50 Years Later, Oxnard Marine Will Get His Medal of Honor

The quiet 80-year-old Marine nominated for heroism during the Vietnam War said the news came in a direct conversation a week ago Monday, the same day Trump announced his pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. The conversation’s message was confirmed this week by the office of U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village.

“He just said, ‘Congratulations. You waited long enough. We made it happen,’” said Canley, adding that the president told him to share the news with the Marines he led in Vietnam, the same men who pushed for the award to be given to the man they call “Gunny.”

“It’s more about them than me,” said Canley, emphasizing his desire to make sure his troops are recognized for their sacrifices.

Earlier this year, Trump signed a bill from Brownley that waived the five-year deadline for awarding the Medal of Honor. An official announcement on the president’s final approval is expected from the White House after a date is set for the presentation in Washington, D.C.

“Sergeant Major Canley is an American hero and I am so happy to see the process for him to receive the prestigious Medal of Honor continue to move forward,” Brownley said in a written statement. “Anyone who has had the chance to meet Sergeant Major Canley knows what a humble man he is, as well as how dedicated he is to his fellow service members — both then and now.”

The award culminates a drive that began 13 years ago and revolves around the first days of the Tet Offensive in January 1968.

In a battle outside Hue, 120 Marines were pinned by machine gun fire in a muddy ditch. Canley, the gunnery sergeant, assumed control after the company captain suffered life-threatening wounds. Canley ran into a blizzard of enemy fire and pulled a wounded Marine into a thatched hut.

“He was all over the place,” said Herbert Watkins, one of the Marines who was there, in a January story in The Star. “He was charging machine gun nests, him and (Sgt. Alfredo) Gonzalez. He was directing fire, dragging people off the street and he was always so calm.”

He led his battered Alpha Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment into Hue. It took three days before new officers arrived.

When John Ligato, then a private first class, thinks of his sergeant, he pictures him with an M16 in hand walking directly into enemy fire.

“It was amazing. I don’t know how the bullets didn’t hit him,” he said Monday, noting that such actions defined Canley, an Arkansas native who served Vietnam tours each year from 1965 to 1970.

“I was always convinced that he deserved the Medal of Honor,” Ligato said. “In fact, he probably deserved two or three.”

Marine Sgt. Major John Canley
Retired Marine Sgt. Major John Canley was U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley’s guest at the State of the Union address in January. Canley said he received a phone call from President Donald Trump confirming he will receive the Medal of Honor. (Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

Ligato, an FBI agent after the war, took on the mission of convincing the government to upgrade Canely’s Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor. He was rejected 10 times over paperwork and process issues — never on reasons of merit.

“I worried he was so deserving of that medal and he would never get it,” Ligato said Monday, admitting he worried, too, about Canley’s longevity. “I didn’t want him to get it posthumously.”

Of the 3,500 people honored with the Medal of Honor since the award was created in the 1860s, only 72 are still living.

Four years ago, Ligato went to Brownley’s office for help. In December, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis approved the award, triggering a bill from Brownley to waive the five-year time limit that expired when Richard Nixon was still president.

Trump signed the bill on Jan. 29, a day before a State of the Union address that Canley attended as Brownley’s guest. That left only the matter of issuing a final approval and setting a date for a ceremony to honor Canley in front of the men who served with him as well as the family members of those who have died.

The phone call last week provided confirmation of the approval.

“It’s a done deal. It’s just a matter of presenting it,” said Canley, adding that September is a possibility.

For Ligato, the news of the award’s approval brought relief.

“I just wanted the Gunny to know he got it,” he said.

In the January article in The Star, Canley was reluctant to talk about himself, preferring to focus on the men he served with during his 28 years in the Marines.

“How do I feel about them?” he said. “I love them.”

In a phone interview Friday, Canley reiterated that the medal, in his eyes, was being given in recognition of his men’s efforts.

“It’s a long time coming,” he said, “I’ll put it that way.”

Source: VC Star article from July 19, 2018