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John Canley, awarded Medal of Honor 50 years after Tet Offensive, dies at 84

He was the first living Black Marine to receive the nation’s highest military decoration for valor

John L. Canley, a retired Marine sergeant major, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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After his commanding officer was severely wounded, shot by North Vietnamese troops in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley took command and rallied his undersized Marine company to stave off repeated enemy attacks.

Deployed to the former imperial capital of Hue on Jan. 31, 1968, he led his men through a week of vicious fighting, at times braving machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades to carry wounded Marines to safety.

“The majority of us were 18- or 19-year-old PFCs and lance corporals,” said John Ligato, a former Marine and retired FBI agent who served under him at Hue in the early days of the Tet Offensive. “But the Gunny,” as Sgt. Maj. Canley was known to his men, “kept us alive. He was, immediately, a leader of Marines.”

Fifty years after the battle, Sgt. Maj. Canley was awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first living Black Marine to receive the nation’s highest military decoration for valor. The only previous Black recipients in the Marine Corps had been awarded the prize posthumously, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Presenting the award to Sgt. Maj. Canley at a White House ceremony in 2018, President Donald Trump credited him with personally saving more than 20 Marines. “In one harrowing engagement after another,” he said, “John risked his own life to save the lives of those under his command.”

Sgt. Maj. Canley was 84 when he died May 11 in Bend, Ore., at the home of his daughter Patricia Sargent. The cause was cancer, she said. In a statement, Sgt. Maj. Troy E. Black, the senior enlisted leader of the Marine Corps, called him “a leader and a warfighter who undoubtedly contributed to the battles won in Vietnam.”

By the time he arrived in Hue, Sgt. Maj. Canley was a 30-year-old gunnery sergeant who had spent half his life in the Marine Corps. Inspired by the John Wayne movie “Sands of Iwo Jima,” he had enlisted at 15 using paperwork from his older brother. Within Company A, First Battalion, First Marines, he became known as a soft-spoken leader who never raised his voice and, unlike most Marine grunts, never cursed.

“He was never your typical Marine,” said Ligato, author of the forthcoming biography “Canley.” At 6-foot-4, “he was this big giant of a man,” the former Marine added, “who in some ways was a teddy bear. But he would turn into a fierce bear if you tried to mess with his troops.”

After their company was ambushed outside Hue, Sgt. Maj. Canley and Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez charged North Vietnamese machine-gun positions with hand grenades, enabling their men to escape. Sgt. Maj. Canley later strode calmly across the battlefield — walking and not running, according to Ligato — to evacuate the wounded.

During a “fierce firefight at a hospital compound, [he] twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to carry wounded Marines to safety,” according to the Medal of Honor citation.

His comrade Gonzalez was mortally wounded during the fighting that week and posthumously received the Medal of Honor. In 1970, Sgt. Maj. Canley was awarded the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor. He suffered “minor wounds” at Hue, he said, and served a total of three combat tours in Vietnam before retiring in 1981 after 28 years in the Marines.

It took more than a decade of campaigning by Ligato and other veterans for Sgt. Maj. Canley to receive the Medal of Honor, which was presented after Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) sponsored legislation to waive the five-year time limit for awarding the medal.

“It means a lot to me,” he said in a rare 2018 interview with USA Today. “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 [receive] the appropriate recognition when we got home.”

John Lee Canley — by some accounts, his first name was Johnny — was born in Caledonia, Ark., on Dec. 20, 1937, and grew up in the nearby city of El Dorado. His father worked at a chemical plant, and his mother managed a restaurant.

His marriage to Viktoria Fenech ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Patricia Sargent, survivors include two children from a relationship with Toyo Adaniya Russeau, Ricky Canley of Seattle and Yukari Canley of Hartford, Conn.; a stepson, David Fenech of Redmond, Ore.; two sisters; a brother; and three grandchildren.

After he retired from the Marine Corps, Sgt. Maj. Canley settled in Oxnard, Calif., where he ran a business importing textiles and other goods from East Asia. He also remained devoted to physical fitness, at times working out with active-duty Marines. “He could put his foot on top of a seven-foot-high refrigerator, with one foot on the ground, stretching,” his friend Bob Shaw said in a phone interview.

Sgt. Maj. Canley’s commitment to fitness made an impression on the president, among others. “You don’t look 80 years old to me,” Trump said during the Medal of Honor ceremony.

“I asked him that question — I said, ‘How are you keeping in shape?’ ” Trump added in his remarks.

Sgt. Maj. Canley was said to have replied, “I still work out, sir.”

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