Valor Friday

| April 12, 2024

Brigadier General John “Doc” Bahnsen w/ AH-64 circa early 1980s

I briefly mentioned today’s subject when I was talking in detail about another man. Staff Sergeant Rodney Yano earned the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for valor in action while a helicopter crewman over Vietnam.  The pilot of the chopper that day was John Bahnsen. Bahnsen was suggested as a Valor Friday candidate in his own right by KoB, after he discovered that Bahnsen had recently died (21 Feb 2024). Let’s take a look at why the ol’ Gun Bunny thinks that General Bahnsen would interest my readers.

This one ended up being a lot more writing than normal for me, so I fully expect there to be lots of typos and grammatical errors. Feel free to point them out or suggest other corrections. I won’t take it personally, but you may be added to my enemies list for other, totally unrelated reasons. Actually, since this will likely end up in one of my compilation books, the corrections are appreciated.

John Charles Bahnsen Jr was born in Georgia in 1934. His father was a federal soil conservation officer, and his grandfather ran a highly successful dairy farm. It is from his grandfather that Bahnsen would get the nickname “Doc.” His grandfather, in addition to his top of the line dairy operation, was the first state veterinarian for the State of Georgia. Until reading this, I just assumed “Doc” was a nom de guerre earned flying Dustoff in ‘Nam. Bahnsen might be the only aviator nickname “Doc” that didn’t fly medevac.

Growing up at various locales in Georgia, after high school Doc briefly attended the junior military academy Marion Military Institute in Alabama. From there he secured an appointment in 1952 to the US Military Academy at West Point. He received his appointment from Georgia Senator Walter George, a longtime ally of Doc’s grandfather.

While at West Point, Bahnsen participated in several sports, including pole vaulting, wrestling, lacrosse, swimming, football, and soccer. He also made the acquaintance of two young officers, who became mentors. One of these was future Lieutenant General Henry Emerson. He’d already earned two Silver Stars in Korea, and would later earn two Distinguished Service Crosses, three more Silver Stars, and the Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam. The other was George S Patton IV. He too had already seen action in Korea, earning a Silver Star. He also would go on to earn two DSCs in Vietnam, as well as another Silver Star, and a DFC. The name probably sounds familiar, as Patton’s dad was George S Patton. I’m sure you recognize that name, as he was the fifth place finisher in the modern pentathlon at the 1912 Summer Olympics. I think he may have also been in the Army, but let’s stay on topic.

Bahnsen wasn’t a particularly good student, but did well in his military science courses. He graduated in 406th place (out of 480) as an infantry second lieutenant in the Class of 1956. He then went to the Infantry Officer Basic Course and Airborne School. He took a break to get married before going to flight school. He first learned to fly fixed wing artillery observation aircraft.

His first operational assignment was to West Germany, as an artillery spotter in the 3rd Infantry Division. While there, he moved to the Armor Branch, and served in the 68th Armor Regiment. He got an Army Commendation Medal for getting all 17 of his tank crews through their qualification tests on their first attempt.

Returning to the States, Bahnsen was trained to fly rotary wing aircraft, then went to the Armor Officer Advanced Course at Fort Knox. He stayed on as an instructor there before being sent to the Command and General Staff College.

In 1965, Bahnsen made his first trip to Vietnam as a captain. He commanded the gunship platoon of the 118th Aviation Company. They flew UH-1B Hueys out of Bien Hoa, near Saigon. While in-country, he met up with his brother. Pete Bahnsen was also an Army captain, having followed his big brother to the USMA (Class of 1958), and was a Green Beret. In contravention of standing protocol that close relatives (brothers or fathers and sons) would not serve together in combat, it’s said that Pete rode on his brother’s chopper in at least one operational helicopter assault.

On 2 January 1966 though, Doc Bahnsen was flying over friendly forces engaged with the enemy near Vuc Lien, South Vietnam. Bahnsen was an aircraft commander flying in support of US Marines on the ground. He flew over the area, reconnoitered it, and landed in a supposedly secure area. Dismounting the aircraft, Bahsen and his men were being briefed about the situation from the commander on the ground when Viet Cong (VC) forces suddenly ambushed the American troops.

Bahnsen led his men back to their aircraft under a hail of enemy fire. The Huey was a big, useless target on the ground. He needed to get airborne so they could start shooting back. Once in the air, Bahnsen brought his chopper in over the ambushers, pouring devastating fire into them. With the help of the gunship, the Marines fought back the enemy without suffering major casualties.

