When Medal of Honor recipient and retired Marine Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley was speaking about his award in 2018, he said it meant a lot to him because of what it meant for his fellow Marines.

“It’s not about me,” he had said at the time, according a recent Marine Corps press release. “It’s about the Marines who didn’t receive the appropriate recognition when we got home.”

Now, for three of those Marines, the time for that recognition finally has arrived ― all because Canley, who died in May at age 84, had put the packages in.

Three Marine Corps veterans who fought alongside Canley were awarded the Bronze Star Medal on June 24 at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, more than 54 years after the Marines’ courageous actions in Vietnam.

Riflemen John Ligato III and Larry Lewis, and corpsman Michael Ker, all with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, were awarded for their heroism in Vietnam combat.

“Nobody wanted any medals ... but the one thing [Canley] said every time he was interviewed, every time ... was that his junior enlisted Marines got no recognition,” Ligato told Marine Corps Times in July.

All three men had put themselves in the line of enemy fire to complete their mission and rescue fallen comrades during the Battle of Hue City in early 1968, according to a Marine Corps press release.

The group followed the lead of Canley, the company’s gunnery sergeant, who took over after that unit’s commander was injured in battle.

Ker’s citation read, “His company commander suffered a life threatening wound to his femur. Utilizing an entrenching tool as a splint, Hospital Corpsman Second Class Ker and two Marines lifted the stricken commander onto a poncho and carried him to safety amid withering small arms, rocket, and automatic weapons fire.”

Ligato helped cover Canley as the Marines “cleared the building from room to room engaging in close combat with the enemy.”

“When the attack stalled due to fierce resistance, another Marine maneuvered amid enemy rocket and automatic weapon fire to employ an explosive charge,” his citation reads. “Private First Class Ligato exposed himself to enemy fire in order to provide cover for the Marine, enabling success of the mission.”

Canley initially received the Navy Cross for his valiant initiative during the war. He later was notably upgraded to a Medal of Honor in 2018, following a decade of campaigning by Ligato and others.

It made Canley the first living Black Marine to receive such an honor.

Congresswoman Julia Brownley, D-California, helped Ligato to speed up the Congressional process for Canley to obtain his award.

“Humble in every interaction we had, Sergeant Major Canley always spoke of his fellow Marines,” she said in a statement. “They served as an inspiration to him, and they serve as an inspiration to us all to live up to the ideals of this great nation for which they served to protect.”

“When Sergeant Major Canley passed earlier this year, I found comfort in knowing that these men, his brothers in uniform, were duly recognized.”

The San Diego installation’s commanding general, Brig. Gen. Jason Morris, along with retired Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith, who relieved Canley of his command during the Battle of Hue City, presented the awards.

Also in attendance were 12 other Alpha 1/1 veterans and the Canley family.

The Bronze Star Medal — a highly respected military decoration given to service members who distinguish themselves while engaged in action against a foreign force — is not the only award the Marine veterans have received. Ligato previously was awarded three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam.

After being expelled from college, Ligato served in the Marine Corps from 1967 until he was wounded in 1969.

Although his recruiter initially told him he would be assigned embassy duty and could avoid being deployed to Vietnam, that quickly changed. It would not be long before he and his fellow Marines followed Canley into enemy fire.

After the war he went into a career with the FBI. He is also an author and now hosting his own talk show on YouTube.

The day after the ceremony the members of Alpha 1/1 attended the christening of the newest U.S. Navy expeditionary sea base class ship, the expeditionary mobile base John L. Canley, according to the press release. The ship, officially designated in honor of Canley in November 2020, began its service 34 days after its namesake passed away in May.

“I was with him when he found out that they were naming the ship after him,” said Ligato, who also shared that Canley was able to visit the ship while it was being built. “And he’s not like a jump up and down guy, but he had this little smile when he was happy about something.”

Although Ligato lost touch with many of his fellow Marines following the war, he was thankful for social media in helping them to reconnect so that men like Canley could be rightfully honored.

He argued however that there is still much more work to be done.

“The Marines of Alpha Company, they are unrecognized ... people don’t know about the Alpha Company Marines,” said Ligato.

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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