Marine Backed by Mattis for MoH to Attend State of the Union

  • Marine "Gunny" John Canley, originally from Arkansas, now lives in Oxnard, Calif. (Photo courtesy Congresswoman Julia Brownley’s office)
    Marine "Gunny" John Canley, originally from Arkansas, now lives in Oxnard, Calif. (Photo courtesy Congresswoman Julia Brownley’s office)
  • Marine "Gunny" John Canley, recommended for the Medal of Honor, stands fourth from left during the Battle of Hue City in 1968 in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Eddie Neas)
    Marine "Gunny" John Canley, recommended for the Medal of Honor, stands fourth from left during the Battle of Hue City in 1968 in Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Eddie Neas)
  • Sgt. Freddy Gonzalez, left, and Marine "Gunny" John Canley in Hue. Gonzalez received the MOH posthumously. (Photo courtesy of Eddy Neas)
    Sgt. Freddy Gonzalez, left, and Marine "Gunny" John Canley in Hue. Gonzalez received the MOH posthumously. (Photo courtesy of Eddy Neas)

The story behind the grainy photo is an astonishing testament to valor in war and the unbearable burden carried by some who survive it.

The photo also bears witness to the legacy of stoic Marine "Gunny" John Canley, who took command of a company and now has the backing of Congress and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for the Medal of Honor.

"The only thing I was doing was taking care of troops, best I could," Canley told Military.com. "Do that, and everything else takes care of itself."

There's a battered church in the photo that has become hallowed ground for those who fought in the Battle of Hue City in 1968.

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"They were in the rafters shooting down at us," said John Ligato, a retired FBI agent and former private first class.

The Jeanne d'Arc Catholic Church and school complex is where Sgt. Alfredo Cantu "Freddy" Gonzalez, a 20-year-old "Tejano" from Edinburg, Texas, on his second tour in Vietnam, made his last stand. It is where he died.

As always, Gonzalez had taken the lead. Under fire, he rushed forward with several LAAWs (Light Anti-Armor Weapon) and destroyed enemy position after position before being mortally wounded.

He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Now, another Marine who fought with Gonzalez through the early stages of the Battle of Hue and at the church is also about to receive the nation's highest award for valor.

The photo shows four Marines descending the steps of the shattered Jeanne d'Arc church. The first is then-Lt. Ray Smith, a Marine legend himself who earned the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts during his tours in Vietnam, before retiring as a major general.

"The most impressive combat Marine I ever knew," Smith said in a phone interview of then-Gunnery Sgt. Canley, 80, who retired as a sergeant major and now lives in Oxnard, California.

Smith recalled that at his own retirement ceremony at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, he said, "All through my career, whenever I had to make a decision that would affect Marines, I'd always think -- 'What would Canley tell me to do?' "

Behind Smith in the photo was radioman Bill Thompson, who went on to become a Marine officer and now lives in California.

Then there was Lance Cpl. Dennis Rocheford, recipient of the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

Rocheford would become a Catholic priest and Navy chaplain, attaining the rank of commander. He went on minister to Marines and sailors in Iraq, Somalia and Kosovo, but what he had seen and done in Hue and Vietnam haunted him in worship and in war.

At age 60, while serving a parish in Worcester, Massachusetts, Rocheford jumped from a bridge and drowned in Narragansett Bay.

The last figure of the four in the photo was Canley, who would earn the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor, for his actions in Hue.

Upgrading His Medal

Ligato, Smith, former Lance Cpl. Eddie Neas and others from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division (Alpha 1/1) have pressed for 13 years to upgrade Canley's Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor.

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, took up the cause and sponsored legislation to waive the five-year time limit on recommendations for the MoH. The bill passed the House last month and the Senate earlier this month, and is now on President Donald Trump's desk.

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

Brownley said that in the battle to retake Hue, Canley's "valorous actions and unwavering dedication to his fellow service members is the reason so many of the men who support his nomination are alive today to testify on his behalf. His incredible gallantry and selflessness is an inspiration to us all."

Canley and his daughter, Trisha, have accepted Brownley's invitation to be her guests of honor at the State of the Union address on Jan. 30.

Should he receive the award, the credit "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 in a statement to Brownley.

Medal Citation

Canley's Navy Cross cites his actions from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, 1968, during which he took command of Alpha Company after the company commander was wounded.

"On 31 January, when his company came under a heavy volume of enemy fire near the city of Hue, Gunnery Sergeant Canley rushed across the fire-swept terrain and carried several wounded Marines to safety," the citation states.

Canley then "assumed command and immediately reorganized his scattered Marines, moving from one group to another to advise and encourage his men. 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, "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 states.

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.

Reluctance to Speak

In his book published last year -- "Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam," Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down" about the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, cited Canley's actions in the house-to-house fighting but had to rely on others who were there for the accounts.

Canley was the one who got away from him in his extensive research. Bowden told Military.com that Canley declined repeated requests for an interview.

Smith said he was not surprised at Canley's reluctance to talk about himself.

"It's just not his way," Smith said, but Canley has agreed to open up a bit now that the medal has been recommended.

