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Profile of Medal of Honor recipient
Jon R. Cavaiani
by Victor Claveau
Sergeant Major Jon R. Cavaiani, U.S. Army, (Ret.).
In my opinion, the award winning movie, Saving Private Ryan was an extraordinarily realistic portrayal of the ravages of war. Saving Private Ryan was not simply a movie, a work of fiction set in a time of tremendous international turmoil; it was a tour-de-force.
The movie showed most graphically the cost of war in maimed bodies and lost lives. No one who goes into combat returns home the same person; each carries physical and/or psychological scars for the rest of their lives. Taking the life of another human being, no matter how justifiable, is a most traumatic experience, resulting in a permanent searing of the memory. Time may dull, but the memory can never be completely erased.
Saving Private Ryan was the story of the costly rescue and subsequent return home of one of four Ryan brothers who left their Iowa farm to fight those who sought to enslave the world during the early 1940s.
As the story unfolds, a clerk-typist in the War Department realizes that three of the letters informing a recipient that a loved one was killed in the war, were to be sent to the same family. Upon further research it is determined that there is a fourth Ryan fighting somewhere in Europe.
The loss of a loved one in war is overwhelming to say the least; but to lose three of four sons would be beyond endurance. In Saving Private Ryan, General George C. Marshall of the War Department orders that the last surviving Ryan be found and returned home to his grieving parents. A platoon of soldiers is sent to accomplish the task and along the way most of them are killed.
The most poignant scene in Saving Private Ryan comes at the end of the movie when an older, mature Ryan is standing before the headstone of the Platoon Leader who helped make it possible for him to return home; live a normal life, marry and raise a family. With his eyes brimming with tears, Ryan stands before his wife and says, “Tell me that I have lived a good life; tell me that I am a good man.” A day had not gone by that he did not remember that many good men died in order that he might live. Being characterized as “a good man” is a most worthy accolade, and he hoped that living an honorable life, would, in some small measure, repay the debt owed to the ordinary heroism of the men that made his full-life possible.
Many good men and women go off to war to defend our nation’s freedoms and end up seriously injured; tens of thousands have made the ultimate sacrifice. One way we can honor their heroism is to live worthwhile lives. We must cherish and safeguard the freedoms they so valiantly protected and endeavor to instill a sense of pride and patriotism in our nation’s youth.
Every person who dons a military uniform to serve this nation is a hero in one fashion or another. Down deep, they all know that they may be asked to risk their lives in defense of our freedoms; perhaps never to return home, to lie forever in some foreign land and are willing and ready to do so.
Occasionally, some worthwhile act is witnessed, recorded, and recognized. Small tokens, (i.e., certificates, commendations, or medals), are awarded by one’s Commanding Officer in order to show appreciation for a job well done. More rarely, in cases of heroism, medals are awarded by a grateful nation: the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, The Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, and the highest award, the Medal of Honor.
“The first military decoration formally authorized by the American government to be worn as a badge of honor, the Medal of Honor was created by an act of Congress in December 1861. Senator James W Grimes of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Naval Committee, proposed that a medal of honor, similar to the Victoria Cross of England and the Iron Cross of Germany, be given to naval personnel for acts of bravery in action. His bill was passed by both Houses of Congress and approved by President Abraham Lincoln on December 21, 1861. It established a Medal of Honor for enlisted men of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.
“Two months later, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts introduced a Senate resolution extending eligibility for the medal to enlisted men of the U.S. Army and making eligibility retroactive to the beginning of the war. On March 3, 1863, army officers were made eligible through another act of Congress; naval and marine officers were not included until 1915” (http://www.medalofhonor.com/FirstMedalAwarded.htm).
The official Internet website for the Medal of Honor is: http://www.medalofhonor.com/
For books and other media about the MOH and its recipients go to: http://www.medalofhonor.com/MOHBooks.htm
The medal is frequently, and incorrectly, called the Congressional Medal of Honor, stemming from its award by the Department of Defense "in the name of Congress".
