Murphy Williamson has long known what the White House finally acknowledged Wednesday: that his brother in arms John Canley is a hero.
Williamson, 69, drove his Tahoe from his home in Amherst Township to his daughter’s house in Alexandria, Virginia, across the river from Washington, D.C., this week. He was planning to meet up with his old Marine buddies from Vietnam at the most honored of reunions — a presidential ceremony to bestow the Medal of Honor on one of their own.
Retired Sgt. Maj. Canley was a gunnery sergeant when Williamson was an 18-year-old enlisted man under his charge in Company A, First Battalion, First Marines in Vietnam.
Canley led his troops into Hue city on Jan. 31, 1968. Over several days, the Marines found themselves surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese troops during the Tet Offensive.
“We called him Gunny Canley. I don’t remember seeing him with a weapon other than the pistol on his side. He carried a spade, almost like a walking stick, and wore a big green towel around his neck,” Williamson said. “And he would never get down. Never went to the ground. His belief was, if he didn’t get killed in the first 30 seconds, he’d be good to go. I’d be hiding and I’d be looking at him, cringing, wondering how he wasn’t getting hit.”
Canley, 80, was highly decorated before Wednesday’s ceremony, having already received the Navy Cross, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for his actions in the battle, including running into the open and drawing enemy fire to allow troops to rescue injured Marines. For years, men who served with him have petitioned the government to give him the highest honor a military member can receive for valor.
“It’s well-deserved. He cared a lot about us and helped us through a lot of stuff. Any time the (expletive) was hitting the fan, if I had the opportunity, I’d look to see where Canley was. He’d be yelling at us, directing us, standing up out in the open. Guys that were hit, he’d drag them out of the fire zone. He exposed himself a bazillion times,” Williamson said.
“He was 26, 27 maybe and an old man in my book. I was 18. Most of us were. We looked up to him. He wasn’t a loudmouth or a smart mouth. When he said something it was direct, it was polite. He didn’t have to tell you twice. That’s how much respect he got,” he said. “Canley’s got to be feeling 9 feet tall today.”
Williamson served for “two years, 11 months, and three days” that included malaria and injuries, including being hit with shrapnel and shot seven days into the battle. Williamson, who has received three Purple Hearts for his service, remembers being knocked off his feet and a Marine running by him, grabbing his machine gun and tossing him his rifle before he was dragged out of the fight. He woke up in the Philippines, being nursed by a woman whose last name was Westmoreland. She was married to Gen. William Westmoreland, the Army chief of staff.
He returned to the States and struggled with leftover demons from the war for a while, and was homeless before he landed in the HVAC field and married. He has four grown children, one divorce and one widowing under his belt. Now retired, he has been married to his Karen for 10 years, has three German shepherds “attached to his hip,” including one from Wags 4 Warriors, a group that provides trained therapy dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and stays in touch with his former Marine buddies on social media.
A few years ago he saw Canley at a reunion in Minnesota.
Williamson was nervous about going to the White House.
“This is my first rodeo,” he said. “I had no idea about all this. I thought we were going to D.C. to see the medal pinned on him and mess around after the ceremony with some of the guys, but that’s not the case. We’re going to the Pentagon (today) and on Friday to the Marine barracks in Washington, D.C.”
While he’s at the Hall of Heroes, he could look up another Marine running buddy, Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez, a squad leader with Company A’s 3rd Platoon. Gonzalez died in a Catholic Church in Hue, just days before Williamson was shot. He also received the Medal of Honor, posthumously. A missile launcher bore his name until it was decommissioned in 1997, and there is a street named after him in Camp Lejeune.
“He was an awesome guy. A quiet guy. He led from the front and he didn’t play,” he said. “He was something else. Another warrior. And they both came from the same company.”