Trump Awards John Canley Medal of Honor for 'Unmatched Bravery' in Vietnam

President Donald Trump presents the Medal of Honor to retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John Canley during an East Room ceremony at the White House on Oct. 17, 2018. Canley is the 300th Marine to receive the nation's highest military medal. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Donald Trump presents the Medal of Honor to retired Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John Canley during an East Room ceremony at the White House on Oct. 17, 2018. Canley is the 300th Marine to receive the nation's highest military medal. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Donald Trump placed the Medal of Honor around the neck of retired Sgt. Maj. John Canley on Wednesday. But, for the Vietnam War hero, it has always been about his Marines.

On Jan. 31, 1968, Canley and about 140 members of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, were charged with taking back Hue City at the start of the Tet Offensive. When their commanding officer was seriously injured, Canley, the company gunnery sergeant at the time, took control and led his men through what would become one of the bloodiest battles during the Vietnam War.

Their actions would serve as an important turning point in the conflict.

As Canley, now 80, and his men made their way into the city, enemy fighters "attacked them with machine guns, mortars, rockets and everything else they had," Trump said.

"By the end of the day, John and his company of less than 150 Marines had pushed into the city held by at least 6,000 communist fighters," he continued. "In the days that followed, John led his company through the fog and rain and in house-to-house, very vicious, very hard combat.

"He assaulted enemy strongholds, killed enemy fighters and, with deadly accuracy, did everything he had to do."

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That included braving machine-gun fire multiple times in order to reach and move wounded Marines to safety, all while ignoring injuries of his own.

After five long days of fighting, Canley joined Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez in charging a schoolhouse that had become a strategic stronghold for the communist fighters. The pair faced heavy machine-gun fire, but forged ahead with rocket launchers, driving the enemy from their position.

"The enemy didn't know what the hell happened," Trump said.

Gonzalez, who was killed, would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Canley continued leading his Marines into the schoolhouse, where room-by-room they faced close-quarters combat until they were able to take it back from enemy control.

"John raced straight into enemy fire over and over again, saving numerous American lives and defeating a large group of enemy fighters," Trump said. "But John wasn't done yet."

Despite sustaining serious injuries, he continued facing down the enemy in the days to come, the president added, personally saving the lives of 20 Marines in a display of "unmatched bravery."

For his actions and leadership, he received the Navy Cross, his service's second-highest award for bravery. But Canley's Marines didn't think that was enough.

They spent the past 13 years gathering interviews, first-person accounts and other materials needed to see their company gunny's award upgraded to the only one they thought he deserved: the Medal of Honor. It was denied 10 times, but they persisted.

"For me personally, it was an act of love," said former Pfc. John Ligato, one of Canley's Marines and a retired FBI agent who led the fight to see the medal upgraded. Ligato attended Wednesday's Medal of Honor ceremony and said all he could do was sit back and smile.

The event brought dozens more Marines who fought alongside Canley and Gold Star family members who lost loved ones in the fight to Washington, D.C. Ligato said it gave the Marines and their families a chance to reconnect -- including several who don't typically attend reunions due to their injuries or post-traumatic stress.

Throughout the festivities meant to honor one man, Canley continues giving all the credit to his Marines, Ligato said. It's "all he wants to talk about."

"You have one of the most heroic people in our nation's history who's not only courageous and humble," Ligato said, "but understands that the Marine Corps is not 'I.' It's 'we.' "

Canley is the 300th Marine to receive the nation's highest valor award for heroism on the battlefield. Seeing the retired sergeant major receive the Medal of Honor in his dress blues is something that should make every Vietnam veteran and every Marine proud, Ligato said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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