When Army Air Force Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle received the MOH for his leadership of the historic bombing raid on Tokyo, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he knew that there were 79 other men who accompanied him on the raid and who risked their lives in the same way. Doolittle received the award knowing that he was representative of all these brave men who stepped forward when the time came knowing, full well, that it was probably a suicide mission. Of the 80 men who took part in the raid, three were killed during the mission, five were interned in Russia, and eight became prisoners of war in Japan.
MOH recipients will tell you that they did what they had to do at the time; that others performed similar acts of bravery, which may or may not have been acknowledged. They will usually be the first to say that they represent countless others whose actions, in combat, deserved tribute, but went unrecognized; perhaps because no one was around to see and record their heroism.
Presently there are 98 living Medal of Honor recipients; one is Columbia’s own Sergeant Major Jon R. Cavaiani, United States Army, (Ret.).
Photo Courtesy of HomeOfHeroes.com
It was my distinct honor to meet with Sergeant Major Cavaiani at Greenhorn Creek, in Angels Camp, California, where he is employed as a golf marshal. He was standing by the fireplace when I approached and saluted. He solemnly returned the salute and offered his hand.
[Note: It is a widely-believed myth that in the United States military all personnel are required to initiate a salute to a Medal of Honor recipient, regardless of rank. Nothing in United States military regulations relates specifically to the Medal of Honor except for its order of precedence on the uniform. Custom, however, does dictate that it is customary for all ranks to render a salute to a recipient, regardless of the recipient's rank.]
Sergeant Major Cavaiani and I spoke for about an hour and he briefly recounted how he became a Medic in the Army’s elite Special Forces and eventually found himself in Viet Nam.
In his own words, "My last assignment before being captured was as a commander of a radio relay site in north-west Vietnam. Khe Sahn Airfield was to the west, seven kilometers from Laos. North Vietnam border was 11 kilometers north, and Camp Fuller was 32 kilometers east-northeast. It was the most northwest camp in South Vietnam.
"On June 4, 1971, the relay site was attacked by a reinforced regiment of NVA regulars. We fought the enemy through the night. Finally, on the morning of June 5th, I told my men that I would cover their withdrawal. I was forced to escape and evade for 10 days, only to be captured outside the wires at Camp Fuller. 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. 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."
He spoke of his capture, and incarceration; first for a few days in “The Zoo”, then of almost two years in “The Plantation”, and finally the “Hanoi Hilton” where he was sent just prior to his release. These prisons will be forever remembered as places where men were brutally degraded and tortured mercilessly. He weighed 198 pounds when captured and 92 when released. For more information about these POW camps in North Vietnam go to: http://www.ojc.org/powforum/powcamps.htm. In addition, there are numerous websites on the subject. We must never forget the sacrifices of these men and the brutality they daily endured.
W hen Army officials asked Cavaiani what he wanted to do upon his release as a POW, he told them that he wanted to go back into training and remain in Special Forces. He put on the weight, got back into shape and attended refresher courses, including High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) parachute training. Eventually, he was assigned to the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D) — commonly known as Delta in the U.S. Army, and Delta Force by civilians. Delta members are on call 24-7 to handle special missions; primarily counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and national intervention operations.
I asked if he had been called into action while in Delta, and he simply said “Yes” and said no more about it. I knew enough not to pry.
For more on Delta go to: http://www.specialoperations.com/Army/Delta_Force/
Receiving the MOH is somewhat of a two-edged sword. Cavaiani was not always welcomed in his future assignments because of his notoriety. Some Commanding Officers would rather not have to put up with the inherent publicity. Much of his time was spent in providing lectures about his experiences, and he continues along this path today.
I was a bit hesitant to ask him to recount the circumstances that led to his heroic actions, capture, and eventual return home, but some of what I read about his on various Internet sites was contradictory and I desired clarification. He suggested that I would find an accurate account in SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Viet Nam by Maj. John L. Plaster, USA (Ret.), Simon & Schuster, 1997, pp. 325- 330. * (See endnote). The text of which follows:
In Vietnam’s entire northwest region, the last burr under the NVA’s saddle was a CCN [Command and Control North] radio relay site, Outpost Hickory, situated on a peak 2˝ miles north of Khe Sanh. The closest friendlies were at Firebases Fuller and Carroll, 20 miles east of there.
