Read an Excerpt
AMERICAN WARRIORA COMBAT MEMOIR OF VIETNAM
By JOHN C. BAHNSEN, JR. Wess Roberts
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2007 John C. "Doc" Bahnsen and Wess Roberts
All right reserved.
Chapter One4 October 1965-en route to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Republic of Vietnam
The flight stateside to Vietnam is a long one. It gave me time to reflect on my past and present life.
The Bahnsen family lived in what was Flensburg, Denmark, before the Schlesweig-Holstein loss to Prussia after the Franco-Prussian War. They were proud Danes who didn't adapt well to German rule. Accordingly, they immigrated to the United States during the late 1880s.
In 1890, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother were murdered in southern Alabama. My grandfather chased their murderer all the way to Texas, but never caught him. Neither did the law.
My grandfather, Dr. Peter F. Bahnsen, after whom I picked up the nickname "Doc," came to the United States with his parents. A self-taught veterinarian, Grandpa was appointed Georgia's first state veterinarian. He later retired to his "model" dairy farm in Americus.
My father and mother, John C. Bahnsen and Evelyn Williams, were married in Waycross, Georgia, in early 1934. I was born in November of that year. My brother Peter was born two years later.
In 1924, Dad graduated as the senior ranking cadet from Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. He wanted to continue his education, but Grandpa Bahnsen didn't believe my dad needed further formal schooling and called him home.
After Dad returned home, Grandpa Bahnsen put up the money for him to try his hand in several business ventures, including farming, but they all went belly-up during the early years of the Great Depression.
During this period, Dad joined the Army Reserve. He was a first lieutenant when he received a one-year call up to command the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Waycross.
Dad loved the Army and would have made it his career, but, as a reserve officer, he was discharged during the drawdowns of the 1930s. When he left active duty, Dad vowed that should he have sons, they would become Regular Army officers, a status granting immunity from reductions-in-force.
After separating from the Army, Dad became the civilian commander of various CCC camps throughout Georgia until the buildup for World War II began in 1940. His last job in the CCC was to close camps as the men working in them reported for military duty.
In 1941, my dad was hired on as the Wilcox County soil conservationist, and he moved our family to Rochelle, an agricultural community noted for the production of broilers, cantaloupe, cotton, peanuts, timber, and watermelon.
I grew up hunting and fishing in the south Georgia fields, woods, and swamps. My best friends were mostly country boys who lived on farms. We took off our shoes as soon as we could in the spring and went barefoot until the frost came in late fall.
Dad was an avid horseman. He made sure Peter and I had a pony or a horse to ride from the time we were able to hold on to a saddle horn. We also owned bird dogs, and Dad taught Peter and me to hunt with dogs from a young age. I also made and flew model airplanes. I suppose this childhood hobby was the beginning of my lifelong love of flying.
I attended Rochelle schools until my freshman year in high school, then went to live with my grandpa Bahnsen and aunt Bee in Americus because its high school offered more math and science courses than I could get at home.
A year later, I returned to Rochelle for eighteen months before heading to Marion Military Institute in Marion, Alabama, for some much needed prep schooling.
I played B-squad basketball and A-squad football on the junior college teams at Marion and became well prepared academically for what I hoped would be the next phase of my education: West Point.
Over the years, my dad made several key political connections. One of them, Senator Walter F. George, gave me a principal appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.
I graduated from Marion Military in January 1952 but remained there to study for the West Point admission exams I took two months later at Fort Benning, Georgia. When the exams were over, I went home to earn some pocket money measuring land for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
I reported to West Point in early July. It was the answer to my childhood dreams. A military career was the only career I ever wanted, and there's no better place to start a military career than West Point.
Incongruous with my career ambitions, I had a lackadaisical attitude toward most academic studies at West Point. Only military subjects and physical education interested me enough to really apply myself.
I won my numerals pole vaulting on the plebe track team, and I became an avid intramural athlete for Company C-1 throughout my cadet days. Besides being an intramural wrestler and swimmer, I played intramural football, lacrosse, and soccer.
I met Captain Hank "The Gunfighter" Emerson while serving as the captain and coach of my company's lacrosse team. Emerson was a tactical officer in another regiment, but he and his good friend Captain George S. Patton had me assigned to them as cadet training officer during my first class summer field training at Camp Buckner-the field training site at West Point.
In this capacity, I helped Patton plan and execute the air mobile exercise for the yearling class. Neither of us realized that the summer of 1955 would be replayed many times over in combat thirteen years later in Vietnam.
