By Kevin M. Hymel, ANC Contract Historian
When the Marine veterans of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, First Marines, recall Sergeant Major John Canley in combat, they use one word to describe him: calm.
While fighting in Vietnam’s Battle of Hue City in February 1968, enemy fire injured Canley’s company commander. Canley took over the company and led his Marines for days, helping to drive the enemy out of the city in house-to-house combat. During the fighting, Canley exposed himself to enemy fire several times to rescue Marines or to drop a satchel charge on an enemy strongpoint. His actions at the Battle of Hue City earned him the Medal of Honor.
“He was so calm and very resolute about what he did,” said Frank Eversole, the company’s radio operator during the battle. Eversole’s voice choked with emotion as he described Canley’s leadership: “There was no doubt in his mind of what he had to accomplish to ensure most of us got back alive.”
“He didn’t get shot, stayed calm and wasn’t scared of nothing,” said Jack Rushing, another Alpha Company Marine who served as a lance corporal. “You knew you were in good hands because he didn’t look worried; he didn’t look scared; he just told us what to do and let us do our jobs.”
Gerard Giarrusso, who carried an M60 machine gun, remembered Canley’s quiet faith in his Marines. “The ‘gunny’ gave us confidence that we could do anything,” he said. “He just had that voice of authority without yelling and screaming; he was softspoken.” To Giarrusso, Canley’s leadership made a difference in Hue. “He made us feel safe. Even though we were in the mix, he’d still give us the confidence to do the job.”
The funeral service, in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery on August 25, 2022, commenced with a flyover by four V-22 Osprey Marine aircraft. Attendees included family members, veterans from Alpha Company—mostly wearing red Marine Corps baseball caps— active-duty Marines and several Medal of Honor recipients.
The civilian chaplain who delivered the prayer said that Canley had answered “the warrior’s call of duty for almost his entire life,” and that he embodied “this abstract thing called courage.” The chaplain stated that when he spoke to the Marines who knew Canley, they explained that he was not one for long speeches. Thus, they advised him to keep it to two sentences: “A great Marine who cared about those in his charge” and “As a Marine, he stood tall.”
At the end of the prayer, a Marine firing party fired three volleys. The flag that six Marines held over Canley’s urn was then folded tightly and given to Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy E. Black, who, in turn, presented it to Canley’s daughter. Black then stood and gave her a long salute. The salute meant a lot to Black, especially because Canley had earned the Medal of Honor. “That salute is for the fallen and for the family, and it is the most solemn honor that you can provide that person who is grieving,” he explained. “It’s also a salute from our nation to those who have fallen in defense of our nation or have served our nation. That’s why the salute is so special.”