50 Years in the Making: Vietnam Vet to Get Medal of Honor

By Katie Lange, Department of Defense

This blog is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we’ll highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.

It’s been 50 years since John L. Canley, then a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, led his company in a brutal weeklong fight against North Vietnamese troops, saving hundreds of people from harm during the infamous Battle of Hue City.

Many thought he should have earned the Medal of Honor for his actions. He didn’t, but that’s changing.

A portrait of retired Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley, taken July 9, 2018. President Donald J. Trump will be awarding the Medal of Honor to Canley during a White House ceremony, October 17, 2018, for his heroic actions during the Battle of Hue City while serving in Vietnam. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Erik Estrada

On Oct. 17, a now-80-year-old Canley, who retired at the rank of sergeant major, will have his Navy Cross upgraded during a ceremony at the White House. He will be the 300th Marine to have earned the nation’s highest military honor.

For those who don’t know, the Battle of Hue City was one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. It was part of the surprise attack by North Vietnamese troops that’s famously known as the Tet Offensive.

Canley was a gunnery sergeant for Company A during a weeklong portion of the battle to retake the city.

Canley talks with a Marine during a Vietnam Veteran Pinning Ceremony, Sept. 7, 2018, in Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of Marine Week Charlotte. The ceremony not only honored Marines of the past but gave those currently serving an opportunity to meet the men who paved the way for them. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Daniel Jean-Paul

On Jan. 31, 1968, the company came across intense enemy fire. Canley ran through it, risking his life to carry several injured Marines back to safety. His company commander was wounded during the shootout, so Canley assumed command, despite his own injuries. He reorganized the scattered men and personally moved through their ranks to advise and encourage them.

For the next three days, Canley and his company were able to fight their way back into the city. Eventually, he led his men into an enemy-occupied building in Hue. Canley managed to get himself into a position right above the enemy’s strongpoint, where he was able to drop an explosive attached to a satchel, taking out several insurgents and forcing those who survived to run away.

Two days after that, on Feb. 6, his unit tried to capture a government building. They suffering heavy casualties during the mission, but Canley continued to encourage his men forward until they drove the enemy out.

Canley shakes the hand of  a child after a physical training session during Marine Week in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 7 2018. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Careaf Henson

Canley was wounded yet again, but he refused to let his injuries stop him. Twice during the fight, he was seen scaling a concrete wall in full view of the enemy to pick up fallen Marines and carry them to safety.

“He wasn’t one of these gruff, screaming guys. You did stuff for him because you didn’t want to disappoint him,” former Marine Corps Pfc. John Ligato, who served alongside Canley, recently told Military.com. “You followed him because he was a true leader – something you need in life-and-death situations. … He was totally fearless. He loved his Marines, and we loved him back.”

That selfless dedication to his men during such a volatile time earned Canley the Navy Cross in 1970. But for more than a decade, many who served under him have been working to get that award upgraded to the Medal of Honor. After years of bureaucratic delays, that’s finally happening.

Congratulations, Sergeant Major Canley. The honor is well-deserved!

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