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October 21, 2010

Thinking about snow

When times were bad during his tour of Vietnam, Larry Taylor often thought of home. Laurel County. Where he might once again feel a Kentucky winter.

LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Click here to view the Fall 2010 Silver magazine in its entirety.

As he sits at the kitchen table, Vietnam veteran Larry Taylor rubs his dog tags together between his fingers. It’s an absent-minded action, one that lends a metallic chime to the conversation and shows Taylor’s discomfort in talking about himself. Nearby, Taylor’s wife Joan sits on a bar stool, listening, hearing much of what is said for the first time. Through tears, anger and the occasional smile, Taylor continues talking, forcing the words out in torrents.

“When things were bad, my vision of being back, if I could just get back to Kentucky, was to see the pure snow,” he said. “The snow would be so white, so clear and pure. If I could just see it again, I knew I would be all right.”

•••

Taylor arrived in Long Binh outside Saigon on Feb. 5, 1967. He’d been in training for the past seven months, during which he’d been informed he would be a “foot soldier.”

“They called us grunts,” he said. “They also said that half of us would not be coming back.”

But, after descending from the Boeing 727 into the hot, sticky base camp, there was little time to think about the statistic. Taylor remembered being “herded like cattle” and issued jungle fatigues, an M-16, and “very little” ammunition. After being outfitted, he was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, known famously as Big Red One.

“From there they flew me out on a chopper to the jungle to join my unit,” he said. “That’s when I became an F.N.G. (expletive New Guy) That was a shock in and of itself.”

Taylor was 19.

He was dropped in the jungle where he saw soldiers stationed in a makeshift base camp.

“The guys were dug in foxholes,” he said. “There was nothing there. It was just the smell. It was just horrible — indescribable. I could smell dirty human beings that hadn’t showered in 30 or 40 days.”

After being assigned to 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, Taylor dug in for the evening,

“I didn’t sleep,” he said. “I was scared to death. I could hear things out in the distance.”

It didn’t take long for that noise to get closer. By the next afternoon and through the following night, Taylor’s platoon was attacked by Viet Cong.

“The first encounter I had with the enemy, I never fired my weapon, I was so scared,” he said. “The next morning, this guy that had been there for four or five months, he said, ‘Taylor, get up here.’ I did and he said, ‘I had your back all night last night.’ I said, ‘I appreciate that.’ He said, ‘That’s not good enough. I expect you to have my back for me from here on out.’ So I did.”

Following that first encounter, Taylor learned the next year of his life would involve going on daily search and destroy missions with his platoon.

“Being a new guy, they put me on the flank,” he said. “The way I look on it now, it was bait for the enemy.”

On one such mission, a week after his arrival, Taylor lost touch with his point man, whose job is to lead the formation of a group of more than 100 soldiers.

“I came to a clearing and I saw the point man,” he said. “He was on his belly with his finger curled around his trigger, prepared to fire. He thought I was the enemy ... It wasn’t long after that, I began to learn what it took to become a soldier. Two weeks later, I became a point man.”

In addition to their S&Ds, the soldiers of Alpha Company were also required to do night watch at a listening post, from which they would protect the defensive perimeter that had been set up by the platoon earlier in the day.

•••

On March 28, 1967, Taylor had been assigned to such a post.

“We had dug in with our trenching tool,” he said. “It was probably no deeper than two and a half feet. Then ... I don’t really know what happened. All I know is the two guys next to me were gone.”

Injured himself, Taylor radioed for help and was carried back within the night defensive perimeter.

“They wanted to give me a shot of morphine, but I wanted to be able to think and react,” he said. “The adrenaline was so powerful. It must have blocked off the pain, both physically and emotionally.”

With shrapnel wedged in his leg and arm, Taylor was evacuated by helicopter and brought to Cam Ranh Bay for surgery.

He was given seven weeks to recover before being sent back to his platoon.

He was dropped back in the jungle in the middle of May.

“The next S&D mission, it was difficult for me to endure and maintain and keep up,” he said. “I was sore and my stamina wasn’t built back up. I found myself falling back further and further. Water was very limited and I had used all of mine.”

Eventually, one of his fellow soldiers went back to find him.

“He said, ‘Taylor, you all right?’” Taylor recalled. “He took my backpack and he packed his and mine. His name was Joe Britten. We became the best of friends. Probably to this day, he would be the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Throughout that day, Taylor’s backpack got passed around to other soldiers, who likewise carried his load.

