On Jan. 29 President Trump signed a bill paving the way for retired Sgt. Maj. John Canley to receive the Medal of Honor for actions at the battle of Hue City, Vietnam ― helping close a chapter in a nearly 13-year endeavor through red tape and constant delays.
Canley originally was awarded the Navy Cross for actions at Hue in 1968, but in 2005 Marines who served under the then-gunny began a push to have the medal upgraded.
For 13 years, the Marines continued to be hit with setbacks and delays from the Pentagon.
“The delays were never on the merits of gunny Canley’s actions, they were bureaucratic delays,” John Ligato, a retired FBI agent and former private first class who served under the gunny as a Vietnamese interpreter, told Marine Corps Times.
At the outset of the Tet Offensive, Canely’s commanding officer had been severely wounded, so the gunny had taken command of the undersized company with the 1st Marine Division, single-handedly pushing back assaults with rockets and grenades whilst keeping his men alive during three days of intense combat.
“For three days we had no officer, so from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, 1968, I call it the three missing days in the Marine Corps,” Ligato said.
Because there were no officers with Canley’s company, records of the unit’s exploits and Canley’s heroics were lost to history.
One of the Marines with Canley’s company, Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez, had been posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. The award was presented to his mother at a White House ceremony in 1969.
Canley was the primary endorser of that award. But, Canley had no officers or higher-ranking Marines to nominate him for the award. All the witness statements of the gunny’s exploits were from lower ranking privates and lance corporals, which Ligato believes may have hampered efforts to award Canley the Medal of Honor.
“Gunny Canley did all this stuff that was never put to paper,” Ligato said.
In 2005, Ligato and several other Marines started collecting witness statements and endorsements for Canley to have his medal upgraded.
In 2014 Ligato teamed up with California Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif. to push for the medal.
But the package was rejected again. “What was it this time?” Ligato said, recounting the story.
Canley’s Medal of Honor package was lacking signatures from Marines endorsing the gunny. Ligato had to locate and find all the Marines who were still alive to get new signatures and endorsements. The upgrade package also required every officer in the chain of command from 1968 to endorse Canley’s Medal of Honor.
The problem: Out of 13 officers from 1968, 11 were dead.
Only two were alive, Maj. Gen. Ray ‘E-tool’ Smith and another former Marine colonel. Smith’s nickname stems from a myth that he killed a man with an entrenching tool in Vietnam.
“Some Navy officer at the Department of the Navy rejected the Medal of Honor because he had a checklist before he could forward the package,” Ligato said.
“But they’re dead,” Ligato told the officer. The officer responded, “They might be dead but this form is incomplete.”
Ligato was forced to document the deaths of the other men in the package before pushing forward again.
“Every time we had one of these it took me six months, one year, two years to straighten it out.”
The gunny was 67 when the process started and he is now 80.
“It would be a national disgrace if this man died and received the medal posthumously because of your incompetence,” Ligato said he would frequently tell defense officials every time the package got kicked back.
But now, because of the perseverance of Ligato and other Marines from the company, Canley is one step away from being awarded the nation’s highest award for combat valor.
Secretary of Defense Mattis will need to present the award and citation to the president’s desk for signature. A ceremony to award the medal will be made at a future date.
“I talk to him [Canley] everyday, he’s a national treasure,” Ligato said. “I am glad that he is alive to see it.”
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.