During this week in 1971, a soldier engages in an action that would ultimately earn him the Medal of Honor. Staff Sgt. Jon R. Cavaiani had stayed with his men, even after he’d been directly ordered to leave. He managed to save almost everyone in his platoon—except himself.
Cavaiani found himself wounded and on the run for days on end. He was unfortunately captured by the North Vietnamese just before he reached safety in an American camp.
It all began on June 4, 1971, as Cavaiani led a mixed platoon of Americans and indigenous troops at an important radio relay site known as Outpost Hickory. The platoon came under attack. Cavaiani moved quickly, “rallying the platoon,” as his Medal citation says, “in a desperate fight for survival.”
“I realized I’m going to lose the camp,” Cavaiani later said, “I’ve got to destroy all the sensitive equipment that we have up there.” Evacuation helicopters were also called in. They evacuated most of the men, but roughly 20 troops remained behind.
At this point, according to his own account, Cavaiani was ordered to leave. The men remaining on the ground were not Americans—they were the indigenous Vietnamese troops, Montagnards, who had been helping the Americans. “You’ve gotta be frickin’ joking with me. . . . When you come pick up all my little people, then you’ll see me on a helicopter,” he later said of that order.
Cavaiani was putting his life on the line, staying overnight—and defying an order to do it.
Things weren’t too much better the next morning. A heavy fog hung over the area, making it impossible for the helicopters to come back. Meanwhile, the enemy force had redoubled their efforts to take out the small group still remaining behind.
Cavaiani ordered his men to try to escape in small groups of 2s and 3s. “With 1 last courageous exertion,” his citation concludes, “S/Sgt. Cavaiani recovered a machine gun, stood up, completely exposing himself to the heavy enemy fire directed at him, and began firing the machine gun in a sweeping motion along the 2 ranks of advancing enemy soldiers.”
Many of his men were able to escape. Most who did also believed that they’d watched Cavaiani’s death as they fled.
Cavaiani had been shot in the back, but he wasn’t dead. He crawled into a bunker with the other remaining American, Sgt. John R. Jones. Someone rolled in a grenade. Cavaiani kicked it away, but it still exploded too close. At that point, Jones stepped out to surrender—only to be immediately shot.
Cavaiani decided to play dead.
“I remember looking out and my feet sitting out like that,” Cavaiani described, motioning with his hands, “and there’s a guy sitting on the cot, feet hanging down and he’s got my boot, going like this, checking it out. And I guess he figured they were too big. He figured I got killed when the round came through. And he got up and walked out.”
The North Vietnamese left, but not before they’d set Cavaiani’s bunker on fire. Despite his wounds, Cavaiani was able to crawl out and escape into the jungle.
Would you believe that he survived for 11 days, almost making it back to an American camp before being captured by a local at the last minute?
Cavaiani would be held as a POW for 23 months before finally making it home.
“When people ask me what I got the Medal of Honor for, I tell ‘em I couldn’t outrun ‘em, I had to fight ‘em,” he later said. “And I leave it there. I was just doing my job.”
- America’s Heroes: Medal of Honor Recipients from the Civil War to Afghanistan (Jim Willbanks ed. (2011)
- J.D. Leipold, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient, Special Forces legend dies at 70 (U.S. Army website; Aug. 7, 2014)
- Jill Leovy, Jon Cavaiani dies at 70; desperate stand in ’71 led to Medal of Honor (L.A. Times; Aug. 2, 2014)
- Medal of Honor citation (Jon Robert Cavaiani; Vietnam)
- Medal of Honor: Oral histories (Jon Robert Cavaiani; Vietnam)
- Peter Collier et al., Medal of Honor: Portraits of Honor beyond the Call of Duty (3d ed. 2011)