The Navy’s newest ship is named for a Medal of Honor recipient

John L. Canley risked his own safety to pull wounded Marines to safety during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War.
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Medal of Honor recipient and retired Marine Sgt. Maj. John Canley has died following a years-long battle with cancer. (Task & Purpose photo composite)

The USS John L. Canley, the Navy’s latest expeditionary sea base, will be commissioned next year in a ceremony at Naval Base Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island. The ship honors Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley, who earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Vietnam War in 1968. When Canley received the award in 2018, he was the first living Black Marine to be given the Medal of Honor.

The USS John L. Canley will officially enter service on Feb. 17. It is the fourth Lewis B. Puller-class expeditionary sea base vessel and will be part of the Navy’s Forward Deployed Naval Force that is based out of Saipan. 

The ship honors Canley, a veteran who deployed three times to the Vietnam War. Born December 20, 1937, in Caledonia, Arkansas, he joined the Marine Corps in 1953. While in Vietnam, he served as a rifle platoon leader, company gunnery sergeant and eventually company first sergeant during the war. His most notable actions, the ones that earned him the nation’s highest military honor, took place in January-February 1968 during the Battle of Huế during the Tet Offensive.

The city was an American supply hub. Thousands of North Vietnamese forces attacked the city, seizing much of it, leaving American and South Vietnamese troops struggling to hold onto parts of Huế and eventually retake the area. At the time, Canley was the company gunnery sergeant with Company A, First Battalion, First Marines, First Marine Division. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Canley “repeatedly rushed across fire-swept terrain to carry his wounded Marines to safety” despite his own wounds.

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“On 4 February, he led a group of Marines into an enemy-occupied building in Hue City. He moved into the open to draw fire, located the enemy, eliminated the threat, and expanded the company’s hold on the building room by room,” the citation reads. “Gunnery Sergeant Canley then gained position above the enemy strongpoint and dropped in a large satchel charge that forced the enemy to withdraw. On 6 February, during a fierce firefight at a hospital compound, Gunnery Sergeant Canley twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to carry wounded Marines to safety.”

Canley was initially awarded the Navy Cross for his actions in the Battle of Huế. A Marine who served under him during the war started a push for the Navy Cross to be upgraded to a Medal of Honor. Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA) led the effort in Congress and Canley was officially presented with the Medal of Honor in 2018, 50 years after his actions in the Vietnam War. 

The USS John L. Canley at its christening. (Photo by Sarah Cannon/U.S. Navy)

Sgt. Major Canley died on May 11, 2022 in Bend, OR. following a battle with cancer. He was 84. The Navy confirmed the ship would be named for Canley in November 2020. The ship was officially christened in 2022, only a few weeks after Canley died. 

Expeditionary sea bases are, as the name implies, meant to serve as a mobile staging area for military operations from sea. The Lewis B. Puller-class ships sport a hanger, flight decks, berths and other facilities to aid in those operations. The USS Lewis B. Puller was sent to the waters off of Sudan earlier this year, to help with the evacuation of American nationals as civil war started in the country. 

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