Navy Commissions Latest Sea Base USS John L. Canley

February 19, 2024 9:51 AM
USS John L. Canley (ESB-6) ‘bring the ship to life’ during a commissioning ceremony, Feb. 17, 2024. US Navy Photo

SAN DIEGO – USS John L. Canley (ESB-6) came to life Saturday in Coronado, Calif., as sailors rushed along the pier to board their ship and stand the first watch in the time-honored tradition of a ship’s commissioning.

Friends and relatives of the ship’s namesakes gathered at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado to see the Navy’s newest expeditionary sea base enter the fleet.

The ship is named for retired Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley, a Vietnam War veteran whose heroics during the 1968 Battle of Hue had earned him the Navy Cross, which the Department of the Navy awarded him in 1970. The award was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor, which he received in 2018 at a White House ceremony. Canley, who enlisted in 1953 at age 15 using his brother’s identification, died May 11, 2022, in Bend, Ore., at age 84.

“John Canley gets to live forever,” Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlos Ruiz, the service’s top enlisted Marine, told the crowd that included Marines, sailors, shipyard workers and Vietnam veterans.

Canley had spent 15 years in the Marine Corps before the crucible of Hue, Ruiz noted, then continued his military service into a nearly 30-year career. Canley had a calm, cool presence about him, said Ruiz, and an innate ability to act and “to pull his Marines out of danger.”

That persona is reflected in the ship’s motto: “Courage under fire.”

Retired Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Canley received the Medal of Honor. Dunford recounted how impressed he was by Canley’s sincerity, humility, command presence and fitness level. “At 80 years old, he looked completely ready to deploy with an infantry battalion at that very moment,” he said.

Dunford noted that Canley, in an interview about receiving the Medal of Honor, had acknowledged the importance of his role leading his men in battle. “My troops would follow me to their death. So if they might die, what am I supposed to do?” Canley said, he recalled. Such perspective “was in the sticker price of a Marine gunnery sergeant.”

Canley, added Dunford, was “a humble servant-leader who left a legacy of Marines, some here today, who are proud to be called ‘Canley-trained.’”

In remarks directed to the ship’s Blue and Gold crews and merchant mariners, Capt. Thomas Mays, the ship’s commanding officer, acknowledged Canley’s storied career and lasting mark.

“Our legacy will extend decades into the future, with unknowable accomplishments and challenges etched into her hull,” Mays said. He honored the ship’s namesakes’ “honor, courage and selfless sacrifice” and “the lifeblood” in the crew, which has spent two years preparing to step onto the ship and join the fleet.

Patricia Sargent, Canley’s daughter and the ship’s sponsor, honored the legacy of her father and all the Marines he served with in combat and throughout his career.

“My father understood that greatness is not achieved by the individual. It is achieved by the courageous acts of the many. The Marines of Alpha Company 1/1 are an example of that, of what they achieved in the Battle of Hue city,” Sargent told the crowd. “In that battle, my father earned their Medal of Honor, which now resides on the USS John L. Canley. This ship will achieve greatness, but it will only do that by the courageous actions of the many.”

With that, she said, “It is in honor of my father, my family, members of the 1/1 and the great people of the United States that I give the command: Officers, and crew of the USS John L. Canley, man our ship and bring her to life.”

In the keynote address, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro honored the late sergeant major’s bravery and philosophy of “if today’s my day, then come and get me.”

“While the legacy of African-American service members in the sea services spans centuries, their stories often went untold, and they did not receive the recognition that they often deserved,” del Toro said. Canley received the Navy Cross, but it was after a reunion of Alpha 1/1 Marines that a veteran “embarked on a journey to ensure that this humble leader received the credit that he so deserved.”

John L. Canley (ESB-6) enters San Diego Harbor Feb. 9, 2024. US Navy Photo

It wasn’t easy getting the award upgraded “through bureaucratic red tape,” the secretary said. When it came 50 years later, Canley was the first living, African-American service member to receive the medal. African-Americans comprise 16 percent of the Navy and more than 10 percent of the Marine Corps, del Toro said. “It is imperative that future generations see themselves in our sea services.”

Canley was built at the General Dynamic NASSCO shipyard in San Diego, christened into the Military Sealift Command fleet on June 25, 2022, and delivered to the Navy in March 2023.

“This is a massive capable, flexible warship that gives the fleet commander the decision space they need throughout their operating theaters,” David Carver, General Dynamics NASSCO president, said to the crowd. “We are truly honored and humbled to have built this ship,” Carver added.

Canley’s story “demonstrates the American ideas: courage, sacrifice, patriotism, citizenship, integrity and commitment – not just for his heroics in Vietnam. It’s the way he lived his life,” he said. The ship is “the embodiment of American unity and purpose, a beacon of hope and freedom to those in need around the world.”

The 785-foot vessel is the Navy’s fourth expeditionary staging base – the others are USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3), USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB-4) and USS Miguel Keith (ESB-5).

The ships can support a wide range of military missions, from combat operations to humanitarian support, and Canley is expected to support airborne mine countermeasures, special operations and unmanned aviation systems. It has a large upper flight deck and expansive hangar and maintenance deck that give it a unique silhouette at sea. Canley has a dedicated space that can support up to 250 embarked personnel, the first ship in the class built with it, Carver told the crowd.

Canley was the company gunnery sergeant for Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment when he and 150 Marines pushed into the Vietnamese city along with tanks and Army armored vehicles as they endured enemy attacks. Wounded at one point, Canley ran through enemy fire to carry wounded Marines to safety, according to the award citation. The convoy came under enemy fire, including snipers and rockets, that wounded the company commander.

Ship’s crew members of USS John L. Canley (ESB-6) man the ship during the ship’s commissioning ceremony at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., on Feb, 17, 2024. US Navy Photo

So the six-foot-four Canley – he’s described in a Marine Corps anthology as “a giant of a man” – took command of Alpha and led the men through three days of battle, fighting block-by-block in intense combat. According to his award citation:

“At Hue City, caught in deadly crossfire from enemy machine gun positions, he set up a base of fire and maneuvered with a platoon in a flanking attack that eliminated several enemy positions. Retaining command of the company for three days, he led attacks against multiple enemy fortified positions while routinely braving enemy fire to carry wounded Marines to safety. 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. 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.”


Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes

Gidget Fuentes is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She has spent more than 20 years reporting extensively on the Marine Corps and the Navy, including West Coast commands and Pacific regional issues.

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