John L. Canley (1937–2022)

John L. Canley was a retired U.S. Marine sergeant belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic service in the battle for Huê during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, the first living Black marine to receive the medal.

John L. Canley was born on December 20, 1937, in Caledonia (Union County) to chemical plant worker J. M. Canley and restaurant manager Leola Cobb Canley. He spent most of his childhood in El Dorado (Union County).

When he was fifteen years old, he saw the movie The Sands of Iwo Jima and was inspired to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, using his brother’s paperwork. He rose through the ranks to rifle platoon leader and was the gunnery sergeant for Alpha Company, First Marine Battalion, First Marine Regiment, First Marine Division when communist forces began the Tet Offensive during the lunar new year celebration in late January 1968, attacking U.S. and South Vietnamese positions across the Republic of Vietnam.

Alpha Company was approaching Huê on January 31, 1968, in support of U.S. forces surrounded in the city. When company commander Captain Gordon Batchelder was severely wounded, the six-foot-four-inch, 240-pound Canley led the 150 men of Alpha Company into Huê.

Between then and February 6, Canley led his men along the highway into Huê and “repeatedly rushed across fire-swept terrain to carry his wounded Marines to safety.” Once in the city, Alpha Company was caught in the crossfire between enemy machine gun nests; Canley led a platoon in a flanking maneuver that forced the enemy to retreat. His Medal of Honor citation says that “for three days he led attacks against multiple enemy fortified positions while routinely braving enemy fire to carry wounded Marines to safety.”

On February 4, 1968, he led an assault on a building in Huê, first standing out in the open to draw fire and determine the enemy positions, then leading a room-by-room attack to clear the building. Canley reached a point above the main enemy stronghold and dropped an explosive satchel charge that forced them to abandon it. Two days later, during an attack on a hospital compound, Canley “twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to carry wounded Marines to safety.” Despite suffering shrapnel wounds, Canley stayed with his men, ultimately rescuing about twenty injured Marines. One of his sergeants, Alfredo Cantu Gonzalez, received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions with Alpha Company in the battle for Huê; Canley was awarded the Navy Cross.

Canley served three tours of duty in Vietnam, ending as company first sergeant. He retired as a sergeant major in 1981 and moved to Oxnard, California, where he ran a textile importing business. In addition to the Navy Cross, he received a Bronze Star, a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with V device for valor, a Purple Heart, and a combat action ribbon, among other decorations.

The men who served with Canley thought that he deserved the nation’s highest honor, and John Ligato, a retired FBI agent who was with Canley in Huê, led an effort to see him receive a Medal of Honor, although there is normally a five-year limit from the time of the actions for a medal to be awarded. In December 2017, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis ruled that Canley deserved the medal, and U.S. Representative Julia Brownley successfully introduced congressional legislation to approve the award. The retired marine received the Medal of Honor from President Donald Trump in a White House ceremony on October 17, 2018, later saying “it’s not about me. It’s about the Marines who didn’t [receive] the appropriate recognition when we got home.” Canley also helped secure five belated Bronze Stars and a Navy Commendation Medal for other men in his company.

In 2020, the USS John L. Canley, a mobile sea base, was named in his honor.

Canley died of cancer in Bend, Oregon, on May 11, 2022. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

For additional information:
Bowden, Bill. “Recipient of Medal of Honor, Ex-Marine Canley Dies at 84.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 14, 2022, pp. 1B, 2B. Online at (accessed June 3, 2023).

“John Canley.” National Medal of Honor Museum. (accessed June 3, 2023).

“John L. Canley.” The Hall of Valor Project. (accessed June 3, 2023).

Lockwood, Frank E. “Vietnam Vet, a State Native, Awarded Medal of Honor.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 18, 2018, p. 1B.

“Medal of Honor: Sgt. Maj. John Canley.” United States Marine Corps. (accessed June 3, 2023).

Roberts, Sam. “John L. Canley, Belated Medal of Honor Recipient, Dies at 84.” New York Times, May 18, 2022. (accessed June 3, 2023).

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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