A Marine officer passes a photo of Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley at.a christening ceremony at NAASCO. Photo by Chris Stone
A Marine officer passes a photo of Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley at.a christening ceremony at NAASCO. Photo by Chris Stone

In his youth, Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley stepped in after his commander in Vietnam was severely wounded, saving fellow Marines while knowingly exposing himself to enemy fire.

Canley led a Marine convoy through “arduous conditions in a highly contested environment to provide relief to fellow Marines, while relentlessly attacking the enemy,” Sgt. Maj. David Wilson of the First Marine Division said Saturday in a speech at a christening of a Navy ship in his honor.

“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,” Wilson said.

The late Canley, the first Black Marine to receive the Medal of Honor while living, was celebrated with a christening of an Expeditionary Sea Base ship named after him.

Story continues below

Patricia Sargent smashes a champaign bottle to christen the USNS John Canley, named after her father. Photo by Chris Stone
The 784-foot Expeditionary Sea Base ship John L. Canley was christened. Photo by Chris Stone
Patricia Sargent, daughter of John Canley, smiles after christening a ship named after her father. Photo by Chris Stone
A Canley family member records the christening ceremony. Photo by Chris Stone
Vice Adm. Ross Myers salutes the flag during the national anthem during the christening ceremony. Photo by Chris Stone
The future crew of the USNS John Canley attends the christening ceremony. Photo by Chris Stone

“Sergeant Major John Canley was a hero. Of that there is no doubt,” Wilson said. “There is a mountain of evidence over the course of a lifetime. He was a hero in the truest and most exclusive  definition of the word.”

Canley — who snuck into the Marines at 15 — rescued more than 20 fellow Marines under enemy fire in Vietnam in what was called “one of the bloodiest battles” in 1968 in the Battle of Hue City. Besides the Medal of Honor, Canley also received the Bronze Star with Combat “V” and the Purple Heart.

The USNS John L. Canley represents Canley’s courage, selflessness and strength, said Dave Carver, president of General Dynamics NASSCO in a morning ceremony at NASSCO on the San Diego waterfront.

Canley died of cancer May 11 in Bend, Oregon. He was 84. His daughter was present as ship sponsor.

Fellow Medal of Honor recipients and military leaders, along with the future crew, also were present at the ceremony alongside the 784-foot ship, the fourth of its kind.

Robert Thompson, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for installations, energy and facilities, called the ship a “critical asset” and praised Canley for his “doubtless courage, selfless sacrifice and unwavering devotion to duty in my mind (which) will be the guiding light for this ship and her crew.”

Expeditionary Sea Base ships are highly flexible platforms that can be used across a broad range of military operations, including Airborne Mine Countermeasures, Special Operations Forc and limited crisis response.

President Trump presents the Medal of Honor to retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. John Canley on Oct. 17, 2018. White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Acting as a mobile sea base, these ships have a 52,000-square–foot flight deck to support MH-53, MH-60, V22 tilt rotor and H1 aircraft operations as well as launch and recovery of unmanned aerial systems.

Its sustained speed is less than 15 knots with a maximum speed of 17 knots.

Wilson described one of Canley’s contributions to the military.

“Sergeant Major Canley and his Marines wrote the playbook for future generations of Marines like me, who had the benefit of knowledge and training specifically for that type of fight (‘three dimensional 360 degrees engagements at close range’) that we would face in places like Somalia … Baghdad and Fallujah and Ramadi and 1,000 unnamed battlefields, and godforsaken corners of the globe, a playbook written in blood.”

“Canley never stopped serving and was a selfless leader his entire life,” Wilson said.

In his final moments in hospice care, he spent time advocating for his Marines, those that he led and served to ensure that they were recognized for their own heroism.

Upon receiving the Medal of Honor years before, Canley said the medal wasn’t about just him, but the Marines who didn’t receive appropriate recognition when they returned from the war.

At the christening ceremony, Patricia A. Sargent, Canley’s daughter, said, “It comes down to one very simple thing, and that’s choice. We all have to be positive … all have to have the courage. That’s what brings our success.”

She concluded: “And his hope is that every member, every captain, that runs the ship, makes that choice to be positive and … have courage in every mission that they’re given.”

The USNS Robert E. Simanek, the next in the series of ESB ships, is under construction at NASSCO.