John Canley, Medal of Honor 50 years after Tet Offensive, dies at 84

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After his commanding officer was seriously wounded, shot by North Vietnamese troops in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, Sgt. Major John L. Canley took command and rallied his undersized marine company to stave off repeated enemy attacks.

Deployed to the former imperial capital of Hue on January 31, 1968, he led his men through a week of fierce fighting, at times braving machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades to carry wounded Marines to safety.

“The majority of us were 18 or 19-year-old PFCs and corporals,” said John Ligato, a retired Navy and FBI agent who served under him in Hue at the start of the war. Tet Offensive. “But the Gunny,” as Sgt. Major Canley was known to his men, “kept us alive. He was, immediately, a Marine leader.

Fifty years after the battle, Sgt. Major Canley received the Medal of Honor, becoming the first living Black Marine to receive the nation’s highest military decoration for bravery. The only previous black Marine Corps recipients had received the award posthumously, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Presentation of the award to Sgt. Major Canley at a White House ceremony in 2018, President Donald Trump credited him with personally saving more than 20 Marines. “In one harrowing engagement after another,” he said, “John risked his own life to save the lives of those under his command.”

sergeant. Major Canley was 84 when he died May 11 in Bend, Oregon at the home of his daughter Patricia Sargent. The cause was cancer, she said. In a statement, Sgt. Major Troy E. Black, the enlisted chief of the Marine Corps, called him “a leader and a fighter who undoubtedly contributed to the won battles in Vietnam.”

By the time he arrived in Hue, Sgt. Major Canley was a 30-year-old gunnery sergeant who had spent half his life in the Marine Corps. Inspired by John Wayne’s film “Sands of Iwo Jima”, he enlisted at age 15 using his older brother’s papers. Within Company A, First Battalion, First Marines, he became known as a soft-spoken leader who never raised his voice and, unlike most Marine grunts, never cursed.

“He was never your typical Marine,” said Ligato, author of the forthcoming biography “Canley.” At 6ft 4in, “he was this big giant of a man,” the former Marine added, “who in some ways was a teddy bear. But he would become a fierce bear if you tried to play with him. his troops.

After their company was ambushed outside Hue, Sgt. Maj. Canley and Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez charged North Vietnamese machine gun positions with hand grenades, allowing their men to escape. sergeant. Major Canley then marched calmly across the battlefield—walking, not running, according to Ligato—to evacuate the wounded.

During a “fierce firefight inside a hospital compound, [he]twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to carry wounded Marines to safety,” according to the medal of honor citation.

His comrade Gonzalez was mortally wounded in the fighting this week and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1970, Sgt. Major Canley was awarded the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second highest decoration for gallantry. He suffered “minor injuries” in Hue, he said, and served a total of three combat tours in Vietnam before retiring in 1981 after 28 years in the Marines.

It took more than a decade of campaigning by Ligato and other veterans for Sgt. Maj. Canley to receive the Medal of Honor, which was presented after Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) sponsored legislation to waive the five-year deadline for awarding the medal.

“It means a lot to me,” he said in a rare 2018 interview with USA today. “Mainly for my Marines because we had to wait over 50 years to get any recognition. It’s not about me. It’s about the Marines who don’t have [receive]proper recognition when we got home.

John Lee Canley – some say his first name was Johnny – was born in Caledonia, Ark., on December 20, 1937, and grew up in nearby El Dorado. Her father worked in a chemical plant and her mother ran a restaurant.

His marriage to Viktoria Fenech ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Patricia Sargent, survivors include two children from a relationship with Toyo Adaniya Russeau, Ricky Canley of Seattle and Yukari Canley of Hartford, Conn.; one son-in-law, David Fenech of Redmond, Ore.; two sisters; a brother; and three grandchildren.

After retiring from the Marine Corps, Sgt. Major Canley settled in Oxnard, California, where he ran a business importing textiles and other goods from East Asia. He also remained dedicated to physical fitness, sometimes working with active duty Marines. “He could put his foot on a seven-foot-tall refrigerator, with one foot on the floor, stretching,” his friend Bob Shaw said in a phone interview.

sergeant. Major Canley’s commitment to physical fitness made an impression on the President, among others. “You don’t look 80 to me,” Trump said during the Medal of Honor Ceremony.

“I asked him this question – I said, ‘How do you keep yourself fit? Trump added in his remarks.

sergeant. Major Canley reportedly replied, “I’m still training, sir.”

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