John Canley


For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy while serving as Company Gunnery Sergeant, Company A, First Battalion, First Marines, First Marine Division from 31 January to 6 February 1968, in the Republic of Vietnam. Company A fought off multiple vicious attacks as it rapidly moved along the highway toward Hue City to relieve friendly forces that were surrounded by enemy forces. Despite being wounded in these engagements, Gunnery Sergeant Canley repeatedly rushed across fire-swept terrain to carry his wounded Marines to safety. After his commanding officer was severely wounded, Gunnery Sergeant Canley took command and led the company into Hue City. At Hue City, caught in deadly crossfire from enemy machine gun positions, he set up a base of fire and maneuvered with a platoon in a flanking attack that eliminated several enemy positions. Retaining command of the company for three days, he led attacks against multiple enemy fortified positions while routinely braving enemy fire to carry wounded Marines to safety. On 4 February, he led a group of Marines into an enemy-occupied building in Hue City. He moved into the open to draw fire, located the enemy, eliminated the threat, and expanded the company’s hold on the building room by room. Gunnery Sergeant Canley then gained position above the enemy strongpoint and dropped in a large satchel charge that forced the enemy to withdraw. On 6 February, during a fierce firefight at a hospital compound, Gunnery Sergeant Canley twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to carry wounded Marines to safety. By his undaunted courage, selfless sacrifice, and unwavering devotion to duty, Gunnery Sergeant Canley reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.


The National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation mourns the death of Marine Sergeant Major John Canley, who earned his Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War, but would not receive the award until 2018, following the discovery of previously unavailable evidence and a review by the Department of Defense. Canley passed away on May 11, 2022, in Bend, Oregon, with his family by his bedside. With his passing, there are now sixty-four living Medal of Honor recipients.

John Canley was born in Caledonia, Arkansas on Dec. 20, 1937. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1953 when he was only fifteen, using his brother’s paperwork to enter the service even though he was underage. During subsequent service in South Korea and Japan, Canley demonstrated exceptional integrity and devotion to duty, rising to the rank of gunnery sergeant. He shipped to Vietnam in 1967, serving with Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines.

By the end of 1967, Canley had already become a legend among his fellow Marines. During the Battle of Con Thien on Dec. 15. 1967, for example, Alpha Company came under intense enemy fire and several Marines were wounded, including the company medic. Lance Corporal Eddie Neas remembered: “Then, out of the clear blue, Gunny Canley comes with this slow methodical walk that he had. He came down with rifle shots going off and picked up the corpsman and took him back to the rear.” Everyone had a story to share about Canley’s heroics in action and his total fearlessness, but he was a quiet and humble man who never sought to draw attention to himself. His attitude under fire was, “If today’s my day, then come get me.”

On the morning of January 31, 1968, Gunnery Sergeant Canley and the Marines from Company A, 1st Battalion were pushing north to provide relief for other Marines trapped in the city of Hue. The ancient city of Hue had been attacked and surrounded by a large force of North Vietnamese Army units as part of the larger 1968 Tet Offensive.  Unlike most of the fighting in Vietnam which took place in the jungles and rice paddies, the Battle of Hue was one of the rare battles involving urban combat.

As soon as the Marines crossed a canal just a few hundred feet inside the city, the enemy attacked them from both sides of the road. This ambush, occurring so soon after entering the city, wounded his company’s officer. Canley, who stood six feet, four inches tall and weighed more than 240 pounds, then took command of the company. His de facto executive officer, Sergeant Alfredo Cantu “Freddy” Gonzalez [link], would stand by Canley’s side through the tough days that followed, as together they demonstrated exceptional bravery above and beyond the call of duty. During the fighting on January 31 alone, Canley rushed across fire-swept terrain to carry several wounded Marines to safety. Seeking to motivate his Marines for a perilous charge, Canley would famously challenge the Marines around him: “Do you want to live forever?”. 

Leading from the front, Canley performed many acts of heroism over the next week. During his time in command of the company, he led multiple attacks against entrenched enemy positions in the city while also carrying wounded Marines through hostile fire as the convoy carrying Company A pushed into the city. On February 4, Canley and Gonzalez led their men in an attack on an enemy-occupied building. Gonzalez, who had been severely wounded the previous day but refused evacuation, continued to lead from the front, single-handedly silencing enemy positions until he was mortally injured. With Canley’s endorsement, Gonzalez would receive a posthumous Medal of Honor in 1969.

During the fight on February 4, meanwhile, in the face of fierce opposition, Canley got above one strong point and dropped a satchel charge on it, which forced a retreat. Two days later, during a battle at a hospital, Canley twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to carry wounded Marines to safety. Enemy fire injured him twice as he worked to rescue those Marines. Through this week of unrelenting combat, the first week of the Tet Offensive, Canley is credited with saving the lives of more than twenty Marines. “We’d all be dead if it wasn’t for the Gunny,” Marine Private First Class John Ligato remembered. Wherever he went after the battle, Canley was sure to be regaled with cries of, “You saved my ass, Gunny.”

Despite this, Canley was not immediately awarded the Medal of Honor that he had earned in Hue City; instead, he received a Navy Cross. Because Gonzalez and others who would have been in a position to testify on Canley’s behalf had been killed in action, there was a lack of accredited eyewitness testimony. Some paperwork was also inadvertently misplaced, and many of the Marines whose lives Canley had saved were never asked about their experiences. Above all, Canley himself never sought recognition and refused to talk about what he had done. Attaining the rank of sergeant major, he would retire from the U.S. Marine Corps and return to his family and three children.

Ultimately, it came down to a concerted push by the Marines who had served with Canley to launch “Operation Gunny,” a campaign to get him the Medal of Honor he so richly deserved. It took thirteen years before his Medal of Honor eventually received legislative approval. Canley received his Medal of Honor from President Trump on October 17, 2018. On receiving the award, he said, “It’s more about them than me…this is about the young Marines that sacrificed so much. I just happened to be their leader.” In addition to his Medal of Honor, the Secretary of the Navy announced in November of 2020 that a future U.S. Navy Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) class ship will be named in Canley’s honor.