Before Bahnsen could return to base, another company nearby called for help as they too were embroiled with Viet Cong. Coming in on repeated low level strafing runs at the VC, Bahnsen’s aggression in the face of hostile fire was later lauded. His fire support forced the enemy back long enough that he was able to land, though under intense hostile fire, long enough to load three wounded troops.

Returning the casualties to safety, Bahnsen returned to the embattled company. Taking direct fire from the ground while on a low-level reconnaissance pass, Bahnsen once more showed dauntless courage in the face of the enemy. He conducted not one, not two, but three low passes on the VC positions, expending all of his gunship’s ammunition. While doing this, he was also coordinating artillery fire onto the insurgents.

With his stores empty, Bahnsen returned to base, reloaded, and then went back into battle for at least the third time that day. In all, he would fly for more than ten hours continuously. He was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism in action that day.

Shortly after this, Bahnsen would be reassigned to 12th Combat Aviation Group at Long Binh with a promotion to major. While in this staff role, he created a “Top Gun” program to encourage his crews to hone their marksmanship. Winners got bragging rights and other prizes.

On 22 May 1966 was flying near Cu Chi on a low-level reconnaissance flight. He observed a squad of Viet Cong moving through the open just two miles from an American fire base. Bahnsen went into action, making five strafing passes on the enemy. In doing so, he flushed out an estimated two company’s worth of the enemy, that took his aircraft under concentrated fire. Taking several small arms hits to his aircraft, Bahnsen remained engaged and called in and coordinated additional helicopter gunships.

Both of the friendly helicopters took fire too, and when they were both forced to return to base because of this, Bahnsen remained. Flying alone over the battlefield, and once again becoming the sole target of the enemy’s wrath, Bahnsen continued coordinate artillery and close air support fire. On multiple low-level passes, he marked the enemy position with smoke, and guided American ground troops into action.

Bahnsen only left the battlefield when his Huey ran out of gas. However, he only returned to base long enough to refuel, and then flew right back into action over the enemy. As the American forces on the ground clashed with the Viet Cong, Bahnsen’s constant presence over the battle, repeatedly marking the enemy, ensured a successful defense of the fire base and drove the VC out of the area.

Bahnsen earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action that day.

Before leaving Vietnam in 1966, Bahnsen apparently had an affair with a Vietnamese woman. When he left the country she was pregnant, and died in a car crash a few months later. Her son survived though. Named Minh Bahnsen, he eventually found his way to the United States, met his father, and lived with him for a time. He’s in the motion picture industry, and has worked as a grip on several major motion pictures. Most recently he’s listed as having worked on Top Gun: Maverick.

For the next two years, Bahnsen was assigned to the Pentagon. He was responsible for verifying the combat preparedness of aviation and air cavalry units as they readied to deploy to Vietnam. He took graduate courses, and reacquainted himself with his old friend then- Colonel Patton, then also assigned to the Pentagon.

When Patton left for another tour of Vietnam, being given command of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (11th ACR), in 1968, he arranged for Bahnsen to join him as commanding officer of the unit’s air cavalry troop. He arrived in country in October 1968. His command included UH-1 troop transport choppers, OH-6 scouts, and AH-1 gunships.

COL Patton (L) and MAJ Bahnsen (R) – looking totally at home in action in Vietnam. This is some real “old school cool.”

Included in the air cav section were aero rifle platoon (ARP) troops. Being air mobile, these troops were frequently involved in combat action, almost daily in fact. You’ll recall that 1968 was the year that American (and actually all allied countries) had their largest numbers of troops in the country.

Bahnsen’s fearlessness in the face of enemy fire became the stuff of legend. He was known to not just command from his command and control helicopter over the battlefield, but to land and lead his troops in action on the ground. He arrived in Vietnam on 14 October, and just three days later earned another Silver Star.

On 17 October a group of 11th ACR troopers ran into a company-sized force of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers. Taking heavy automatic weapons fire from the numerically superior enemy, the American soldiers called for help. When reinforcements arrived, the NVA retreated, with a platoon of mechanized infantry and Bahnsen’s ARP in pursuit. They chased the enemy for more than two kilometers through the jungle when they were drawn into a well-concealed ambush.

