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Carrying A Fallen Friend To The Top Of Hamburger Hill
by U.S. Army Capt. Justin Wright
August 11, 2020

In 1968, Spc. James Baylor was one month away from his 26th birthday when he received his call to duty on his front doorstep.

“I have this ability to go numb when things like that happen,” said Baylor about his draft notification from the U.S. Army. “I’ll say to myself, ‘Ok, that’s what it is,’ and I’ll go numb.”

May 21, 201 - Vietnam Army veteran James Baylor poses on top of Hamburger Hill after climbing 3,000 feet to the summit for the first time at 76 years old. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Justin Wright)
May 21, 201 - Vietnam Army veteran James Baylor poses on top of Hamburger Hill after climbing 3,000 feet to the summit for the first time at 76 years old. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Justin Wright)

Baylor attended basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Ord, California. Upon course completion the senior drill sergeant called a formation for the trainees to notify them of their duty assignments. “Private Johnson, Hawaii!” the drill sergeant exclaimed. At that moment Baylor became excited about the possibilities that lie ahead until the drill sergeant opened his mouth again and said, “Everyone else, pack your bags, you’re going to the Republic of Vietnam.” Yet again, Baylor went numb.

A few weeks after he received his orders, Baylor was on a commercial flight to war.

“One thing I remember about that experience is that when we started out, the flight attendants were young and attractive, and as we got closer and closer, they got older and older,” Baylor laughs as he recalls his deployment process. “I remember flying into country, and two jet fighters approached on either side of our plane. I had never seen a jet fighter up close, and I remember thinking then, that was it, and we were coming into something heavy.”

As Baylor disembarked the aircraft, he passed veterans who were headed home. He distinctly remembers the battle hardened Soldiers looking at the inbound Soldiers and saying “There’s one, there’s one.” There’s one what? He thought.

“These guys had obviously been through something; you could tell by their faces, they were hard,” Baylor recalls.

Later, he found out they were pointing out the Soldiers they perceived would not make it home from Vietnam alive.

When Baylor made it to in-processing to receive his assignment, he learned he was heading to the 101st Airborne Division. Baylor recalls his reaction thinking, “Hey, hey wait a minute, I’m not even Airborne.”

The personnel officer quickly replied that he was ‘airborne now’ and to lace his boots tight.

While in the rear echelon, Baylor met another Soldier who was headed to the 101st Airborne Division, Private Ralph Crutts, a 21-year-old college student who joined the military for college benefits to finish his degree.

“I was 26 and Crutts was 21. I think he looked up to me because I was older and from Los Angeles. He thought I was rough and tough or something, that I was going to protect him,” said Baylor.

James Baylor, 2nd from the right, and fellow soldiers of 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, on a hill in Vietnam on July 16, 1969. (Photo provided by Joel Trautmann)
James Baylor, 2nd from the right, and fellow soldiers of 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, on a hill in Vietnam on July 16, 1969. (Photo provided by Joel Trautmann)

Baylor and Crutts became extremely close during their time in Vietnam together as they were assigned to the same platoon in Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment. Baylor describes Crutts as vigilant, always listening for enemy movement and ready to protect them. So vigilant that Baylor would often times read a book while their platoon was stationary because he knew he could count on his best friend to look out for them both.

“He was very alert and always looking to see what was going on,” said Baylor. “I would relax a little bit, truly read a book in the boonies because I knew Crutts was always watching.”

As time passed, the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment was tasked with clearing the A Shau Valley, particularly hill 937, or Dong Ap Bia. On May 10, 1969, the battalion was dropped on the landing zone at the base of the hill. Each company moved out to their assigned axis of advance and Charlie Company moved further and further onto the base of the hill.

While navigating the steep jungle terrain of the A Shau Valley and passing over the first moments of what would eventually culminate in a grueling 11 day battle, Baylor took guidance and direction from his platoon leader Lt. Joel Tautmann.

“We didn’t take any contact the first few days of the battle,” said Trautmann, the platoon leader for 1st Platoon, Charlie Company in an interview with the West Point Center for Oral History. “We could hear contact over the radio from the other companies, but the jungle was too thick to hear the fighting.”

It wasn’t until the 14th of May that 1st Platoon was tasked with linking up with the company headquarters to reinforce 2nd and 3rd platoon, who were charging the hill.

“When I reached Charlie Company’s position, 2nd and 3rd Platoons were both pinned down,” said Trautmann. “I asked my commander for guidance, for a task and purpose, but he did not respond. He couldn’t even look me in the eye – mentally, he was gone.”

Trautmann moved forward on the line to gain perspective on the situation. When he turned around, the commander was nowhere to be found. In the middle of a battle, the commander left the company for the night defensive position.

“At that moment the weight of the world was on my shoulders,” Trautmann recalls.

After taking heavy fire, Trautmann immediately organized all three platoons to lay down suppressive fire and retrieve their casualties. Baylor was tasked with recovering the wounded and killed in action.

“I couldn’t recognize them,” said Baylor, “except for one man who wore a wrist watch on both arms. Their faces were completely gone. That memory would haunt me forever.”

