On June 5, 1971, Staff Sergeant Jon Cavaiani of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces was shot in the back, peppered with over thirty pieces of shrapnel, and partially set on fire – and that was only beginning of his troubles.
Cavaiani, part of the Vietnam Training Advisory Group, had been stationed on “Hickory Hill” – a secret radio relay station located atop Hill 950 deep in enemy-held territory. He had been sent to this small outpost with fewer than 100 men, many of whom were local tribesmen known as Montagnards who had received military training from Special Forces advisers.
On the morning of June 4, 1971, the camp came under attack by a regiment of North Vietnamese regulars. After a night of vicious fighting, Cavaiani ordered his men to evacuate and volunteered to stay at the outpost to hold the enemy at bay.
Freedom was so close, so far away
Although wounded numerous times, he eventually escaped into the jungle and evaded capture for eleven days. When he was within sight of an American camp, a sixty-nine year old Vietnamese soldier with an outdated bolt-action rifle took him prisoner.
Ironically, Cavaiani should never have been in Vietnam in the first place. Born in Britain in 1943, he immigrated to the United States in 1947. When American involvement in Vietnam was ramping up in the late 1960s, he discovered that he was considered medically unfit to serve because he was allergic to bee stings. Nonetheless, he was later allowed to enlist, eventually joining the Special Forces.
Immediately after his capture, he was forced to march for forty-two days to his first prison camp where he was introduced to what he referred to as the “rude, crude, and socially unacceptable” interrogation techniques of the North Vietnamese.
‘My Grandmother hits harder than that’
After being introduced to his interrogator by way of a punch in the face, Cavaiani made the mistake of responding, “Hell, my grandmother hits harder than that.” When asked what he and his men were doing on Hickory Hill, he gave his name, rank, and serial number only to watch several of his Montagnard troops executed right in front of him.
Cavaiani recalled: “I told the interrogator go ahead and kill me and my men as I wasn’t going to say anything that would put another person in harm’s way. They proceeded to break many of my ribs on the left side and…fractured three vertebrae.”
Over the next twenty-three months, Sergeant Cavaiani was held in such infamous prisons as Plantation Gardens, The Zoo, and the Hanoi Hilton. He lived in a small room with a wooden plank for a bed. His only set of clothes was the pajamas featured here and rubber sandals called “zeps.”
His wounds were crudely bandaged, but the bullet lodged in his back was not removed. As for the numerous fragments of shrapnel in his flesh, he was forced to sharpen a bamboo stick and remove them himself.
‘Rat feces, String, and Cockroach’ breakfast
A typical day at Plantation Gardens was a mixture of boredom intermingled with pain and terror. “You’d get up about 7:00 every morning, fold your stuff a certain way and sit on your bed and talk to the other guys,” Cavaiani later recalled.
As for breakfast? “It had a little bit of everything from rat feces to string and cockroaches in it.”
After breakfast, prisoners resorted to playing cards, reading, and talking. The smallest infraction could lead to 124 lashes with a rubber hose. When the guards were feeling lenient, the prisoners were permitted to drink beer. Cavaiani remembered that, “we celebrated the Fourth of July, Christmas, Tet – all the holidays, except Thanksgiving, because they didn’t think we had anything to be thankful for.”
“The camaraderie amongst the soldiers was really the best part,” Cavaiani summarized.
On December 27, 1972, Sergeant Cavaiani was moved to the Hanoi Hilton along with the few remaining survivors from Hickory Hill. Army officials thought he had been killed, but the North Vietnamese eventually included his name over a radio broadcast listing Americans they held in captivity.
As the Paris Peace talks began to wrap up, Cavaiani was suddenly given good food in an effort to “fatten him up” so the world would not know how the North Vietnamese communists treated POWs.
‘I still had a bullet in me’
When he was finally released in March of 1973, there was no hiding the abuse he had taken. He weighed only ninety-two pounds when released. As he recalled, “They spent nearly five months trying to teach me how to walk again, how to swing my arms … I still had a bullet in me.”
In 1974 Cavaiani was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic stand on Hickory Hill. He would go on to serve in Special Operations and attained the rank of sergeant major before retiring in the 1990s. Still, his Vietnam experience would always haunt him. “I don’t know that I’ve really sat down and faced Vietnam,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “It still bothers me.”
Sadly, Jon Cavaiani died of a bone marrow disorder on July 29, 2014, and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
He personally donated his POW pajamas to the Army in 1979, and they will be displayed in the National Museum of the United States Army’s Cold War gallery – a mute testimony to the untold sufferings of American POWs during the Vietnam War.\
The National Museum of the United States Army is currently under construction at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia and will celebrate over 240 years of Army history and honor our nation’s Soldiers – past, present, and future – regular Army, Army Reserves, and the Army National Guard.
The efforts to build the museum are a massive undertaking led by a joint effort between the U. S. Army and the non-profit organization, The Army Historical Foundation (AHF).
On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the Army Historical Foundation takes the time to remember the Soldiers who were prisoners of war and those who are missing in action.
To learn more about the Army Historical Foundation visit www.armyhistory.org.
About the author: Jimmy Price is a former specialist in the Programs & Education Department at the National Museum of the United States Army and historian.