From the air, Bahnsen could see the automatic weapons fire raking his men, who had been driven to the ground by the concealed enemy. He began to call in supporting fire on the enemy, flying his helicopter in several passes of the battlefield. When he could see that his men were stuck, he landed his helicopter between the besieged troops and the enemy. In full view of the NVA, he dismounted his aircraft and stood there right in the middle of the battlefield and bagan to direct his troops forward.

Driven down once by a sweep of enemy automatic rifle fire, Bahnsen directed his gunships’ fire onto the enemy. He then got up, and once more in full view of the enemy and with no regard for his safety, encouraged his men to follow him. He personally led the charge on the NVA positions. With the initiative seized, Bahnsen’s troops overran the enemy positions, and destroyed the hostile forces.

For this, Bahnsen was given a second Silver Star. Less than a fortnight later, he was again leading his troops from the front.

On 29 October, Bahnsen was leading his men in an attack against a platoon of Viet Cong. When his men of the Aero Rifle Platoon came under heavy automatic weapons fire from the enemy, Bahnsen’s scout helicopters were driven back after taking multiple hits. Disregarding the danger, Bahnsen flew his gunship right into the thick of the battle. Hovering at low level right where the enemy had been shooting the scout choppers, Bahnsen directed his door gunners right onto the enemy positions. The voluminous fire allowed Bahnsen’s ground troops to assault and overrun the enemy.

Bahnsen received his second DFC for this action. He got his third before the end of the year.

On 1 December, Bahnsen’s troops were attacking a well entrenched enemy position. After dropping off his Aero Rifle Platoon, Bahnsen immediately flew right into the enemy stronghold to mark the positions with smoke for follow-on airstrikes. After coordinating the airstrikes, Bahnsen directed the ground assault on the enemy fortification.

As the battle progressed, additional helicopters were called in to resupply the American troops. Taking heavy fire from the enemy, one of them was shot down. With no disregard for his safety, Bahnsen directed his helicopter right into the enemy fire to locate and coordinate the rescue of the downed aviators. After ensuring that they were safe, he returned to calling in artillery strikes on the enemy positions.

A month later, on 1 January 1969, Bahnsen was flying a routine, short range transport mission. Along for the ride was Staff Sergeant Rodney Yano, an 11th ACR helicopter mechanic. When Bahnsen’s airship was suddenly re-routed to support embattled ground troops, Yano took over the role of door gunner. One of his jobs was to pop and throw white phosphorous grenades which they were using to mark enemy positions. Bahnsen would then be able to call in airstrikes and artillery.

One of the grenades detonated prematurely, inside the aircraft. White phosphorus (WP) burns hot, bright, and smoky. It’s that smoky quality they were counting on, but now was working against them. The inside of the helicopter immediately filled with thick, opaque smoke. So thick that Bahnsen couldn’t see the control panel and instruments. While this was going on (over active combat), the other property of WP, that of burning exceptionally hot, became an immediate hazard to the aircraft and its occupants.

Yano had been hit with a full blast of WP from the grenade, burning through him and causing what would become fatal wounds. Despite this, he rendered aid to the other door gunner instead of taking a break for himself. The heat of the WP was now threatening the structure of the aircraft and causing ammunition to cook off, all while continuing to take ground fire.

Yano, partially blinded by the initial blast, and with an arm nearly blown off, started to move the exploding ammunition off the helicopter. Fighting through unimaginable pain, he single-handedly got all of the ammo off the helicopter, which allowed Bahnsen to reassert control.

Bahnsen immediately flew back to base to get Yano medical care. Despite their best efforts, Yano succumbed to his injuries. Bahnsen recommended Yano for a posthumous Medal of Honor, which Yano was awarded. For the rest of his days, Bahnsen would push for more recognition of the young man’s bravery.

On 23 January 1969, Major Bahnsen learned of a sizable enemy force nearby. Landing his helicopter within view of the enemy, he reconnoitered the area on foot, then marked a landing zone for the rest of his troop. As he took off from the site, he saw 15 enemy troops moving through the bush. Bahnsen grabbed his rifle, and fired it out the window of his helicopter (while piloting mind you) at the communist soldiers. He killed two of the enemy, and remained flying at low level to direct artillery fire into the VC.

Bahnsen’s helicopter took heavy enemy fire, as you’d expect, and after being hit multiple times, his crew chief was seriously wounded. This necessitated his withdrawal. Once he evacuated his crewman, refueled and rearmed and sped back to the battle. Meanwhile ground forces had arrived and began the attack.

