DESOTO — James Baylor remembers the rain falling in thick sheets across Hill 937, the ground turning to a slick of mud, the suffocating humidity that blanketed the jungle. He remembers using a machete to cut back the dense brush that appeared to grow in every direction and the horrific crackling noise of artillery fire encircling him.
He remembers storming a clearing to draw enemy fire away from a nearby platoon in danger. Just before sprinting out with fellow soldiers, Baylor prayed: “God, for every step I take, take it for me. For every move I make, make it for me.”
As Baylor sprinted toward the clearing, he was shot in the side of the back and collapsed to the ground, falling on top of his best friend, who was shot and killed. He knew he had to move to survive, so he crawled back to the trees, where he eventually found a medic.
That battle — one of the bloodiest of the Vietnam War — became known as Hamburger Hill after a soldier compared the precision of the machine gun to a human meat grinder.
Baylor, 81, who lives in DeSoto, returned home from Vietnam a couple months after Hamburger Hill and found no one wanted to talk about Vietnam. So he did what so many other veterans do: he stayed quiet. Few knew about Baylor’s heroism.
“I’m just as appreciative to get these awards as I would have been back then,” Baylor said. “In fact, they probably mean more to me now.”
Baylor, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, was drafted to Vietnam just one month shy of his 26th birthday, the cutoff age for the military draft. Assigned to the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment, whose members are called Rakkasans, Baylor recalled feeling confused.
“But I’m not even airborne,” he recalls telling a personnel officer. “You are now,” the officer replied.
There, Baylor met Ralph Crutts, a 21-year-old college student from Michigan, who would become his best friend. No matter the time or location, Crutts was always listening for a sign of the enemy. While their platoon was stationary, Baylor could sometimes even read a book, knowing that Crutts would protect them.
Days ground on, and their regiment was assigned to clear Hill 937, known in Vietnam as Dong Ap Bia, which translates to Crouching Beast. The platoon was dropped at the base of the hill on May 10, 1969.
Over the next dozen or so days, 72 U.S. soldiers were killed and more than 300 wounded on the hill. The bloody battle would spur congressional hearings over Vietnam, inflame the anti-war movement and inspire a 1987 film, Hamburger Hill.
Wounded, Baylor returned home not knowing what to expect. While walking through an airport terminal in his uniform, he recalled feeling invisible. No one even glanced at him.
“I would have been so grateful for just a smile,” he said. “They passed me like I wasn’t there.”
For the next 15 years, Baylor avoided talking about Vietnam. He got a job in law enforcement in California, and even close colleagues had no idea he fought in the war. He got married, moved to Texas with his wife, Glenda, and raised a son, Justin. As a Black veteran, he said, he still felt unwelcome at some places in the country he fought for.
“I wasn’t prideful at all,” he said. “I buried it deep down, as if it didn’t happen.”
That begin to change. After the movie Hamburger Hill, was released, he told some people he fought in that battle. He joined groups for retired Rakkasans, the name the Japanese gave them in World War II, which means “falling umbrellas.”
In May 2019, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, Baylor returned to Hamburger Hill with a group of active-duty soldiers and veterans, to climb the mountain, this time reaching the top.
Baylor’s son, Justin Baylor, who lives in Dallas, said his father sometimes shared Vietnam stories, but he always stuck to the PG-13 version. Talking about his friend, Ralph Crutts, is still difficult, even now.
“He would omit details, or sometimes he would just stop talking mid-story,” Justin Baylor said. “I never knew if it was to protect me or him.”
A couple years ago, Baylor mentioned to Col. Martin Bowling, who also served in the 187th regiment, that he wondered if he had earned any medals for his Vietnam service. Before computers, it was not unusual for field records, recorded with pencil and paper, to go lost or missing.
Bowling told Baylor he would look into it, but nothing came of it for months. Baylor assumed he did not earn any medals, or records were permanently lost.
Meanwhile, Bowling was combing through through millions of records at the National Archives, eventually finding that Bowling had earned 12 separate medals for his service.
“Guys are getting slaughtered on both sides of a hill in the rain. The process breaks down,” Bowling said. “These guys are not asking if they earned a medal. They’re just happy to be alive.”
On Sunday, Baylor shared his story about Hamburger Hill, pausing several times to take a breath or drink of water. He talked about his friend, Crutts, still just 21 years old, and about the fear they felt climbing that hill. Eventually, Baylor said he could not continue talking.
With his family nearby, the soldier stood at attention, and Bowling pinned 12 medals to the front of his jacket. Baylor smiled, then raised his right hand to salute.