipient.
When the soldier meets Taylor, he tells the older man that he is currently stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as a military police officer and adds, “I just wanted the chance to meet you in person and thank you for your service.”
That service with the US Army included time with the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, with which he flew more than 2,000 combat missions in the UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra helicopters. Taylor was engaged by enemy fire 340 times and was forced down five times. He was awarded 61 combat decorations, including 44 Air Medals, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, two Bronze Stars, and four Distinguished Flying Crosses. He concluded his military service with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in West Germany.
While Taylor persevered through many harrowing operations, it was one particular nighttime mission in June 1968 as a first lieutenant in Vietnam that stands out among the rest. He was flying under heavy fire to create an evacuation route for a reconnaissance team. As a last resort, he landed his two-seat Cobra attack helicopter and placed the four soldiers on the landing skids and rocket launcher pods so they could be airlifted out. It was the first use of an attack helicopter to extract soldiers.
“The rain was falling, the night was thickening with clouds and machine gun fire, and the men on the ground would all be dead in minutes. Taylor, his gunner, and his wing team would all be watching the slaughter helplessly in the flare-light splashing the rice paddy,” wrote Bob Cutts in a 1968 issue of Stars and Stripes. “There was just one chance. It had to be taken. He didn’t hesitate.”
For that heroic action, Taylor earned a Silver Star, the third-highest military combat decoration.
More than 50 years later, Taylor’s friends and supporters were successful in a years-long effort to have his Silver Star upgraded to a Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.
This year, he became the third UT alumnus to receive the Medal of Honor—along with Allen J. Greer and David Robert Ray—and the first to have been commissioned through UT’s Army ROTC program.
“When duty called, Larry did everything—did everything to answer. And because of that, he rewrote the fate of four families for generations to come. That’s valor,” said President Joe Biden during a ceremony at the White House in September.
Taylor remains humble about the act of valor, saying, “We’d done something similar several times before. We just got caught doing it that time.”
The 81-year-old, who lives in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, says he enjoyed his time on active duty and believes everyone should serve. “It’s an eye opener… but it makes you a well-rounded person. You learn to speak lots of languages… and you get to see the world,” he says.
But it was a language that Taylor learned at UT that influenced his life right after graduation.
Taylor says he knew he wanted to come to UT after attending a homecoming game in Knoxville while he was still at Chattanooga High School. UT was a “cornucopia of anything you can imagine,” Taylor says. “Different languages, different people, different everything. And no matter what area you want to get in, you can find a place to get in and make you happy.”
While he started as a business major, Taylor eventually found a passion in deaf education. He learned sign language and began working before graduation at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville, where he taught and coached wrestling.
After he graduated from UT and began his service in Vietnam, he taught his platoon sign language and finger spelling.
Taylor met his wife in Germany, and when he left active duty he moved back to the Chattanooga area with her, where they raised their family. He worked at his father’s roofing and sheet metal company and took over when his father retired.
At the age of 65, Taylor, who had been working with his father since the age of 10, decided to give away the machinery and donate the shop to the Boy Scouts.
“I don’t think there’s a thing that I can’t do or I can’t make if I’ve got the tools and the hammer and someone to do it,” Taylor says. “And I’ve still got all my fingers.
“That’s part of life’s rich pageant. It’s just something that you do.”