In February 1968, during a particularly vicious moment in the Vietnam War, a virtually unknown Marine from Camp Pendleton did the unthinkable as enemy forces turned their guns his way.
John Canley, who had snuck into the service years earlier at age 15, scrambled into the open, scaled a wall, and guided wounded Marines to safety as close-quarter fire echoed in everyone’s ears.
The gunnery sergeant then scaled the wall a second time, saving additional Marines during the Battle of Hue City, a blood bath that would lead many Americans to decide that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable.
Decades later, Canley was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics, becoming the first living Black Marine to receive the highest medal the nation gives for extraordinary acts of bravery.
On Saturday, five weeks after he passed away at 84, he was honored again. This time it was by the Navy, which christened a massive vessel in Canley’s name at the General Dynamics-NASSCO shipyard in San Diego, during a ceremony that also represented the evolution of the military.
Canley’s named was fixed to an Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB), a new type of ship that will help the country deploy troops and equipment in regions where the US doesn’t have easy access to land bases and seaports.
The Navy originally intended a similar but more modest role for ESB’s, which are about 2.5 times the length of a football field and weigh about 100,000 tons. But the ships have since been cleared to more fully participate in armed conflict.
The vessels are essential to so-called Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), an effort by the Navy and Marines to more widely and wisely spread their forces around the globe, including places like the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, where the US is having territorial disputes with China.
“A key part of what the Marines are doing is developing the sort of small forces that can operate in anti-access areas where the Chinese can threaten major military assets,” said Professor Tai Ming Cheung, a China expert at UC San Diego’s School for Global Policy & Strategy.
“There is this concern that access to allied bases has not been robust in the last decade or so, especially in Southeast Asia.”
NASSCO has built four of the mobile sea bases, which are designed to do everything from carry out Special Operations missions to airborne mine-countermine activity to manned and unmanned surveillance. It also can repair other ships.
The shipyard is at work on a fifth ESB, which will bear the name of Medal of Honor recipient Robert Simanek. And it is likely to build a sixth ship, which has yet to be named.
ESBs — which cost about $650 million — feature the third largest flight decks in the Navy. Their assets include V-22 Ospreys, which carry amphibious assault troops, and H-53E Super Stallions, the primary heavy lift helicopter used by the Marines.
The ship’s capabilities were a talking point during Saturday’s christening, which was attended by about 350 people, including five Medal of Honor recipients. But the focus was on Canley, a 6-foot four-inch, 240 pound Arkansas native who was known as a quiet, deliberate man who never swore.
In a story that has circulated widely over the years, Canley joined the Marines in 1953 by using his brother’s credentials when he met with enlistment officers. He served in Japan and South Korea. Then he went to Vietnam, where communist forces in the north, along with some of its allies in the south, fought the South Vietnamese government for political control of the country. U.S. forces supported the South Vietnamese.
The conflict reached a turning point in early 1968 when the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a broad series of attacks in the South, many which caught people off guard because they occurred during the Lunar New Year holiday.
Canley was then a member of Marine Corps First Battalion, First Marine Regiment — or Alpha 1/1, as it was called.
The unit, composed mostly of teenagers, was dispatched to repel invading forces in Hue City, which had once been the nation’s imperial capital. Along the way, Alpha Company’s captain, Gordon Batcheller, was badly wounded in battle.. Canley stepped in to take his place and risked his own life by exposing himself to gun fire to draw out enemy troops as his team moved toward Hue.
At one point Canley managed to climb up on an enemy stronghold, where he dropped a large explosive satchel that went off, leading some of the North Vietnamese troops to pull back. Two days later, Canley twice scaled the walls at a hospital compound while he was under direct fire and rescued fellow Marines. Over a week, he saved more than 20 of his comrades, according to the Marines.
“His leadership is what kept us alive,” said John Ligato of Jacksonville, North Carolina, who fought along side Canley in Hue City. “He was so calm, self-assured. He never asked us to do anything that he wouldn’t do.”
Canley was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism. Ligato, who went on to become a special agent with the FBI, never thought that was enough. It eventually led him and others to pressure the military to take a closer look at what happened at Hue, which resulted in Canley getting the Medal of Honor in 2018.
Canley, who rose to the rank of sergeant major, drew special praise on Saturday from Marine Command Sgt. Major. David Wilson of Fifth Marine Division, which operated out of Camp Pendleton until it was deactivated.
“He led from the front, he pressed the attack against a determined enemy in fortified positions,” Wilson said. “He was wounded. He refused evacuation. He ran across fire swept terrain to save his Marines over and over. He carried them on his back. He fired rounds. He threw satchel charges … He did all of this in Hue City.”
The last person to speak Saturday was Patricia Sargent of Bend, Oregon, Canley’s daughter. She tied his service to that of the new ESB.
“To achieve success it comes down to one very simple thing — choice,” Sargent said. “The choice we have to be positive. The choice we all have to focus. The choice we all have to have courage …
“(My father’s) hope is that every crew member, every captain that runs this ship, makes that choice.”
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