50 Years in the Making: Vietnam Vet to Get Medal of Honor

By Katie Lange, Department of Defense

Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley
Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley: A portrait of retired Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley, taken July 9, 2018. President Donald J. Trump awarded the Medal of Honor to Canley during a White House ceremony, October 17, 2018, for his heroic actions during the Battle of Hue City while serving in Vietnam. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Erik Estrada

USA – -(AmmoLand.com)- It’s been 50 years since John L. Canley, then a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, led his company in a brutal weeklong fight against North Vietnamese troops, saving hundreds of people from harm during the infamous Battle of Hue City.

Many thought he should have earned the Medal of Honor for his actions. He didn’t, but that’s changing.

On Oct. 17th, 2018, a now-80-year-old Canley, who retired at the rank of sergeant major, had his Navy Cross upgraded during a ceremony at the White House. He will be the 300th Marine to have earned the nation’s highest military honor.

For those who don’t know, the Battle of Hue City was one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. It was part of the surprise attack by North Vietnamese troops that is famously known as the Tet Offensive.

Canley was a gunnery sergeant for Company A during a weeklong portion of the battle to retake the city.

Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley talks with a young Marine
Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley talks with a Marine during a Vietnam Veteran Pinning Ceremony, Sept. 7, 2018, in Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of Marine Week Charlotte. The ceremony not only honored Marines of the past but gave those currently serving an opportunity to meet the men who paved the way for them. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Daniel Jean-Paul

On Jan. 31, 1968, the company came across intense enemy fire. Canley ran through it, risking his life to carry several injured Marines back to safety. His company commander was wounded during the shootout, so Canley assumed command, despite his own injuries. He reorganized the scattered men and personally moved through their ranks to advise and encourage them.

For the next three days, Canley and his company were able to fight their way back into the city. Eventually, he led his men into an enemy-occupied building in Hue. Canley managed to get himself into a position right above the enemy’s strongpoint, where he was able to drop an explosive attached to a satchel, taking out several insurgents and forcing those who survived to run away.

Two days after that, on Feb. 6, his unit tried to capture a government building. They suffering heavy casualties during the mission, but Canley continued to encourage his men forward until they drove the enemy out.

Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley Shakes hands
Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley shakes the hand of a child after a physical training session during Marine Week in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 7, 2018. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Careaf Henson

Canley was wounded yet again, but he refused to let his injuries stop him. Twice during the fight, he was seen scaling a concrete wall in full view of the enemy to pick up fallen Marines and carry them to safety.

“He wasn’t one of these gruff, screaming guys. You did stuff for him because you didn’t want to disappoint him,” former Marine Corps Pfc. John Ligato, who served alongside Canley, recently told Military.com. “You followed him because he was a true leader – something you need in life-and-death situations. … He was totally fearless. He loved his Marines, and we loved him back.”

That selfless dedication to his men during such a volatile time earned Canley the Navy Cross in 1970. But for more than a decade, many who served under him have been working to get that award upgraded to the Medal of Honor. After years of bureaucratic delays, that’s finally happening.

Congratulations, Sergeant Major Canley. The honor is well-deserved!

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Deplorable Bill

That lower photograph brings some questions to my mind. ANYBODY who can earn the C M H has earned my respect. Those are NOT easily earned.

Arm up, carry on.

Ansel Hazen

I see it too. I hope he had a little sumpin sumpin stashed in one of those knee wraps.

Wild Bill

Thank you for your exemplary leadership and service to your country, SGM!


Unfortunately, there was still a lot of racism back in the 60’s. It would have been hard for the troops back then to follow an African American leader in battle yet he achieved that. This speaks volumes of him. I hope this long delay was not the result of that past racism. Congratulations Sgt Major.


The only racism I observed back then was from the boys from the south, not all of them, just a few of them. Being an NCO I made sure they became professionals at guard duty and mess duty when I did observe such goings on. My best friend was black, when he got killed just south of the DMZ on a sweep, I cried and was not alone in doing so. We had some exceptional officers and NCO’s in the Marines who were black. I saw no problems following them. The only exception to that was back in rear bases,… Read more »

Wild Bill

@Vern, You were a Hue?! Boy howdie, my hat is off to you, and if I have not said it before … thank you for your service.