After being demoralized, Charlie Company reconsolidated and was tasked to secure the battalion command post for the next three days. On the 18th of May, the men of 1st Platoon would yet again face another test of courage.

Delta Company was currently pinned down in active engagement. Trautmann was tasked to put together a squad-sized element to maneuver on the west flank to draw enemy fire and allow Delta Company to retrograde. When Trautmann told his men of the upcoming mission, they were apprehensive to say the least.

“Hell no, we will not go. This mission is suicide,” said Trautmann, explaining his Soldiers’ emotional response.

Knowing the state of morale of the platoon Trautmann knew of only one thing to do.

“I didn’t know if they would follow me or not, but I grabbed my rifle and my pack and I walked right through my men and said ‘Follow me,’” Trautmann recalls.

Eight men picked themselves up and followed the lieutenant, two of whom were Baylor and his best friend, Crutts. They approached the edge of the foliage that led to a vast opening of dirt without cover or concealment, and they charged. As they assaulted up the hill, they opened fire, and within moments one of the men yelled out, “Crutts is hit!”

Baylor, with his eyes toward the enemy, then saw Trautmann take a bullet to the femur and drop. Concerned for his friend, Baylor turned around and grabbed Crutts and held him in his arms.

“Are you ok? Crutts are you with me?” recalled Baylor.

By then he was already gone, and while Baylor was holding Crutts, kneeling low, a round penetrated his side and Baylor went down.

“If I wasn’t kneeling with Crutts, if I was standing, the round would have hit my spine. Crutts saved my life,” said Baylor.

Baylor was evacuated off the hill without ever making it to the top.

These memories would stay buried deep in Baylor’s memory for the rest of his life, and as he grew older, his curiosity for the top of Hamburger Hill grew.

“I’ve always envied those who have made it to the top,” he said. “What was that like? When I heard members of the battalion were making a trip back to Vietnam with veterans, it was a no brainer for me.”

Baylor summited Hamburger Hill at 76 years old.

How vision became a reality for veteran Rakkasans

This is just one of Baylor’s war stories, and many veteran’s stories would be lost or untold if it weren’t for guardians of history and heritage who facilitate opportunities for communion and reconciliation. That is exactly what Lt. Col. Martin Bowling facilitated during his command of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, Iron Rakkasans.

“The Iron Rakkasans have a heritage, legacy, and reputation of being the most aggressive battalion, which always accomplishes the mission, and never backs down from a challenge,” said Bowling. “Those that have come before us earned that reputation in blood, sweat, and tears, and it is our duty to honor them for their sacrifices, and recognize them for their valor.”

During his two years in command, the month of May became a special month to reunite with the Rakkasans of Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq to pay tribute and honor them, especially the veterans of the famous, Battle of Hamburger Hill. Veterans across the country conduct reunions each year. The “Hamburger Hill Vets” reunite in the same location, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division. They do this to stay consistent in the hope that more veterans from the battle will hear of these reunions and stay connected to today’s generation of Rakkasan.

In May of 2019, current Rakkasan Soldiers honored the veterans of the Battle of Hamburger Hill, to include Spc. James Baylor, by returning to that hallowed battlefield in the A Shau Valley for on the battle’s 50th anniversary.

It all started with a commander’s vision. Upon taking command in 2017, Bowling announced his first two priorities. The first, to build the most lethal platoons in the 101st Airborne Division who are ready to deploy, fight, and win in the most austere environments at any time. Second, to significantly enhance the relationships between currently serving and previous generations of Iron Rakkasans, Army veterans, and community leaders.

It just turned out that his command window landed on the 49th and 50th anniversaries of the Battle of Hamburger Hill. However, the events that would occur in the next two years were much more deliberate than the timing of his career.

From May 10 to May 20 1969, the men of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment would assault up a massive hill in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam known as Dong Ap Bia or “the Crouching Beast.” Then, Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt would command these brave Soldiers through the most trying times of their lives. The 11-day battle resulted in 70 percent of the formation wounded or killed in action while imparting 600 killed in action on the enemy.

In a war that some would rather forget, and memories that are most times too hard to face, how do we honor such men who were called to make the ultimate sacrifice? Bowling’s answer was simple.

“We will bring them in, execute a physical challenge that represents the sacrifices they made, wrap our arms around them, and welcome them home,” said Bowling. “Oh yeah, and we’re going to take them back to Vietnam.”

On the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill, hundreds of Screaming Eagle Soldiers and local citizens welcomed home 87 Hamburger Hill veterans for the first time at Fort Campbell. The next day, nine veterans and 11 Soldiers boarded an aircraft and flew to Da Nang Airport, for a five-day journey recounting the steps they took exactly 50 years earlier.

“I’m proud of myself for being able to hike up that mountain at 76,” said Baylor. “And while I was hiking, I said a little prayer. I told Crutts I was going to make it to the top of the hill for both of us, that I was determined! Even if I had to crawl, I was going to get to the top. And we did, we made it to the top of the hill together.”

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