“That night I wasn’t able to dig in my foxhole so they did it for me,” he said. “I didn’t sleep. I just laid there.”

Slowly, Taylor recovered, and the relentless routine of S&D missions resumed.

“Every step I took on an S&D mission, I was expecting to encounter the enemy,” Taylor said. “Every blink of the eye, I expected something bad to happen. It’s hard to live with that mindset, but that’s the way it is ... What sticks out in my mind was there was this tremendous fear in everyone. I was only thinking, ‘Today is the day. No more for me.’ I grew to accept the fact I was going to die.”

Over time, Taylor said he felt a change taking place in himself.

“I never did become comfortable, but I became almost like an aggressor,” he said. “Whatever the enemy did, I wanted to up it worse than what they did to us.”

Taylor kept himself in check by carrying a Bible everywhere he went, even during monsoon season. “I had to keep it wrapped up in really heavy plastic,” he said.  

By summer, Taylor was “beginning to be a pretty good soldier,” he said. “I did what I had to do, did what I was told to do.”

One day in June, Taylor saw a platoon sergeant come through to recruit soldiers to the 2-28th Infantry Division.

“I told Joe maybe it would be easier there,” Taylor said. “We agreed and found out 16 or 18 of us went too. Once we got to our new outfit, we found out why they wanted us: We were senior in their eyes and they needed senior people. It was a bad disadvantage.”

Taylor and Britten were assigned to a mortar platoon, whose mission was to supply ammunition and provide fire support from inside the night defensive perimeter. While the job was safer than heading out on S&D missions, it was still extremely perilous. And Taylor said the enemy nearly always had the advantage.

•••

That was the case on Oct. 17, 1967, known today as the Battle of Ong Thanh. That morning, the soldiers headed out on an S&D.

“One of them thought he’d seen a tree move up ahead, but they didn’t see anything else,” Taylor said. “They kept moving forward and suddenly (Viet Cong) were in the trees, under the ground, coming up from tunnels. They were everywhere, like a swarm of bees.”

Britten and Taylor were ordered to “fire for effect.”

“We were dropping volley after volley after volley just as fast as we could,” he said. “I was dropping them in the tube just as fast as I could.”

But the platoon had been overpowered. That morning, in two hours, 64 soldiers died and 57 others were wounded.

“They wanted us to identify them,” Taylor said. “Sometimes, the only way you could identify them was from a tattoo. That was probably one of the worst days of my time in Vietnam. We packed bodies for eight hours. That had a tremendous impact on me and everyone else. During my deployment, you didn’t see anyone smiling, you didn’t see anyone crying. After that though, you could see it had just ripped their hearts out.”

But Taylor’s countdown to Feb. 5, 1968, the day of his discharge, continued. By January, Taylor had started to feel a modicum of hope, something that caused him tremendous anxiety.

“I told Joe, ‘Joe, I’m not going to make it,’” he said. “I would get in my fox hole at night and I would very seldom get out. I knew there were guys who had one day left that got killed on the last day.”

But on Feb. 2, Taylor was taken by helicopter to Zion, then to Long Binh and eventually on the flight back to what Taylor calls the “real world.”

“Once we got on that big bird, there wasn’t a sound from anywhere,” he remembered.

When he arrived in San Francisco, he was ready to rejoice. He was met by war protesters instead.

“Here I was expecting to maybe kiss the ground, and I was really shocked to hear the things being said,” he said. “Here I had almost given up my life ... and we come back home and the reception we got was really degrading. That was the second time I was wounded. I felt that way from what people were saying and throwing and the signs they were holding up.”

•••

Following his service, which ended in July 1968, Taylor returned to Laurel County.

“I felt very uncomfortable being at home,” he said. “I found out right away I couldn’t sleep. Vietnam was still on me, in me and through me.”

Eventually, making a vow to never speak of his service, Taylor resumed a normal life, marrying Joan in September, 1970. He fathered two children and worked for Contel of Kentucky for 29 years.

About nine years ago, Taylor started being able to talk about his time in Vietnam. Today, he is helping organize the Welcome Home Parade for Vietnam and Vietnam-era veterans. While the subject is still difficult to broach, Taylor said he has learned to live with the memories of his time at war. But when asked if he thinks he’s a hero, Taylor balks at the idea.

“I just did what I was told to do,” he said. “I’m no better or no worse than anyone else. If we served in Vietnam, we’re all equal. I just happen to be the one to get interviewed.”

Staff writer Tara Kaprowy can be reached by e-mail at tkaprowy@sentinel-echo.com.

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