WASHINGTON — President Trump awarded the Medal of Honor on Wednesday to a Marine who saved the lives of numerous fellow soldiers during one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, when he repeatedly charged into enemy fire and carried wounded Americans to safety during fighting that went on for a week.
Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley was a 30-year-old gunnery sergeant when he took command of his company after its commanding officer was seriously wounded on its way into Hue City at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. On Wednesday, Sergeant Major Canley, who retired from the Marines in 1981 and is now 80, stood on stage with Mr. Trump in the ornate East Room of the White House to receive the highest commendation available to members of the American military.
“This is one of my favorite events,” Mr. Trump exulted as he took his place onstage to honor the Marine hero, to shouts of “oo-rah!” from Marines and others on hand for the occasion. “I like brave people.”
The president then told the tale of Sergeant Major Canley, who was born in Caledonia, Ark., and stole his brother’s paperwork to enlist in the Marines at age 15.
Advancing on Hue in January 1968, Sergeant Major Canley first saved the life of a soldier who had been struck by a rocket and was about to be run down by a tank, braving gunfire to retrieve him and carry him to safety. Then, when his commanding officer was hit, Sergeant Major Canley stepped in, pushing his troops into Hue to relieve American forces that were surrounded.
“In the days that followed, John led his company through the fog and rain, and in house-to-house, very vicious, very hard combat,” Mr. Trump said. “He assaulted enemy strongholds, killed enemy fighters, and with deadly accuracy, did everything you had to do.”
“In one harrowing engagement after another, John risked his own life to save the lives of those under his command,” Mr. Trump added.
In one particularly daring maneuver, the president recounted, Sergeant Major Canley liberated a school that had been taken over by the North Vietnamese, charging into machine-gun fire with rocket launchers, with another Marine, Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez, who was killed.
“The enemy didn’t know what the hell happened,” Mr. Trump said.
An announcement of Sergeant Major Canley’s medal citation on the website of the United States Marine Corps noted that at one point, “at a hospital compound, he twice scaled a wall in full view of the enemy to aid wounded Marines and carry them to safety.”
Sergeant Major Canley, who served as a Marine for 28 years, has been recognized for his heroism before with the Navy Cross as well as two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, according to Representative Julia Brownley, Democrat of California, who represents the district where he now lives. He was her guest at Mr. Trump’s State of the Union address in January.
Ms. Brownley said one of Sergeant Major Canley’s fellow service members contacted her in 2014 to ask that she recommend him for the Medal of Honor, an idea that Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, told her in 2017 was fitting.
But Mr. Mattis said Congress would have to pass legislation to waive the five-year time limit for awarding the Medal of Honor. Ms. Brownley sponsored the bill, and the legislation was signed in January.
On Wednesday, before pinning the medal on its blue ribbon around Sergeant Major Canley’s neck, the president marveled at the war hero’s physical fitness. “You don’t look 80 years old to me,” Mr. Trump said.
“I asked him that question; I said, ‘How are you keeping in shape?’” Mr. Trump added. Sergeant Major Canley, he said, responded: “I still work out, sir.”