He flew headlong into the enemy, pouring fire into their positions. When this helped force them into a confined area, Bahnsen marked the location with smoke and then called in airstrikes. He coordinated five airstrikes in total. While flying a helicopter. Oh, and he was still the overall commander for the ground operations. So he was directing the movement of four rifle platoons on the ground. All at the same time.

Bahnsen’s aircraft took multiple hits once again, crippling it, and forcing him to return to base. He wasted no time in grabbing another helicopter and once more returning to the fight. He decided to not just direct the fighting from the air, and landed right in the midst of the action. Dismounting, he guided in transport helicopters carrying additional troops.

With more infantrymen at his disposal, he personally led then through the dense jungle in the assault on the enemy. He personally captured two VC trying to flee the area. While the captured troops were evacuated by helicopter, Bahnsen remained on the ground to personally lead his squad two kilometers through the bush back to safety.

For this action Bahnsen was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The second highest award for gallantry in action, behind only the Medal of Honor.

On 3 February was flying a routine reconnaissance flight. His aircraft suddenly came under heavy automatic weapons fire from a well concealed enemy position. Taking note of the location, Bahnsen returned to his camp and assembled the Aero Rifle Platoon. Leading them into action, he realized that the enemy fortification was too strong for his men alone to succeed in taking. He pulled his men back to cordon off the area.

For the next three hours Bahnsen flew at treetop level over the VC position and coordinated airstrikes and artillery onto the enemy revetments. He called in an armored support. When a tank company and armored cavalry troopers arrived, Bahnsen continued to fly his helicopter at minimal altitude over the action to form and direct his men. He organized the forces and, while flying just feet above them, coordinated the final attack on the enemy base.

When Bahnsen saw some VC troops attempting to flee, he landed his helicopter, dismounted, and personally led his men in pursuit of the enemy. He got a third Silver Star for this action. During this time, Bahnsen had been serving under the leadership of his old friend Patton. In April, Colonel Jimmie Leach took over the 11th ACR. Leach had started his career just before World War II (he’d been in service for 30 years when he hit Vietnam), served as a tank commander during that war (earning a DSC), and would earn three Silver Stars and a Legion of Merit for action in Vietnam. Leach gave Bahnsen command of the 1st Squadron of the 11th ACR.

May 29th saw Bahnsen again flying over his men as they engaged the enemy. When they were halted by heavy enemy fire in the thick of the jungle, Bahnsen flew at low level over the enemy position. He repeatedly flew at low level, despite taking significant fire, over the enemy to call in artillery, close air support strikes, and helicopter gunships. Even when his Huey was hit repeatedly, he remained over the battle and refused to even fly at a safer altitude.

Eventually, Bahnsen’s equipment gave out, and forced him to make an emergency landing at his base camp. Where the machine was unwilling, the spirit of Doc Bahnsen was far from exhausted. He mounted a mechanized flame thrower and with his cavalry unit’s assault vehicles led them into the heaviest point of contact, as friendly aircraft were laying down covering fire.

Arriving in the thick of the fighting, Bahnsen shouted encouragement and orders to his men. Once they had reorganized, Bahnsen fought until the flame thrower went dry, as he lit up the enemy bunkers. After that, he moved to his personal weapon, and led a ground assault on a bunker with his rifle. Realizing they needed more help, Bahnsen (from in the midst of the fighting) called in additional airstrikes. When this caused the enemy to break and flee, Bahnsen organized his men into a defensive perimeter. Using the enemy’s bunkers, he prepared his men to hunker down for the night.

Bahnsen received a fourth Silver Star for that day’s gallantry. It wasn’t his last though, he got a fifth before his tour ended later in 1969.

On 6 September he was flying in his command and control helicopter guiding his troops embroiled in action on the ground. While not acting as the pilot on this sortie, he directed the pilot to make repeated low level passes so that he could surveil the battlefield. When the troop commander on the ground had been seriously wounded, Bahnsen ordered the pilot to land. Dismounting, he found his men had captured five enemy. He helped to load the prisoners and the casualties onto his command chopper, then had them return to base.

Bahnsen mounted an armored cavalry vehicle and led the attack on the enemy position. Before the smoke cleared, the enemy was driven out. The men of 1st Squadron, 11th ACR found the bodies of 69 enemy troops in their wake.

