John C. “Doc” Bahnsen, Jr. was an Army warrior and air cavalry tactics pioneer. His thirty-year military career included aerial combat missions while in command of the “Bandits” gunship platoon and ground combat missions that included perilous landings and dragging NVA soldiers from hiding in the jungles of the Iron Triangle. During these years in combat, he earned a reputation as a fearless leader and a brilliant strategist who developed tactics later adopted as doctrine. He was ultimately one of America’s most-decorated soldiers in the Vietnam War.
Doc was born in Albany, Georgia on November 8th, 1934. He entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1952 and graduated with a commission as an Infantry Second Lieutenant in 1956. A graduate of the Infantry Officer Basic Course, Airborne School, and Fixed Wing Flight School, Doc’s first assignment as an aviator was to West Germany where he eventually transferred to the Armor branch and progressed to company command. He then attended the Rotary Wing Aviator Course followed by the Armor Officer Advanced Course, where he remained as an instructor of armored cavalry and air cavalry tactics before being assigned to Command and General Staff College.
During his first tour of duty in Vietnam, he commanded the “Bandits” gunship platoon at Bien Hoa Air Base, supporting a Marine unit for Operation DOUBLE EAGLE, where he was awarded his first of five Silver Star medals. He quickly became the operations officer for the 118th Aviation Company and was subsequently promoted to Major and assigned to the 12th Combat Aviation Group, where he created a "Top Gun" competition to improve helicopter weapons marksmanship. During his second Vietnam tour in 1968, Doc commanded a troop composed of UH-1 and OH-6 helicopters, AH-1 gunships, and an infantry aero rifle platoon that saw over 300 enemy contacts over thirteen months. He frequently fought from the air in his UH-1 command and control helicopter, but also led operations on the ground. Remarkably, he was the only Major to command a squadron in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment during the Vietnam War. Receiving an early promotion to Colonel, he was assigned to Fort Rucker as the first TRADOC Program Manager for Attack Helicopters followed by an assignment as the Commander of the 1st Aviation Brigade. Upon promotion to Brigadier General, he served as Assistant Division Commander of the 2d Armored Division followed by Chief of Staff of the Combined Field Army, South Korea. After his tour in Korea, Doc was assigned as Chief of Staff for the III Armored Corps, Fort Hood, Texas.
He is the recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star with four oak leaf clusters, Legion of Merit with three oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star Medal with three oak leaf clusters and three “V’s” for valor, two Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with two Silver Stars, Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster, and fifty-one Air Medals (three with “V”) and several other awards. Retiring in 1986, Doc returned to West Point, New York and worked at BDM Corporation prior to forming his own consulting firm, Bahnsen, Inc. After his wife's retirement from active service, Doc settled in her hometown, New Cumberland, West Virginia.
General Bahnsen’s AH-1 Cobra gunship, pictured in forward flight, represents his forward thinking in helicopter tactics. Prior to Vietnam, helicopter tactics were still emerging, resulting in numerous lessons learned that would later become doctrine still in practice today by U.S. Army helicopter units in Afghanistan.