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This Day in History: Johnny Lee Canley's Medal of Honor

On this day in 1968, a hero engages in an action that would earn him the Medal of Honor. Nevertheless, Johnny Lee Canley didn’t receive that Medal for decades. His heroism had come during the Vietnam War, at the Tet Offensive, but he received his Medal fifty years later.

Would you believe that he joined the Marines in 1953, when he was only 15 years old? He used his brother’s paperwork to get in.

On January 31, 1968, Canley was a Gunnery Sergeant serving with Alpha Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment. About 150 Marines from his company would help take back Huế City, which had been seized by the North Vietnamese.

“As we approached the outskirts of the city,” Marine Corps veteran John Ligato later described, “NVA machine guns opened up from the north. An open rice paddy was to the east and the NVA blocked any southern retreat back to Phu Bai. Co A was now stuck in a deadly crossfire with no options, so we hunkered down and waited.”

It wasn’t pretty. The commanding officer was badly wounded, so Canley took over. He must have been all over the place during those hours? His citation describes Canley “repeatedly rush[ing] across fire-swept terrain to carry his wounded Marines to safety.”

“They’re alive, right? So I’m going to try to get to them,” Canley shrugged.

At one point, Ligato witnessed Canley and Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez running out into an open rice paddy.

“They kept up a barrage of M16 fire accompanied with LAW rockets,” Ligato wrote, “until they were in range of tossing hand grenades. They eliminated those NVA machine guns and cleared our path north into the city. Had they not taken that action, I would not be alive today.”

By the end of the day, our Marines had successfully pushed their way into the city.

From there, Canley led his Marines in house-to-house combat, repeatedly risking his life to save one of his men or to lead an attack. On the fifth day of the conflict, the Marines worked to liberate the Joan of Arc School. Canley and Gonzalez were fearless, charging forward in the face of enemy fire. Gonzalez unfortunately was killed, but Canley miraculously survived the grueling, room-to-room combat in the school. By the end of the day, the school had been liberated.

After seven days of conflict—including one occasion on which Canley “scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to carry wounded Marines to safety”—the Marines finally took the city.

Canley’s leadership had been invaluable. “I know this sounds strange,” Ligato said simply. “but he wasn’t one of these gruff, screaming guys. You did stuff for him because you didn’t want to disappoint him. You followed him because he was a true leader—something you need in life-and-death situations.”

Gonzalez received a Medal for his actions in 1969, while Canley received a Navy Cross. The story might have ended there but for Ligato’s experiences at a Marine reunion many years later.

“When the Gunny walked into the hospitality suite,” he wrote, “heads turned and all conversations ceased. The Marines of Co A gathered around Canley and began reminiscing. All had a Gunny Canley story and the majority included Canley doing something heroic. There were six or seven eyewitnesses to the Gunny carrying wounded Marines to safety, the Gunny confronting enemy automatic weapon positions, and many testimonials of, ‘You saved my *ss, Gunny.’”

Ligato wanted to do something. Because of his tireless efforts, Canley’s Navy Cross would be upgraded to a Medal in 2018.

Canley remained humble. “My Marines depressed any fear that I had in the enemy,” he concluded. “Because of them, knowing that they were 100% behind me, fear never existed. I didn’t know what that word was.”

Sgt. Major Canley passed away just last year. RIP, sir.

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