This beginning of a lifelong association with these two distinguished officers (Emerson made lieutenant general; Patton retired as a major general) was a molding one for me. They liked my "spirit" in particular and took great pride in my performance during tactical training that summer.
When first class summer was over, Patton and Emerson tried to have me made a cadet company commander, but that was not in the cards with my company tactical officer. When that door slammed shut, they asked me if I wanted to serve on a cadet staff. I told them, "Hell no! I want to lead!"
Based on their strong recommendation, I was appointed a cadet lieutenant and platoon leader and given additional duty as my company's athletic representative, putting me in charge of all our intramural teams.
I truly enjoyed my first class year for several reasons, one of the most memorable being the exhilaration I felt over my company's team run on the brigade intramural championship, the Banker's Trophy. We came in second out of twenty-four companies. That still frustrates me. I wish I could round up my teammates, turn back time, and have another go at first place.
During my time at West Point and before, I had dreamed of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot. When I failed the eye exam for Air Force flight training during my first class year, that dream went by the wayside.
I stood 406 out of 480 when my class graduated from West Point on 5 June 1956. Because of my low class standing, infantry and artillery were my choices for a combat arms branch assignment. I chose infantry.
Shortly after graduation, I reported for duty as a student in the Infantry Officer Basic Course, followed by Airborne School, at Fort Benning.
Two major turning points in my life took place while I was attending the Basic Course. In December 1956, I married my childhood sweetheart: Patricia "Pat" Fitzgerald. I also passed the physical exam for Army flight training and was selected to attend Fixed Wing Flight School immediately following the completion of airborne training.
Flight school took place at Camp Gary, Texas, and Fort Rucker, Alabama. I was one of the first in my class to solo, after seven hours and fifteen minutes' flying time with an instructor pilot, but finished in the middle at graduation. The school was a lot of fun and Pat and I enjoyed Texas in particular. I became a master mason in my home lodge during this time and remain a member of Rochelle Lodge #190 to this day.
After flight school, I returned to Fort Benning as an aviator in Artillery Flight, 3rd Aviation Company, 3rd Infantry Division. During this assignment, I attended the 3rd Army's sixty-day Fixed Wing Instrument Qualification Course in Augusta, Georgia, and finished first in my class. My motivation for taking this training so seriously was a series of severe accidents by aviators in our unit who lacked instrument tickets (that is, weren't qualified to fly by instruments).
In November 1957, Pat gave birth to our first son, Jon Christian, at Columbus, the quintessential sleepy southern town abutting Fort Benning's main gate.
In 1958, the 3rd Division was deployed to Germany, where I was soon made director of instruction in the 3rd Aviation Company's Aerial Observer School. In this capacity, I spent hours upon hours flying an L-19 Bird Dog in circles over the Grafenwöhr firing range teaching forward observers the aerial adjustment of artillery fire, becoming an expert at adjusting artillery fire from the air in the process. This well-honed skill would prove very useful in later years during combat operations in Vietnam.
During my time in Germany, I attended a six-week Intelligence Officer Course at Oberammergau, finishing first in my class because I found it interesting. This training qualified me to be an S-2, a job I would never hold, but what I learned about the Soviet order of battle came in handy in future years because the NVA often employed Soviet tactics.
Later that year, I asked First Lieutenant David K. Doyle to get me assigned as a platoon leader in his company, and he did. Soon after, in early 1959, I requested a transfer to the 1st Tank Battalion, 68th Armor. The 3rd Aviation Company's leaders were astounded by my request, but approved it.
Serving under Doyle was a godsend for me. He was a competent soldier, a superb trainer, and a caring commander. I stayed under Doyle's mentorship until he was transferred to E Company to square it away.
Doyle and I later served together as instructors at Fort Knox and went on to simultaneously command squadrons in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. He had a tremendous career, retiring as a lieutenant general.
Doyle's replacement was a nice enough fellow but he didn't have a clue about commanding a tank company. He lasted about six months before being relieved from command during the company's Annual Training Test at Hohenfels. Despite his shortcomings, my loyalty to him put me in good stead within the battalion. And although he left under a cloud, the spectacular Officer Efficiency Report (OER) he wrote on me was enthusiastically endorsed by my battalion commander. That OER got me off to a good start as an armor officer.
Like my budding armor career, my family grew during this assignment. In June 1959, Pat gave birth to our second son, Bradley Duncan, in the Würzberg Army Hospital.