Although ostensibly only a radio relay site, Hickory’s greatest utility was as a secret NSA radio monitoring post, using state-of-the-art automated equipment to intercept enemy radio traffic.
Just 29 yards wide and 73 yards long, Hickory was held by twenty-seven U.S. and sixty-seven indigenous soldiers, including SOG [Studies and Observations Group] men, sensor readers and a squad from L Company, 75th Rangers. The site was commanded by CCN Staff Sergeant Jon Cavaiani, who, despite being outranked by several Americans, led the Montagnard** security platoon, assisted by Sergeant John Jones.
That Hickory was threatened came as no surprise. For weeks Saigon analysts electronically tracked units closing in on the little base so closely that Lieutenant Colonel Mike Radke finally announced an assault was imminent. “I said seventy-two hours and it was hit within twenty-four,” he recalled. Due to it valuable radio intercept role, SOG planned to hold Hickory until it became untenable.
At dawn on 4 June a security man pointed to something odd in Hickory’s concertina wire. Looking closely, Cavaiani realized it was a Chinese claymore mine and noticed ten more all along the perimeter, planted the previous night during a blinding downpour. Cavaiani grabbed an M-60 machine gun and began knocking down the mines with gunfire, disabling six, then—KABOOM!—one mine detonated, wounding several men, then—KABOOM!—another mine exploded, wounding more men, including John Jones, slightly.
The NVA’s intended effect fizzles, and a simultaneous ground assault never materialized, though 60 yards downhill, several dug-in enemy fired sporadically. Scrambling to a .50-caliber machine gun, Cavaiani let loose a furious fusillade, matched by fire from other defenders just as the NVA launched a mortar and RPG [Rocket propelled grenade] barrage. A few more defenders suffered shrapnel wounds.
While a pair of F-4 Phantoms bombed the entrenched NVA, a young American sensor reader named Walton climbed into the .50 caliber’s bunker with Cavaiani, who took one look at his pudgy frame and thick glasses and asked what he wanted. “I came up here to take over the .50 cal.,” he said. “There are a lot of guys roaming around like they don’t know what to do.” He was right—Cavaiani had to lead the defense, not fight it all alone.
Cavaiani put a Yard [Montagnard] with Walton and took off to reposition men, redistribute ammo and secure the wounded, which by now numbered more than a dozen. When an RPG rocked the .50 caliber’s position, Cavaiani looked up to see the wounded Walton drag the gun back. For a moment the sensor reader thought he was blind but then learned the RPG only had damaged his glasses. He resumed firing.
Another RPG hit a U.S. Captain. With Walton’s supporting fire, Cavaiani carried the officer across the helipad to an ARVN medic. Then another mortar barrage shook Hickory, and a sniper in a spider hole opened fire only to be shot dead by Cavaiani. More Americans, Yards and Vietnamese were hit by shrapnel.
The situation seemed to have become untenable, so Cavaiani called for an evacuation, which began early that afternoon.
Cavaiani carried the wounded captain to a HUEY and told him Walton had knocked our five NVA machine guns and exposed himself to a lot of fire, so Cavaiani had hastily written him up for the Medal of Honor; he wanted the captain to carry the recommendation back to Danang. Cavaiani then hustled Walton and as many others as he could squeeze aboard onto another helicopter. After it lifted away, there stood Walton grinning, claiming he’d fallen out.
With Walton’s and Jones’ help, Cavaiani began scuttling gear so they all could leave in the next helicopter lift. He was careful to destroy the NSA van and its top-secret radio intercept gear.
Except for an occasional mortar round, the action had ebbed by 4:30 p.m. when Cavaiani heard a Huey coming in and received a shocking radio message: “This is the last ship. Get on it.” The Huey had room for seven passengers, he protested, he had four times that many men! Never before had a SOG American abandoned his indigenous soldiers, and Cavaiani was not about to be the first. He put Walton aboard the Huey along with six Yards and waived the off.
