Jon Cavaiani, a retired Army sergeant major and former prisoner of war who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1974 for fending off an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers in Vietnam while allowing most of his men to escape, died on Tuesday in Stanford, Calif. He was 70.
The cause was illness related to leukemia, a representative of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society said in an email.
On the morning of June 4, 1971, Staff Sgt. Cavaiani’s platoon — part of an elite Special Forces reconnaissance unit — was attacked by a much larger force while defending a radio relay site nicknamed Hickory Hill in rugged North Vietnamese territory.
Bombarded by mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, his Medal of Honor citation said, he “acted with complete disregard for his personal safety as he repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire.”
Sergeant Cavaiani (pronounced CAH-vee-AH-nee) volunteered to stay on the ground and direct helicopters into the landing zone, allowing much of his platoon to escape before those who remained were pinned down by intense fire. They survived the night, and the next morning, under cover of heavy fog, the North Vietnamese forces attacked.
When Sergeant Cavaiani and the remaining platoon members could not halt the enemy advance, he ordered his men to escape while he laid down covering fire. As they ran, the citation said, he “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.” Most of his men escaped.
Sergeant Cavaiani was severely wounded. He told the PBS series “American Valor” that he had “almost 120 shrapnel holes in me, and a couple of bullet holes.”
He said he had played dead when enemy soldiers took the hill and then hid in the jungle for more than 10 days before he was captured. He spent 23 months as a prisoner of war, much of that time in solitary confinement. He was released in March 1973. President Gerald R. Ford presented him with the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, on Dec. 12, 1974.
Jon Robert Cavaiani was born on Aug. 2, 1943, in Murphys, Ireland. He lived in England until moving to the farming community of Ballico, Calif., in the early 1950s.
He had been classified 4F, or unfit for military service, largely because of an allergy to bee stings, when he tried to join the Army in 1969. He said he had persuaded the examining doctor to let him enlist.
After returning from Vietnam, he spent much of his career as a Special Forces instructor and retired in 1990. His other medals include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and Purple Heart with one oak leaf cluster.
Survivors include his wife, Barbara, with whom he lived in Columbia, Calif.
Like many veterans, Sergeant Cavaiani preferred not to recall wartime heroics. “I don’t care to get into details,” he told The Modesto Bee in 2003. “I’ve spent too much time trying to forget them.”