"In his mind, he represents all of the Marines" he served with, Smith said. "He's sincere about that."

In a phone interview earlier this week, Canley, originally from Caledonia, Arkansas, said he joined the Marine Corps in November 1953. He said he had seen the movie "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "something sorta motivated me."

He served three tours in Vietnam from 1965 to 1970.

"All the time, we spent up north" near the De-Militarized Zone, site of some of the heaviest fighting, he said. "After the first tour, I felt we never should've been in Vietnam in the first place. The problem in Vietnam was the leadership from the top down."

'The Foundation of the War'

The cliché about Canley would be that he's a man of few words, but one he tends to rely upon is "foundation" in speaking of the war.

"The foundation of the war in Vietnam was the guys, the troops," he said. "They inspired me every day," but the problem was that they were too often led by young lieutenants and other officers who were dropped into command without any experience.

"They did not, in my opinion, possess the experience, did not possess the knowledge" to handle combat against a determined and elusive enemy until they had time on the ground, and often there was no time, Canley said.

The same could be said to be true of Canley at the start. When he first arrived at the airport in Danang, a corporal pointed to body bags waiting to be loaded on the next transport back to the states.

The corporal said, "Those guys took a beating." Canley said. "What crossed my mind was, this is real."

Before the Tet offensive that resulted in the taking of Hue by the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front, Alpha 1/1 had been split up, Ligato said.

Some were left in Quang Tri, including Smith and two other lieutenants, and others were sent to Phu Bai, just south of Hue.

Ligato recalled that they were sent south from Phu Bai on a night mission to defend a bridge. While they were en route, new orders came over the radio. The column turned around and headed north to Hue.

'Alpha Seven Is Up'

On the outskirts of Hue, word passed down the line: "Alpha Six is down. Alpha Seven is up."

That meant that company commander Capt. Gordon Batcheller was hit and out of action. Batcheller, who would survive, had yelled out to Canley to take charge just before he was evacuated.

With the captain down, "Me and Gonzalez and Burghardt became pretty tight," Canley said of Sgt. Freddy Gonzalez and Sgt. Josef Burghardt.

In the fight at the Jeanne d'Arc church, the Marines had been careful to watch the exits to catch the fleeing enemy.

Burghardt had a reputation as a marksman. Bowden wrote that Burghardt "calmly knocked down four enemy soldiers with four shots as they fled the west building."

Canley teamed up with Gonzalez several times to knock out enemy positions and carry fallen Marines to safety. In the course of that, Canley was hit several times by shrapnel but refused to be evacuated. He especially refused to be written up for Purple Hearts, Smith said.

At the time, the Marine rules were strict -- three Purple Hearts meant that you would immediately be taken out of the field and sent back to the States.

Smith recalled that Canley made one exception. It happened when Smith arrived to take command of Alpha 1/1 from Canley.

Canley had come to Smith to discuss the switch, but Smith couldn't focus. He said he kept looking at Canley's face.

"There was a shard of shrapnel sticking out, kinda between his eyebrow and his eyelid," Smith said. He reached up and yanked it out.

"Lieutenant, I want a Purple Heart for this one," Canley told Smith. "I believe that may have been the only one" that Canley was written up for, Smith said.

Chain of Command

However, the discussions on the chain of command now that Smith had arrived were going downhill.

"He just wasn't having it," Smith said of Canley's determination that he would not take over charge of Third Platoon from Gonzalez.

Smith confirmed the account in Bowden's book: Canley said he wouldn't do it.

"Gonzalez has got Third Platoon," Canley said. Smith said, "I know, I know, Gunny, but he is young, and I would just feel better if you took command of the platoon."

They went back and forth, and Canley became more adamant: "Gonzalez has got Third Platoon."

Canley "was a man of few words and was known for strict adherence to procedure but, on this occasion, he wasn't budging," Bowden wrote.

Then Canley made a short speech to explain himself, which shocked Smith.

"Lieutenant, Gonzalez's got Third Platoon. If I survive this fight, I am going to see to it he gets the big one [Medal of Honor] for what he has already done," Canley said.

"Now, if you want me to go down and follow Third Platoon around, I will. But Lieutenant, Gonzalez has got Third Platoon," Canley said.

"Gonzalez kept Third Platoon and Canley went to work as the lieutenant's Gunny," Bowden wrote.

Remembering Rocheford

When asked about Rocheford, Smith said, "Everybody loved him. Dennis was the squad radio man for 2nd Platoon. He got out, finished college and went back to the seminary."

He was an unusual chaplain. Smith recalled that when he had a regiment, Rocheford was assigned to him as a chaplain and a lieutenant, junior grade.

On the side, "he was teaching small unit tactics and patrolling," Smith said.

Down the line, Smith said he had heard that "Dennis got into the bottle in a big way."

It was no secret. Rocheford had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and spoke about his struggles from the pulpit.

Two days before he killed himself in November 2009, Rocheford called his nephew, David Katinas, also a Marine, the Worcester Telegram reported.

His uncle was sobbing, Katinas said.

"Promise me you'll go to church," Rocheford said again and again. "Promise me you'll take the Eucharist."

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

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