With that last load he’s evacuated sixty-nine men—fifteen of them wounded—leaving nineteen Yards, four Vietnamese, the slightly wounded John Jones and himself. Cavaiani couldn’t understand what was happening: It wasn’t even 5 p.m., the sky was clear and SOG couldn’t get helicopters? It didn’t make sense.
But all was not lost. A Thailand-based USAF Jolly Green was enroute to Hickory to extract Cavaiani and his men. But when the big Sikorsky was 7 miles away the pilot radioed, “I just got told that I will get court-martialed if I don’t turn this bird around.”
It was a bureaucratic pissing contest, instigated by a senior officer of the U.S. division then providing helicopter support to SOG. Not only had he terminated Huey support at 5 p.m., but when he learned SOG had gone through its own channels to get the Jolly Green, he’d contacted MACV [Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] headquarters and had the Seventh Air Force turn the Thailand-based aircraft around.
The contest had begun two weeks earlier, when the senior officer suddenly demanded that his division’s helicopters supporting CCN be returned—impossible because recon men were that moment locked in a firefight, their lives on the line. Colonel Pezzelle said the officer “apparently didn’t think much of unconventional warfare.”
Although General Abrams formally ordered the U.S. division to provide SOG with helicopter support, the officer found ways around it, Pezzelle explained. “Without just refusing the order they could say, ‘Well, the helicopters aren’t available,’ we’ve got maintenance problems, etc., etc.,’ or ‘We had too many shot up or this or that and the other thing.’ And then they would show up with fewer than necessary and they’d come late. That was their way of fighting the requirement.”
Colonel Pezzelle and Chief SOG went to Abrams several times, “but there was a reluctance, apparently,” to enforce compliance, And Abrams expected SOG to solve its own problems.
It was an arrangement courting disaster, which came on 4 June, 1971, at Outpost Hickory, where Cavaiani and Jones kept looking to the sky for evacuation birds, but none appeared. Realizing they were on their own with night fast approaching, Cavaiani had Jones take the radio, while he stood atop a bunker, surveying what could be done to improve defenses.
Shaped like an hourglass, with the helipad in its narrow neck, Hickory straddled a slightly rising ridgeline with deep drop-offs of the sides. Cavaiani decided to abandon the lower half, concentrating his men on the higher, north half so they could shoot downhill as the enemy came across the open helipad. To slow the NVA, he placed on the helipad a bobby-trapped 4.2-inch mortar shell that would explode when touched.
From the outhouse he dragged the washtub-size honey bucket and cut a shooting port, then hid a Yard machine-gunner there behind sandbags. Next he positioned two more machine guns to provide cross fire on the helipad, then he built a little firing position for himself atop a bunker so he could see over the pad.
About 7 p.m. the sun sank below Co Roc Mountain, and as it got dark a thick fog rolled over Hickory, just as a USAF AC-119 Stinger gunship arrived. An hour later came the first probes—the booby-trapped mortar exploded and several NVA cried out and fell back. The cloud was so dense that the Stinger couldn’t fire.
It was quiet for an hour and a half.
Then fifteen NVA rushed onto the helipad, right into the intersecting fire of the three machine guns; by the time they saw the muzzle flashes, they were dead. Ten minutes later came another fifteen NVA, with the same result—then another fifteen. Eight times they stormed the helipad, and each time the SOG defenders mowed them down, until just after midnight the enemy pulled back to reconsider.
Cavaiani discerned the NVA were about to launch a mass assault, so he shifted his men into Hickory’s heaviest bunkers—but the NVA struck while the Yards were pulling back, and in the confusion dozens of enemy stormed over the helipad and across Hickory. Standing atop a bunker, Cavaiani fired a few rounds, then realized he was exposed and bent over to get down. An AK slug hit the small of his back, tearing flesh almost to his shoulder, knocking him to the ground. He rolled into a bunker with John Jones and radioed the Stinger, “I’ve got eighty to a hundred people in the open. My people are all under cover, come in from the northeast to the southwest.” Fearing friendly casualties, the pilot refused. Cavaiani again called for a gun run, this time giving his initials. “If you don’t know what my initials mean, it means I accept full responsibility for this fire mission—Fire! But the gunship would not fire.
