John C. ‘Doc’ Bahnsen, among most decorated U.S. combat vets, dies at 89

ROCHELLE, Ga. ­ — The nation lost one of its most highly decorated combat veterans Wednesday with the death of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John C. “Doc” Bahnsen, who rode helicopters with his troops into battle in the jungles of southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

He was 89.

Bahnsen died of natural causes with his wife and family members present in a home he recently had built on the ancestral family farm in agricultural southeast Georgia. He had returned to residence in his native state after 26 years of living at the family farm of his wife, Lt. Col. Peggy Miller, in New Cumberland.

“West Virginia has lost a true American hero,” said state Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke. “Doc Bahnsen was one of the most decorated officers in the history of the United States Army — and if you read about his service during the Vietnam War, you will understand why. I have had the privilege of calling Doc a friend over the last few years, and as a legislator I’ve always tried to live up to his motto of ‘fight fiercely.’ I will miss my talks with him tremendously, and my thoughts go out to Peggy and his entire family.”

“Doc” had remained deeply involved with military issues and leaders following his retirement in 1986. He actively spoke and wrote on warfare tactics and on issues such as using U.S. military forces in undeclared foreign wars with no clear mission goal or “end game.” He spent much of his retirement personally helping individual veterans receive benefits and honors due them.

Bahnsen served under the then-Col. George S. Patton, commander of 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Patton called him “the best, most highly motivated and professionally competent leader I have served with in 23 years of service, to include the Korean War and two tours in Vietnam. He is one of those rare professionals who truly enjoys fighting, taking risks and sparring with a wily foe. He is utterly fearless and because of this, demands the same from his unit.”

During his first tour of duty in Vietnam in 1965-66, Bahnsen commanded the “Bandits” helicopter gunship platoon at Bien Hoa. Most of his 18 decorations for valor came in his second tour, in 1968-69, when as a major he commanded an air cavalry troop, including a 40-man rifle platoon, observation helicopters and gunships. He fought in more than 300 engagements and had several helicopters shot out from under him.

In a 2007 interview, Bahnsen said, “My only regret is about the 44 soldiers killed under my command. Every single loss is a tragedy for the military and the family.” He has been vocal that politicians who have no family members serving in the military are much too eager to send U.S. service members into danger.

Patton, son of the legendary Patton of WWII fame, was a lifelong friend of Bahnsen. So was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a West Point classmate who wrote the foreword to Bahnsen’s 2007 co-authored autobiography, “American Warrior: A Combat Memoir of Vietnam,” called one of the best combat accounts of that war.

“Doc” Bahnsen’s commendations include the Distinguished Service Cross, five Silver Stars, four Legions of Merit, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Bronze Stars (three with a V for valor), two Purple Hearts and 51 Air Medals. He was inducted into the Army Aviation Hall of Fame, the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame and was invited to and honored by the U.S. Air Force Staff College Gathering of Eagles. Maintaining a continuous relationship with West Point over the years, Bahnsen was named a 2016 Distinguished Graduate of West Point.

A mark of the esteem in which he was held by many of those who served under him is that two of his Vietnam helicopter pilots, CW4 Earl Moore and CW5 James Noe, traveled to Georgia during his terminal illness and spent weeks assisting his wife and family members in his personal care.

“Brig. General Doc Bahnsen was a true American hero living in the Northern Panhandle. Beyond his truly decorated military career, Doc was a beloved and well-known active member of the Republican party and helped many candidates with our elections,” said state Sen. Laura Wakim Chapman, R-Ohio. “I first met Doc and his wife Peggy two decades ago when I volunteered my time as a camp counselor for Camp Lincoln. This camp invites West Virginia children from the entire state to participate in a mock political process. Doc was instrumental in helping children understand and appreciate how important policy is to our daily lives. I will never forget the kindness and great insight, advice, and assistance Doc and his wife Peggy provided me. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. He will be greatly missed.”

Three children,­ daughter LeeAnne and sons Jimi and Chris, and their families, reside in Georgia. Another son, Minh, and family members reside in Los Angeles.

At “Doc’s” request, he is to be cremated and his ashes buried in an Army ammo box on the Georgia farm. Memorial celebrations in Georgia and West Virginia are to be arranged.


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