Jon Robert Cavaiani MOH

b. 02/08/1943 Royston, England. d. 29/07/2014 Stanford, California.

DATE OF MOH ACTION: 04 and 05/06/1971 Hill 1050, overlooking Khesahn Airfield, Vietnam.

Jon R Cavaiani MOH

Jon R. Cavaiani was born Jon Robert Lemmons on August 2, 1943 in Royston, England, a small town an hour north of London. As a small child, he helped his mother on their farm before the family immigrated to Ballico, California in the early 1950s with his step-father Ugo Cavaiani, from whom he adopted the surname Cavaiani. In Ballico, Cavaiani continued to develop agricultural skills working on a farm with his mother and stepfather. He later worked for a fertilizer company, and gained extensive knowledge in agriculture, a skill that he later employed as a member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Advisory Command in Vietnam.

Due to the secretive nature of his service, much of Cavaiani’s record is unknown. In 1969, he attempted to enlist, but failed a medical examination due to his severe allergy to bee stings. Cavaiani displayed the tenacity that would later define his service, searching for, and eventually finding a doctor that offered him a waiver. In late 1969, Cavaiani successfully enlisted in Fresno, California and departed for Special Forces selection. He passed selection in 1970 and deployed to Vietnam as a weapons specialist. Once in Vietnam, Cavaiani joined Task Force 1, Vietnam Training Advisory Group, later known as Military Advisory Command-Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group (MAC-V SOG). Owing in part to his experience in agriculture, Cavaiani’s superiors assigned him as agricultural advisor and veterinarian, a job that left him feeling that “the [Vietnam] war was just passing me by.”

Feeling that he wasn’t doing enough, Cavaiani volunteered as a platoon leader for a small radio relay deep inside enemy lines on Hill 953 in Quang Tri Province in early 1971. The outpost, called “Hickory Hill,” occupied a critical position near the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Vietnam Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). At the time, Hickory Hill was known for its role as a key position during the Battle of Khe Sanh in the 1968 Tet Offensive. When Cavaiani took command, the remaining elements defending the hill amounted to 13 American advisors and 70 Vietnamese defenders.

In the early morning hours of June 4, 1971, enemy forces conducted an attack on Cavaiani’s small detachment with the intent of destroying the entire garrison. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers assaulted the radio relay station with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine gun fire. The heavy enemy fire quickly wounded several dozen men as Cavaiani fought desperately to keep the outpost from being overrun. Cavaiani braved enemy machine gun fire as he raced from position to position, completely exposed, to direct the American and South Vietnamese defenders. Cavaiani’s actions on June 4 saved the outpost from annihilation. Late in the afternoon of June 4, three American helicopters descended on the post to evacuate the wounded and provide an avenue of retreat for the remaining defenders. Cavaiani selflessly refused to board the helicopters, choosing instead to stay behind to guide future helicopters into the station the next day. Cavaiani spent that night reinforcing the outpost, foregoing sleep and food to ensure his remaining Soldiers had the equipment and protection necessary to defend the next day until they were all evacuated.

However, the next morning, heavy fog and rain prevented any more evacuation flights. The enemy soldiers seized the opportunity to attack the outnumbered American and Vietnamese defenders. In two waves, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacked the outpost with grenades and machine guns. Cavaiani immediately knew that his position could not withstand the heavy assault and ordered his men to retreat into the surrounding forest. He, however, chose to remain behind, providing covering fire to protect them. In one last valiant effort, Cavaiani picked up a machine gun and stood in open ground, attracting fire away from his comrades and toward himself. As the other Americans escaped, Cavaiani stormed a bunker and occupied it until an enemy grenade wounded him and killed his friend, Sgt. John R. Jones. Enemy forces searched the bunker and captured the wounded Cavaiani.

Cavaiani spent the next two years in Vietnamese captivity. The enemy forces interrogated him at a plantation in North Vietnam for over a year. On December 27, 1972, the Vietnamese transferred the still-wounded Cavaiani to the “Hanoi Hilton,” prisoner of war camp, where Cavaiani remained until March 27, 1973. On that day, Cavaiani remembered seeing a C-141 airplane arriving at Gillam Air Base, where the prisoner exchange took place. Cavaiani called it “the greatest sight in the world” when he first saw the approaching aircraft. Weighing a little more than half his pre-captivity weight, Cavaiani limped toward the aircraft until an Air Force crew chief grabbed him, and his “legs went to rubber.” President Gerald Ford presented Jon Cavaiani with the Medal of Honor for his actions at Hickory Hill and for his bravery throughout two years of captivity on December 12, 1974.

Despite significant wounds from the battle of Hickory Hill and his subsequent captivity, Cavaiani continued to serve in the Special Forces community. He served on the Allied Staff in West Berlin until 1980, before transferring to 10th and 11th Special Forces Groups at Fort Devens, Massachusetts and Fort Meade, Maryland, respectively. Cavaiani promoted to the rank of sergeant major in 1989 and retired from active duty in 1990, after teaching future Army leaders at the University of California, Davis.

Upon retirement, Cavaiani continued to look after his Soldiers. Forty years after the Battle of Hickory Hill, Cavaiani and others returned to the outpost to find the remains of their fallen comrades. His extensive knowledge of the area helped search teams recover the remains of Cavaiani’s friend, Sgt. Jones, who is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery. On July 29, 2014, Cavaiani passed away. He is now buried near Jones and other fallen Vietnam veterans at Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60.

His numerous military decorations include the nation’s highest award for valor, the Army Medal of Honor, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal with ‘V’ for Valor device and one Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’ for Valor device and three Oak Leaf Clusters and the Prisoner of War Medal.

Additionally, he was entitled to wear the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Pathfinder Badge and Master Parachutist Badge.



S/Sgt. Cavaiani distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action in the Republic of Vietnam on 4 and 5 June 1971 while serving as a platoon leader to a security platoon providing security for an isolated radio relay site located within enemy-held territory. On the morning of 4 June 1971, the entire camp came under an intense barrage of enemy small arms, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire from a superior size enemy force. S/Sgt. Cavaiani acted with complete disregard for his personal safety as he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire in order to move about the camp’s perimeter directing the platoon’s fire and rallying the platoon in a desperate fight for survival. S/Sgt. Cavaiani also returned heavy suppressive fire upon the assaulting enemy force during this period with a variety of weapons. When the entire platoon was to be evacuated, S/Sgt. Cavaiani unhesitatingly volunteered to remain on the ground and direct the helicopters into the landing zone. S/Sgt. Cavaiani was able to direct the first 3 helicopters in evacuating a major portion of the platoon. Due to intense increase in enemy fire, S/Sgt. Cavaiani was forced to remain at the camp overnight where he calmly directed the remaining platoon members in strengthening their defenses. On the morning of 5 June, a heavy ground fog restricted visibility. The superior size enemy force launched a major ground attack in an attempt to completely annihilate the remaining small force. The enemy force advanced in 2 ranks, first firing a heavy volume of small arms automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire while the second rank continuously threw a steady barrage of hand grenades at the beleaguered force. S/Sgt. Cavaiani returned a heavy barrage of small arms and hand grenade fire on the assaulting enemy force but was unable to slow them down. He ordered the remaining platoon members to attempt to escape while he provided them with cover fire. With one last courageous exertion, 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 two ranks of advancing enemy soldiers. Through S/Sgt. Cavaiani’s valiant efforts with complete disregard for his safety, the majority of the remaining platoon members were able to escape. While inflicting severe losses on the advancing enemy force, S/Sgt. Cavaiani was wounded numerous times.