By now, NVA could be heard going bunker to bunker, shooting and tossing grenades. Any second, they’d find the two Americans.
Cavaiani pulled his Gerber Mk II fighting knife and announced, “Anybody comes through the door, I’ll take him.” As quickly, two NVA climbed in, one with a flashlight and his rifle slung over his back, the second, his rifle at the ready; Cavaiani seized the second NVA’s hair and jammed his dagger up through his chin, killing him, then Jones shot the other NVA, rolled out the door, screamed and collapsed.
Momentarily a hand grenade bounced in, wounded Jones seriously and all but deafened Cavaiani. Too badly injured to resist further, Jones announced, “Jon, I’m going to surrender,” and climbed out. An NVA soldier yelled, an AK fired and Jones tumbled back in, dead.
Then another grenade fell into the bunker and exploded and knocked Cavaiani unconscious, also destroying his radio.
When he groped back into consciousness it was still dark but he could feel a fresh leg wound and blood flowing from his ears. At the sight of flickering flashlights, he played dead, leaving his eyes wide open and unblinking while an NVA prodded his chest with an AK. Satisfied, the NVA pulled out a cigarette lighter and set the bunker’s tar paper ceiling afire, then went outside with other NVA to watch the flames.
Hot tar dripped on Cavaiani’s face and his pants caught fire, but he dared not move, the torture was excruciating. Finally he decided, “I’m gonna John Wayne these bastards,” and tried to jump to his feet, but rubble had collapsed on him, and he had to squeeze and heave to free himself. The NVA soldiers had walked away.
Exhausted, he stumbled out the door just as a slug cooked off from a burning machine gun. The round grazed his head and knocked him out. When he awoke the bunker was burned out, it was pitch black and he could hear the enemy looking Hickory. Gooey, burned skin hung from his fingers.
When a rummaging NVA almost stepped on him, Cavaiani pulled his final weapon, the Gerber knife, and slammed it so hard into the man’s chest that he couldn’t extract it, only pulled burned skin from his hand. Just before dawn he crawled through the wire, slid down a cliff face and evaded toward Firebase Fuller.
For ten days Cavaiani stumbled, crawled and dragged himself eastward before reaching Firebase Fuller one morning at 3 a.m. He decided to sleep and wait until dawn to approach the wire. At sunrise he stood and an old man stuck a bolt-action rifle in his back; momentarily five more Communists appeared, and Cavaiani was on his way to Laos, a POW.
The NVA beat Cavaiani severely, trying to learn what he knew of the NSA van; he maintained he was only an NCO and not privy to whatever secrets the mysterious van possessed.
Eventually the NVA trucked him, two surviving Yards and his Vietnamese interpreter to Vinh, where he boarded a train for Hanoi. When they arrived, Cavaiani’s interpreter dropped all pretense of being a fellow prisoner and proudly donned the uniform of an NVA intelligence officer—he was an enemy mole!
The North Vietnamese did not admit to capturing Cavaiani for a year. Then in March 1973, he was released with other U.S. POWs. For his determined, selfless defense of Hickory, Cavaiani was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1974.
After the Hickory helicopter fiasco, SOG reassigned its own 20th SOS Green Hornet Hueys to CCN. Never again would a SOG man be abandoned due to institutional or personal vanities.
President Gerald Ford presents Sgt. Jon Cavaiani with the
Medal of Honor in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. December 12, 1974
Special Forces Creed
I am an American Special Forces soldier. A professional! I will do all that my nation requires of me. I am a volunteer, knowing well the hazards of my profession. I serve with the memory of those who have gone before me: Roger's Rangers, Francis Marion, Mosby's Rangers, the first Special Service Forces and Ranger Battalions of World War II, the Airborne Ranger Companies of Korea. I pledge to uphold the honor and integrity of all I am - in all I do.