In June 1960, I assumed command of B Company. I held that position for a year as a first lieutenant. It was a great unit with many fine officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs). The highlight of this command came when we qualified seventeen of seventeen tanks on the Tank Crew Qualification Course at Grafenwöhr on the first run, an unheard of achievement at the time. This feat resulted from training, training, and more training fueled by the esprit de corps that comes from true teamwork. It also resulted in my first Army Commendation Medal. I later wrote about this achievement in my first published article for Armor magazine.
Upon completion of our three years in Germany, Pat and the kids returned to Rochelle while I was assigned temporary duty (TDY) at Fort Wolters, Texas, to attend the Rotary Wing Aviator Course. Following this training in the OH-23 Raven light-observation helicopter, I received orders to attend the Armor Officer Advance Course at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
As a student at Fort Knox, I didn't receive formal instruction about Vietnam or fighting in the jungle. It was too early in the war for "lessons learned" to be integrated into the curriculum. However, I did have the informal opportunity to learn a great deal about the war and fighting in the jungle from two foreign officers.
My tablemate for part of the advanced course was Captain "Pierre" Tran Van Thoan, a South Vietnamese Army officer. He was half French and very well educated and polished. His wife came from a wealthy family, so they socialized with the elite in their country. We became very good friends and, over the course of many conversations, Pierre provided me with a superb background and rundown on the fight against the Ho Chi Minh-led communist North Vietnamese.
Another tablemate was Lieutenant Colonel Nobuji Oda, a Japanese Defense Force officer, who impressed me as a superb soldier.
Oda commanded a tank platoon in Burma during World War II. Notwithstanding the fact that all of his tanks not lost to mechanical failure were destroyed over a short period of fighting with British forces, the experiences Oda shared with me about fighting with tanks in jungle terrain came in handy when I commanded an armor squadron during my second tour in Vietnam.
I graduated in the middle of my advanced course class but was selected to stay on at the Armor School as an instructor in armored cavalry and air cavalry tactics in the command and staff department.
This assignment gave me the opportunity to get to know officers I would serve with in future years. It also helped me become well schooled in armor tactics and gave me the opportunity to influence the early development of air cavalry tactics.
Important changes in my family life occurred during my three years at Fort Knox. Pat gave birth to our daughter, Leeanne, on my birthday in November 1962. Her birth was followed by my father's death in August 1963 at the young age of fifty-nine. Dad lived long enough to see my brother and me make Regular Army captain, but too short a time to get to know his grandchildren. His death was followed by Pat giving birth to our third son, James Fitzgerald, in February 1964.
In 1964, I left the Armor School to attend the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I was one of the first in my West Point class to be selected for this schooling.
Attending the Command and General Staff College brought me together with a lot of old friends, former students, and West Point classmates who had just returned from the war. I had plenty of off-duty time to hunt birds, improve my golf game, read widely, and become a thirty-second-degree Scottish Rite mason.
The core curriculum was not a great challenge for me. On every test where my own solution could be one of the options, I always selected that tactical solution. I also enjoyed sharpshooting instructors who were weak in their subject areas. Unsurprisingly, I did not endear myself to my instructors, but I did win the "Tiger of the Year" award from my section mates.
The mounting war in Vietnam first hit my thoughts in 1961 when the call went out for volunteers to be advisers in the counterinsurgency effort there. My brother, Peter, a Special Forces officer, and several of my close friends responded to that call. I had no desire for going to war in an advisory position. I could have volunteered to fly helicopters in Vietnam. But at that point in the war, helicopter units were transportation branch aviation companies, not my area of interest.
As my time at Leavenworth drew to a close, U.S. forces were becoming more and more engaged in the fighting. As the pace of the fighting picked up, going to Vietnam started to become more appealing to me. Moreover, combat arms aviators were starting to take charge of our aviation assets and transportation branch aviators were moving back into their support role as maintenance officers.
I finished in the lower third of my Command and General Staff College class in June 1965 with a diploma in one hand and orders to Vietnam in the other. I was thirty-one years old, cocky and self-confident, fit and ready, teeming with testosterone, and eager to experience my first battle. However, the bubble of my enthusiasm burst when I read my orders: they had me going to Vietnam as a CV-2 Caribou pilot-I would be flying a fucking transport aircraft in a combat-support role.
Excerpted from AMERICAN WARRIOR by JOHN C. BAHNSEN, JR. Wess Roberts Copyright © 2007 by John C. "Doc" Bahnsen and Wess Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.