Green Beret From El Paso Met Valiant, Obscure Death In Vietnam
ElPasoTimes, 18 July 2010
Sgt. John Robert Jones, a Green Beret from El Paso, is the forgotten man in one of the most storied battles of Vietnam.
His fighting spirit is part of the historic record, but Jones' selflessness has often been overlooked in accounts of what happened in the fight for Hickory Hill.
Not a word was written about him in his hometown newspapers after the Army reported him missing in action on June 5, 1971. Jones' body has never been found. This is his story, reconstructed with the help of the last American who saw him, Medal of Honor recipient Jon R. Cavaiani.
Jones was part of an Army Special Forces platoon assigned to the isolated Hickory Hill radio relay site in Vietnam. Described by other soldiers as stocky, tough and determined, Jones was 22 years old in the spring of 1971.
With him at Hickory Hill were 16 other Special Forces soldiers and 68 commandos from the highlands of South Vietnam who were helping the Americans. U.S. soldiers called these allies Montagnards, French for "the mountain people."
Starting on June 3, a North Vietnamese unit of superior size stormed the hill with rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Cavaiani, a staff sergeant, knew his forces were outgunned, so he moved to save them from an onslaught.
Cavaiani repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire as he led his platoon "in a desperate fight for survival," his Medal of Honor citation says. Providing covering fire, he directed the first three helicopters that began evacuating his men. Then he kept up the fight.
By the early morning hours of June 5, only Cavaiani, Jones and 17 South Vietnamese commandos remained to defend the mountaintop. Jones had assured Cavaiani that the carnage on Hickory Hill was nothing new to him and that he wanted to stay in the battle.
"I found out that he exaggerated his combat experience," Cavaiani said in a telephone interview from his home in California. "He was a good kid. I take people at their word, but I regret now that I kept Jones back with me."
Cavaiani, though just 27 at the time, regarded himself as the grizzled warrior. To him, Jones seemed very young, Green Beret or not.
Cavaiani hoped to get everybody out alive, by force or by trickery. He continued to fire away at the attackers as the last 17 Montagnards tried to escape. Some made it. Others died.
Jones went to retrieve the radio. "Charlie," as Cavaiani called the North Vietnamese, "started the big attack" about the same time.
Then Jones and Cavaiani found themselves together, trapped in a 9-by-9-foot bunker. An enemy soldier dropped a grenade through a hole in the bunker, and the blast wounded Jones in a leg.
With enemy soldiers converging, Cavaiani said, Jones said he would surrender. Cavaiani, intent on a different survival strategy, told Jones he was going to "play dead." He hoped the North Vietnamese would overlook him in the darkness and chaos.
As Jones stepped out of the bunker, he spat a profanity at the enemy. "They shot and killed him then," Cavaiani said.
A couple of the enemy soldiers spotted Cavaiani. They poked at him with their rifles, and were satisfied that he was dead. They set the bunker on fire and moved on.
Burned, exhausted and determined, Cavaiani ran from that bunker to another. Escape, though, proved impossible. Enemy soldiers captured him soon after.
They held him as a prisoner of war for 21 months, until March 1973. The following year, President Ford awarded Cavaiani the Medal of Honor, America's highest decoration for combat valor.
Once free and back in the states, he said, he visited El Paso to see Jones' parents. He said he remembered little about that time, but wanted to tell them in person how brave Jones had been under incredible pressure.
"Jones was just a young kid. He did his job up there," Cavaiani said.
The Army awarded Jones the Silver Star, the third-highest medal for valor.
Jones was listed as a student at Irvin High School in 1968, but did not graduate, a school district spokesman said.
His exploits in Vietnam went unpublicized in El Paso after his disappearance and presumed death. In the intervening years, attention bestowed on Cavaiani cast some light on Jones' story.
Cavaiani said he has the coordinates of the spot where bullets felled Jones. He said he hoped the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command might still be able to locate his remains and verify his identity through DNA.
Had he lived, Jones would have turned 61 this year.
Instead, he died young and became one of El Paso's forgotten soldiers. Cavaiani, though, will always remember him.
In 2011 John Robert Jones remains were found in Vietnam and returned for a full military burial in Arlington National Cemetary