Ample Support for Gunny Canley’s MoH in Mark Bowden Book on Hue Battle

Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Canley, who has received a recommendation from Congress to receive a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of Hue City in 1968. (Image: Alpha Company web site)
Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Canley, who has received a recommendation from Congress to receive a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Battle of Hue City in 1968. (Image: Alpha Company web site)

"Alpha Six is down," was the word passed from Marine to Marine. "Alpha Seven is up."

In Marine-speak, that meant that Capt. Gordon Batcheller was hit and out of action.

Gunnery Sgt. John Canley was now commander of Alpha Co., 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division, in the early stages of the Battle of Hue City.

Batcheller, who would survive, had yelled out to Canley to take charge just before he was evacuated.

From Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, 1968, Canley led outnumbered Alpha 1/1 in the vicious, house-to-house fighting to retake South Vietnam's third-largest city from the combined forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front (Viet-Cong) during Tet, the first day of the lunar New Year.

"The Battle of Hue would be the bloodiest of the Vietnam War, and a turning point not just in that conflict, but in American history," author Mark Bowden wrote in the foreword to his book published last year: "Hue 1968, a Turning Point in the American War in Vietnam" [Altantic Monthly Press.]

Canley, now 80 and living in Oxnard, California, was awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor, for his actions in Hue.

Last week, Congress passed a bill to waive the five-year time limit on recommendations for the Medal of Honor and sent it to President Donald Trump to upgrade Canley's Navy Cross.

The bill (H.R. 4641) authorized Trump "to award the Medal of Honor to John L. Canley for acts of valor during the Vietnam War while a member of the Marine Corps."

In a letter last month to Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, chief sponsor of the move to award the MoH to Canley, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he would support the recommendation once the time limit was waived.

"After giving careful consideration to the nomination, I agree that then-Gunnery Sergeant Canley's actions merit the award of the Medal of Honor," Mattis said.

In a phone interview, Bowden said Canley was the one who got away from him in his extensive research for the book.

"He did not agree to be interviewed," he said, although "I made repeated efforts to talk to him" after hearing of Canley's actions in the battle from other Marines.

'Intense Admiration'

"It was just intense admiration" expressed by those who served with him for his courage, for the example he set, and for his devotion to them and the mission, said Bowden, also the author of "Black Hawk Down" on the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia.

Bowden's conclusion: "What a self-effacing guy. I think that's all it is. None of these guys" who stand out in combat "want to be seen as promoting themselves."

Canley himself suggested as much in a statement to Brownley after passage of the bill recommending the MoH. If he had inspired Marines, they also had inspired him, Canley said.

"The credit for this award really should go to all the young Marines in Vietnam who inspired me every day. Most of them didn't receive any recognition, but they were the foundation of every battle in the Vietnam War," Canley said.

Along the walls of the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, the names are listed of those who have received the nation's highest award for valor. Their citations show that sometimes the MoH is awarded for a single selfless act, sometimes for a series of actions.

In the case of Canley, who retired as a sergeant major after 28 years of service, the argument could be made that he rates the medal for an entire "above and beyond" career.

The Marines who were with him in Hue spoke in awe of him; the Marines who served with him stateside were effusive in their gratitude for his mentoring and guidance.

In Hue, there was 21-year-old Sgt. Alfredo "Freddy" Gonzalez, a "Tejano" from Edinburg, Texas, who was on his second tour in Vietnam and led 3rd Platoon of Alpha 1/1.

He called Canley "the toughest bastard in the outfit," according to John W. Flores, author of "Marine Sergeant Freddy Gonzalez, Vietnam War Hero" (McFarland & Co., Inc.).

Gonzalez, who had joined with Canley in charging and wiping out machine-gun positions and was himself referred to as a "one-man army," was posthumously awarded the MoH for his heroism in Hue.

In Bowden's book and in statements to Brownley, the surviving Marines of Alpha 1/1 made clear that both Gonzalez and Canley led from the front.

'A Marine's Marine'

In a statement to Brownley, Paul Patterson recalled an incident in which "one man in front of our position was hit and we were being kept down by incoming fire."

"As the lieutenant was calling in fire support, Gunny [Canley] directed fire on the enemy, then -- at risk to himself -- he got up and ran to the injured man, picked him up, and carried him to safety, all the time while taking fire," Patterson said.