I was based in Phu Bai and spent a lot of time in and around there. I was also up around Dong Ha, Camp Carrol and almost wound up in Kheson, but the NVA closed the road an hour before we were to head that direction.
The Vietnamese weren’t very good hosts to us American tourists.
My third day in country I was in the Ah Shau Valley, not a very hospitable place.

Wild Bill

Holy Crap Vern! The Ah Shau valley! A guy as lucky as you should be buying lotto ticket!


I was a section (squad) leader in a truck company, you could say we got around. Any place you could get a truck of supplies into, we were there. The Tet offensive fired off at midnight on January 31 , 1968, it was almost a week later we got to rest. Exciting times back then, my 21st birthday was spent in a bunker under fire. Good times and bad times were lived in my tour of Nam, just like anybody else who was there. Glad it is in the past, youth and endurance go together very well. I will do… Read more »


Sgt. Maj. Canley, an American hero. God bless you sir!


Making rank in the military is not an easy thing. They just don’t hand out stripes because they feel like it: you in fact earn them through not only action and deed, but by study of the very heritage that you and your uniform represent. There are no “givens” when rising through these ranks, either, as you have to earn each and every one of them through a “time will tell” merit based system. And that’s exactly why Sergeant Major Canley has earned my respect. He’s by all accounts, a man among men. And that too, isn’t easy: especially when… Read more »


I am confused. Why does the headline say: “50 Years in the Making: Vietnam Vet to Get Medal of Honor,” but the text of the article says his Navy Cross was upgraded to the Congressional Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on October 17, 2018? This doesn’t exactly sound like “news”.

Regardless of the editorial negligence, I am proud of Sgt. Major Canley and from the description of his actions, it sounds like a well deserved award.


Typical. Officers routinely award each other medals. I was wounded in Cambodia and did not receive a Purple Heart. Enlisted Men are on a “you must have a bunch of people come forward and request a medal/award”, while officers routinely award each other various Meritorious Service awards as easily as drinking a beer. An Enlisted Man must serve 90 days in actual combat to receive a Combat Infantry Badge. All an officer has to do is set foot in country and ‘Bingo!’ CIB awarded. I am glad Canley is getting his due recognition. Viet Nam was a war to enrich… Read more »

Wild Bill

Do you have any idea how much typing is involved with getting someone an award? I do not agree with your view of how enlisted persons are treated, having been both. I think that you feel denied. But thank you for your service.


I do not believe you were in the service, Mild Bill.
Far too many times, you have elicited total ignorance of the military and our Constitution.
“Do you have any idea how much typing is involved with getting someone an award?” THAT comment alone disqualifies you from intelligent conversation.


@tetejaun – I don’t want to put words into WB’s mouth, but I read his statement as saying that officers who “have to do the typing” engage in what the Russians refer to as “one hand washes the other” – thus were not motivated to do the work (no matter how minimal) to put in for awards for their underlings. Instead they file for each other and all walk away with awards and medals regardless of actual merit. In point of fact, officers are likely less aware of gallantry by enlisted in other units than they are of what their… Read more »


One of my men was very valuable in an ambush when he got a machine gun going after running through the ambush zone to get a go-no go gauge from another gunner, ran back through and got to his gun, set it and opened fire breaking the ambush up. The 2nd Lt. that told him he set the guns before the convoy got out of the base, got out of the ambush site when the shooting started. My guy was nominated for the bronze star, he was also an Eskimo from Alaska, didn’t get the award, the 2nd Lt. somehow… Read more »


Bingo. Thank you, Brother.


If you were wounded in Cambodia and did not receive an award it was most likely because you were not “Officially” supposed to be in Cambodia. That happened to quite a few people from what I have read about the subject.


I suspect you are more correct than you know. The group I was with has NEVER had any operation declassified, unlike Special Forces, CIA, NSA, FBI and a host of others who blab their operations almost daily. But, no, I was attached to the First Infantry Div. doing electronic warfare interdiction duty. Fully sanctioned. There were plenty of servicemen who did not receive awards for gallantry or injuries. It was common. Officers, on the other hand, went home with a chest full of awards, even the rear echelon. A Gallant Service medal with Oak Leaf clusters for handing out socks.… Read more »