In addition to an amazing fifth Silver Star, Bahnsen was awarded a Legion of Merit for his “remarkable leadership abilities and rare judgment” during his year in Vietnam. His award citation is probably the most verbose and glowing Legion of Merit I’ve ever seen. Read it here. It’s an unusually high award for a major to receive (his second was awarded when he was a colonel and the final two when he was a general officer).

Leaving Vietnam with a whole chest full of medals, he was also promoted to lieutenant colonel. He then served in West Germany. During his 1968-69 tour in Vietnam, Bahnsen divorced his first wife Pat and married Phyllis, who he’d become involved with as she too was in Vietnam (as a State Department contractor). Three years later, Bahnsen divorced Phyllis and remarried Pat.

After Germany, Bahnsen completed War College and then served in a staff position at Fort Knox. As part of this tour, he was involved in the development of the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) training gear. While many of us have less than fond memories of MILES, it was a state-of-the-art system when developed and added an unheard of level of realism to training exercises.

Bahnsen got an early promotion to colonel, and would ultimately retire in 1986 as a brigadier general. His final assignments included at the Training and Doctrine Command, assistant division commander of the 2nd Armored Division, and chief of staff for the III Armored Corps.

In retirement, Bahnsen was a consultant for military and defense contractors. He was active in the West Point Alumni community, the Republican Party, and gave frequent speeches on leadership to Army audiences. He died at his home in Georgia at the age of 89. In addition to the numerous awards I’ve discussed above, he also held four Bronze Star Medals (at least one w/ “V”), 51 Air Medals (at least one w/ “V”), two Purple Hearts, and at least one Army Commendation Medal with “V” for Valor. In retirement he was also awarded the Order of Saint George (in gold) from the US Army Armor Association (to date less than 100 gold OSGs have been awarded). He was also honored with the Order of Military Medical Merit by the Army Medical Regiment, Order of Saint Michael (Bronze) by the Army Aviation Association of America, and Order of Saint Barbara by the U.S. Army Field Artillery Association. He is listed in the US Army Aviation Hall of Fame and the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.

Category: Army, Distinguished Service Cross, Historical, Valor, Vietnam, We Remember

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Steve1371

Holy crap, I am glad I didn’t ever have to fly with that guy! I like a challenge and do risky things but not to that level. Not repeatedly anyhow.
Rest in peace Brig. Gen. Bahnsen , you certainly earned it.

Odie

Amazing any helicopter he was flying could get off the ground with the stones he was packing. The ability to multi task while flying at tree top level, keeping an eye out for what’s needed and where while being shot at? And to go back and grab another ride because your last one had been shot to pieces and repeat again?
No chopper available? I’ll take a flame thrower. He certainly led by example.

KoB

Just…DAAAYUUUM! The epitome of a Warrior’s Warrior! And another excellent example of “…bringing every weapon to bear…” That such men lived…indeed. Rest Easy, Good Sir, you have surely earned your spot in Valhalla. Battalion gun salute for this Hero. Shows how good our choppers were that they could lift this man and his Big Brass Ones.

Outstanding write up, Mason. I knew you could do it justice. Thanks!

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

CLANK! CLANK!

fm2176

That such men lived. I wish I’d have known of BG Bahnsen when I was at Forts Stewart and Benning. I passed through Rochelle many times on my way from Hinesville to DeSoto, and to meet such a hero would have been great. Who knows? Maybe I passed him in the Piggly Wiggly once or twice…

We live in an age now where officers and enlisted are often rarely afforded the opportunity to earn multiple decorations for gallantry and valor. The true heroes are usually recognized for their actions before being relegated to a training, staff, or advisory role. Meanwhile, we end up with people like Milley and Charlie Brown as our senior leaders.

Prior Service

Balls! I’ve been in the army for 35 years and this dude did more in any one day than I’ve done in my entire career, and then he did so repeatedly. I’m simultaneously in awe and a little bit embarrassed. Well done.

Hate_me

Late to the party, but glad I read it. Great man, with great mentors and at least one great protégé.

Yes, we all hate MILES – but that’s not really the fault of the system.

I cannot count how many times I’ve used MILES gear – but I only need one finger to add up all the times it was calibrated/zeroed before being forced to put it myself or my rifle. When properly coordinated, there is still no system better for what it does (though I ascribe to an integrated training model that also includes airsoft, simunition, paintball, and shock knives all coordinated with table-top or simulated CPXs).

Last edited 1 month ago by Hate_me