I am a professional soldier. I will teach and fight wherever my nation requires. I will strive always, to excel in every art and artifice of war.
I know that I will be called upon to perform tasks in isolation, far from familiar faces and voices, with the help and guidance of my God.
I will keep my mind and body clean, alert and strong, for this is my debt to those who depend upon me.
I will not fail those with whom I serve.
I will not bring shame upon myself or the forces.
I will maintain myself, my arms, and my equipment in an immaculate state as befits a Special Forces soldier.
I will never surrender though I be the last. If I am taken, I pray that I may have the strength to spit upon my enemy.
My goal is to succeed in any mission - and live to succeed again.
I am a member of my nation's chosen soldiery. God grant that I may not be found wanting, that I will not fail this sacred trust.
De Opresso Liber!
* “SOG was the most secret elite U.S. Military unit to serve in the war in Vietnam, so secret it was “black”—meaning its very existence was carefully concealed, even denied by the government. Innocuously code named the Studies and Observations Group, SOG contained only volunteers from such elite units as the Army Green Berets, USAF Commandos, and Navy SEAL’s, and answered directly to the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs, with some missions requiring approval from the White House. Inside Vietnam, only General William Westmoreland and a few senior non-SOG officers were briefed on SOG activities.
SOG took on the most dangerous assignments, going behind enemy lines to penetrate North Vietnamese military facilities in Laos and Cambodia and along the heavily defended Ho Chi Minh Trail, where only air support — and sometimes no support at all — was available. Their numbers were small but SOG proved a formidable force, killing as many as 150 enemy soldiers for each SOG trooper lost. In one battle, perhaps the most lopsided in U.S. history, a 14-man SOG team fought off a mass attack by 2,000 enemy soldiers. SOG men also identified targets for B-52 bombers, launched daring missions to rescue downed U.S. pilots from behind enemy lines, and were responsible for counter-intelligence operations that ranged from sabotaging NVA ammunition to the elaborate “Project Humidor,” in which North Vietnamese fishermen were fooled into thinking they were collaborating with a secret patriotic league—whose members, in reality, were SOG operatives. With teams that seldom exceeded ten men, SOG tied down at least 40,000 enemy soldiers in Laos and Cambodia.
As colorful as they were heroic, the men of SOG were bound together by their dedication. Though few in number, they were awarded ten Medals of Honor and hundreds of Purple Hearts; their ranks included the Vietnam War’s most highly decorated American soldier [Staff Sergeant Joe R. Hooper]. Their stories, among the most extraordinary to come out of the Vietnam War, can now be told.”
(From the dust cover - SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Viet Nam).
** The Degar (referred to by French colonists as Montagnard) are the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The term Montagnard means "mountain people" in French and is a carryover from the French colonial period in Vietnam. In Vietnamese, they are known by the term thượng (highlanders) - this term can also be applied to other minority ethnic groups in Vietnam). Montagnard was the term, typically shortened to "Yard", used by U.S. military personnel in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War. However the term has been viewed as derogatory and the official term is now Người dân tộc thiếu số (literally means minority people).
The Degar population once numbered over three million under French colonialism. Vietnam’s largest minority, organized along tribal lines somewhat like American Indians: The Jarai, Rhade, Sedang, and Bru. Each has a distinct culture, history, and homeland. Some tribes boasted a written language and Christian religion, while others were nomadic hunters and foragers who well into the 1960’s used crossbows. Each Montagnard tribe hand-wove cloth for sarongs and loincloths in its own unique pattern, somewhat as the Scottish clans did their tartans. Apart from their loincloths and brass-ring jewelry, Montagnards also could be distinguished from ethnic Vietnamese by their darker skin and stockier builds. Today there are only a few hundred thousand survivors who inhabit Central Vietnam.
Degars training with Army Rangers (DOD)
To learn more about the courageous Degar people and the sufferings they continue to endure under the Communist government of Vietnam go to: http://www.montagnard-foundation.org/homepage.html and http://www.montagnard-foundation.org/about-degar.html