Canley "was a man who inspired men. He was a Marine's Marine," Patterson said.

Canley carried out several wounded men under fire during the battle, and Pvt. Pat Fraleigh may have been the one referred to by Patterson.

Bowden wrote that Canley, already wounded in the face by shrapnel, ran to the fallen Fraleigh, carried him back and began packing his wounds. Then he noticed that Fraleigh seemed to have stopped breathing. "Goodbye Marine," Canley said.

He wrapped Fraleigh in a poncho, picked him up again and placed him on a truck that was carrying the dead from the firefight back to an aid station.

Canley stood beside the truck and calmly began to get his bearings. He was going back to his command and the fight. Navy Corpsman Michael Ker screamed at him: "Gunny get down, you're going to get hit!"

Canley replied: "By the time I get down, I'll already be hit. So I may as well stand up here and see what the hell is going on."

Maybe it was the jarring of the truck ride, maybe something else, but Fraleigh began breathing again back at the aid station and somebody noticed.

In a statement to Brownley, Fraleigh said, "I spent nine months in St. Albans hospital, required numerous surgeries and am disabled, but I would have died if [Canley] had not risked his life for mine."

"This was not the first time I saw Gunny Canley act heroically," he added.

In previous battles at the Marine firebase at Con Thien, "he not only carried Marines to safety, but also exposed himself to enemy fire. He was always leading and attacking the enemy and always standing up and encouraging us," Fraleigh said.

Pfc. John Ligato told Bowden that again and again he had watched in disbelief and awe at the things Canley did on the battlefield.

Ligato saw Canley rescue Fraleigh -- just "calmly drape him on his shoulders and carry him to safety. How could anyone do these things?"

He later saw Canley and Gonzalez team up to rescue two platoons that were pinned down at an intersection.

"An enemy machine gun was in a bunker on the right side of the road, which gave it complete command of the intersection," Bowden wrote. "Two platoons were trapped in a gully, unable to move."

Ligato was among those pinned down. "Rounds hit the water around him and sent up sprays. He flattened himself farther into the mud," Bowden wrote, "but at the same time he saw something extraordinary.

"Canley and Gonzalez were creeping toward the machine gun. It seemed impossible for them not to be hit."

Ligato said that both Canley and Gonzalez "seemed immune to fear."

"When Gonzalez and Canley were close enough to the machine gun, they called for suppressing fire and then stood and hurled grenades," Bowden wrote.

"At the blast, they charged, firing their rifles on automatic, silencing the gun. Ligato would deeply admire both men for the rest of his life," he wrote.

In Hue, under enemy fire, "Gunnery Sergeant Canley rushed across the fire-swept terrain and carried several wounded Marines to safety," according to his Navy Cross citation.

Canley took command of Alpha 1/1 and, although "sustaining shrapnel wounds during this period, he nonetheless established a base of fire which subsequently allowed the company to break through the enemy strongpoint."

On Feb. 4, 1968, "despite fierce enemy resistance," Canley managed to get into the top floor of a building held by the enemy. He then "dropped a large satchel charge into the position, personally accounting for numerous enemy killed, and forcing the others to vacate the building," the citation said.

The battle raged on. Canley went into action again on Feb. 6 as the company took more casualties in an assault on another enemy-held building.

"Gunnery Sergeant Canley lent words of encouragement to his men and exhorted them to greater efforts as they drove the enemy from its fortified emplacement," the citation reads. "Although wounded once again during this action, on two occasions he leaped a wall in full view of the enemy, picked up casualties, and carried them to covered positions."

"By his dynamic leadership, courage, and selfless dedication, Gunnery Sergeant Canley contributed greatly to the accomplishment of his company's mission and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service," the citation states.

Canley served several tours in Vietnam from 1965 to 1970.

In the phone interview, Bowden expressed some of Ligato's wonderment at the uncommon individuals such as Canley who return again and again to battle, even after being wounded, much like those currently serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. "How could anyone do these things?" he said.

"I think it's part of the initial commitment," Bowden said. "Some take it more seriously than others. It's part of the commitment to be a professional.

"As terrifying as it is, some of these guys feel that's why they're there. They feel that the experience they have is valuable, that it can help save others' lives," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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