Name: Jon R. Cavaiani
Rank/Branch: E5/US Army Special
ForcesUnit: Task Force 1, Advisory Element, USARV TAG SUP; Headquarters USARV
Date of Birth: 02 August 1943
Home City of Record: Merced CA
Date of Loss: 05 June 1971
Country of Loss: South Vietnam
Status (in 1973): Released POW
Staff Sergeant U.S. Army Jon R. Cavaiani was born in England and came to America with his parents in 1947 at the age of four. Although he was classified 4-F because of an allergy to bee stings and was married with two children, Cavaiani enlisted in the Army shortly after being naturalized in 1968.
He qualified for Special Forces and arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1970; later he joined the Studies and Observation Group (SOG), an unconventional warfare task force, and was soon leading clandestine operations against the North Vietnamese. In the spring of 1971, SSG Cavaiani was in charge of the security platoon for an isolated radio relay site deep in the northwestern most outpost of South Vietnam near Khe Sanh. The mission of his unit, which comprised 70 indigenous troops and 13 Americans, was to provide security for this intelligence-gathering operation. On the morning of June 4, the camp came under attack by an overwhelming enemy force. Cavaiani moved through the exploding mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic weapons fire to organize a defensive perimeter and direct the U.S. force’s fight for survival. When a grenade knocked him down and wounded him as he was firing a .50-caliber machine gun, he picked himself up and continued to organize the fight. By midday, it was clear that the small American contingent wouldn’t be able to fight off the North Vietnamese.
Cavaiani called in help and directed the evacuation, but the helicopters broke off the mission before the last 17 of his men could be taken out. While they remained in the camp overnight trying to fend off enemy attacks, Cavaiani again established a defensive position and concentrated his efforts on strengthening the morale of his men. The next morning, obscured by heavy ground fog, the North Vietnamese massed. Ordering his remaining men to try to escape, Cavaiani attempted to keep the enemy at bay with small arms and hand grenades. The survivors, who last saw him standing with a machine gun spraying the two columns of advancing soldiers, reported his heroic death when they got back to the American lines.
Although he had been shot in the back, Cavaiani was able to crawl into a bunker with another American, Sgt. James Jones. When two NVA soldiers entered, Cavaiani killed one with a dagger, and Jones shot the other. Then an enemy grenade exploded in the bunker. Badly wounded, Jones stepped out to surrender and was killed by rifle shots; Cavaiani played dead. When the North Vietnamese set the bunker on fire, he was severely burned but managed to escape into the jungle. He evaded capture for 11 days and had almost made it back to an American camp when he was caught by a 70-year-old peasant with an antique bolt-action rifle. Cavaiani was taken to North Vietnam by his captors and spent time in “Plantation Gardens,” a prisoner-of-war camp, and in the interrogation center known as the Zoo before winding up in the “Hanoi Hilton.”
When he was released in 1973, he heard that he had been recommended for the Medal of Honor. It was awarded to him on December 12, 1974, by President Gerald Ford, who spent an hour with the Cavaiani family after the ceremony. In 1990 Jon retired after 21 years of service as a Sergeant Major.
Years later Jon said this about time in Vietnam:
“An individual must at least attempt to keep his mind occupied, to retain his sanity otherwise, the enemy will enter. Therefore, I decided what were the things I believed in: God, America, and my family. Yes, they had always been in my mind and then when I needed them most they stood by me as a shield against the enemy. After extensive and rigorous training in the skills of the Special Forces, I went to Vietnam as a weapons man.
Upon arriving there I was immediately made Agricultural Advisor for Military Region 1 or I Corps, a job in which I had an extensive knowledge, having been District Sales Manager for a chemical company, which specialized in agricultural chemicals, prior to my military career. Also, before working for the chemical company, I had farmed for four and a half years.
I was Agricultural Advisor for four months until reassigned to run reconnaissance for four months. I was also a heavy weapons platoon leader for a month. My last assignment before being captured was as a commander of a relay site north west of Quang Tri.
On June 4, 1971 the site was attacked and overrun by the enemy. The following day, I was captured. From that day forward the enemy, in their own way, gave me the will to survive, to resist their ideas and their belief that what they were doing was right. This in turn strengthened my conviction that I was right in being in Vietnam.
As a prisoner I was to meet some of the most heroic men I have ever or will ever hope to encounter, men who never let their country or families down, when so many people in the United States were letting us, the POWs, MIAs and almost all our country, down. Well, by God, regardless of what some people said about the war, we did our jobs as men and kept the faith in our President and country. I thank God and my country for letting me come back to see my daughters again. And I say, with great pride, God Bless America.”