Washington, DC — President Donald Trump will award the Medal of Honor in October to retired Marine Sgt. Maj. John Canley after years of lobbying by his comrades culminated in a review of his valor in the Vietnam War during the bloody battle of Hue.
Canley, 80, is scheduled to receive the medal, the nation's highest award for valor, on Oct. 17 at the White House. Accounts of Canley's actions from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, 1968 during the Tet Offensive show that he braved enemy fire continually to save the lives of fellow Marines and sailors despite his own wounds.
"It means a lot to me," Canley said in an interview. "Mostly for my Marines because we've had to wait 50-plus years to get any kind of recognition. It's not about me. It's about the Marines who didn't the appropriate recognition when we got home."
Canley received the Navy Cross, two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart following the battle, one of the bloodiest of the Vietnam War and legendary for its house-to-house combat. North Vietnamese soldiers and guerrillas overran the provincial capital of Hue during the Tet Offensive. Outgunned, outnumbered Marines were sent in to retake the city.
"Only seven of the 147 Marines who went into Hue came out unbloodied," said John Ligato, a retired FBI agent who fought under Canley and who has advocated since 2005 to upgrade his medal.
After the commander of their undermanned Company A, First Battalion, First Marines was wounded, Canley, a gunnery sergeant at the time, took command of the unit despite his shrapnel wounds. There were no commissioned officers left, Ligato said.
Canley set up a base while caught in "a deadly crossfire from enemy machine gun positions," according to narratives of his actions in medal citations and by the White House. Canley organized a platoon that destroyed the enemy positions.
On Feb. 4, Canley and the Marines stormed an enemy-occupied building. He darted into the open to draw their fire, and the Marines fought room-by-room to retake the building. Canley killed several enemy fighters by dropping a satchel filled with explosives onto their position.
Two days later, during "a fierce firefight," Canley twice scaled a wall in "full view of the enemy to pick up wounded Marines and carry them to safety," according to one of his medal citations
"Then-Gunnery Sergeant Canley’s heroic actions saved the lives of his teammates," the White House said.
Canley didn't receive the honor he deserved at the time in part because the battered company "scattered to the winds" after the battle, Ligato said. Years later, when histories of the battle were being written and veterans discussed the fighting, accounts of Canley's heroism kept surfacing.
"Everybody had a Gunny Canley story," Ligato said.
Canley, who served tours in Vietnam from 1964 to 1970, said he remembers his days in Hue vividly.
"You think about it every day," he said. "Every day."
Ligato relied on his training as an FBI agent, he said, and collected statements and presented the case that Canley deserved more recognition.
Ligato reached out to Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif, in 2014. She agreed with Ligato about the merits of Canley's case and authored a bill to waive the five-year time limit for consideration of the Medal of Honor. Trump signed the bill in January.
In recent years, battle buddies and amateur historians have persuaded the Pentagon to take a fresh look at heroism in Vietnam, the unpopular war that may have colored perceptions of heroism. Last September, Trump awarded the Medal of Honor to Gary Rose, a Vietnam War medic, for his valor on a secret mission in Laos after a similar review.
Brownley called Canley a "true American hero."
"All he wants to do is focus on the men he served with," Brownley said.