To Slippery Rock, Vietnam and back

Published by Joe Wells, Date: April 30, 2022
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John Ligato was the first person in his family to attend college.

In 1966, he was enrolled at then named Slippery Rock State College.

He was also the first person in his family to get kicked out of college. Without an education deferment, John figured he would be called up as part of the draft for the war in Vietnam.

Deciding to leave on his own terms, he tried to get into the Navy, but they were full. The Air Force had a long waitlist as well.

Running out of options, John had a few beers and turned to the Marines. They were more than willing to accept him.

“The recruiter promised me that if I signed that day, he would get me embassy duty in Rome and I wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam,” Ligato recalled. “And I wouldn’t have to be [in the] infantry.”

It was a good deal for the young, former college student so he enlisted.

About three months later, John found himself in Quang Tri, Vietnam, serving as a basic infantryman with 1st Marines.

As an infantryman, John found himself in harm’s way immediately after linking up with his new family – Company A, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. He was to report to Cpl. Rubio’s squad, he was told shortly after exiting a truck that took him up to the company area.

One of the first things John asks after introducing himself was where he could find a bathroom. Rubio hands John a shovel and tells him to dig a hole.

Out on the perimeter, the green Marine is trying to figure out the geometry of a bowel movement in the field. It’s not quite working when all of sudden, mortars begin landing in the area.

“I didn’t know what to do,” John said. “I remember crouching down and pulling my helmet, trying to get as small as I could.”

Seconds later, a tug of his ear. It’s Rubio and he’s arrived to escort the new Marine to a safer location that could provide some cover.

As time goes on, John and the members of Company A are tasked with securing a military base at Con Tien.

For months the area had seen heavy shelling and at times come close to being overrun. When John arrives, the heavy shelling continues reaching upwards of 300 rounds a day dropped on the Marines.

They weren’t planning to run patrols outside the base but on Dec. 15 that year, they are tasked with a patrol.

“Within a few minutes [we] lost six dead and 13 wounded,” John said.

This was also the first time John actually saw those who were trying to kill him. At times, the enemy would be only 15 yards away, close enough to hear the enemy’s shells falling down the mortar tube.

By Christmas, the Marines are relieved and head back to Quang Tri for some rest from the shelling. Despite a Christmas truce, they receive rockets and mortars from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day.

On Jan. 31, 1968, John and the men of Company A are told to “saddle up” and get onto trucks. They are told a Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) compound is under attack by two undersized North Vietnamese Army (NVA) companies in Hue. What John and the others don’t know is that the attack is just a small part of what would come to be known as the Tet Offensive.

This large-scale attack by the North Vietnamese is their play to turn the tide of the war. And in Hue, the few hundred soldiers of the NVA is really 10,000.

Heading into Hue, the rescue convoy is ambushed. The Marines, including John disembark their vehicles and begin returning fire.

Enemy fire begins to rain in on the Marines from the west, then north, then east. South, the direction they came from starts to see enemy attacks. The Marines stay as low as possible, trying to not get hit by the enemy fire.

Eventually, the Marines are reinforced by a few tanks. The men work to load the wounded onto the tanks and remaining working vehicles and push into the city.

“By the time we got into Hue, half of the company was either dead or wounded,” John said.

John is included in that group, having taken shrapnel while providing cover fire for others attempting to pull wounded Marines off the road.

With no officers left in Company A, the Marines Gunnery Sergeant John Canley (Gunny) takes command of the company. Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez, a 21-year-old Marine from Edinburg, Texas assists in leading the company.

The fighting inside Hue is relentless and forces the Marines to secure the city, house by house.

During one night of the month-long battle, holed up in abandoned homes, John and his fellow Marines are shook-up, bloody, listening to an uncommon quiet night. All of a sudden, a howling begins.

John is positioned at the front door. His first thought is some Marine is screwing with the others.

“This is not funny,” John recalls. “All of sudden we hear ‘F you, you die Marine.’”

Gonzalez comes up to John, knowing he had attended language school not too long ago. He orders John to say something back in Vietnamese.

John runs through what little he retained, phrases like, “Hello, how are you,” and “Can I have a cigarette?”

The Marines wait John’s rebuttal.

He jumps into the doorway, and in English he shouts, “F— you, you mother f—–!”

The Marines’ laughter punctures the tense feeling of the night.

The Battle of Hue continues into February, John is wounded a second time at the Saint Joan of Arc Catholic Church. But for Gonzalez, he would be mortally wounded by a rocket propelled grenade but not before taking out a North Vietnamese rocket emplacement.

For his actions during Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, 1968, Gonzalez is awarded the Medal of Honor.

Three weeks later, the Marines are attempting to clear a compound suspected of holding NVA troops. John climbs over a four-foot wall and is hit with shrapnel in his arm. Pulled back over to safety, the unit’s medic wants to medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) him.

John refuses, but the next day while tending to his injuries, the medic tells John he needs to be taken back to be treated before things get worse. His time in Vietnam comes to an end as he is sent to a field hospital in the Philippines.

While healing from the combat he had just come out of, John began to think about what he wanted to do with his life. One thing is for certain, he wants to go back to Slippery Rock.

“I really loved Slippery Rock,” John said. “The image of Slippery Rock, the rolling hills.”

John knows that if he goes back home to south Philadelphia, he will either be a cop, like his father, or a factory worker.

But John wants to earn a college degree. So, from his hospital bed he writes to then-president of the college Albert Watrel, asking to be readmitted to the college.

Watrel grants John his wish for a second chance and readmits him into the summer session of 1969 but he is on probation.

With no housing for the summer, John purchases a tent large enough for him to stand up in with a floor, mattress and cooking supplies. He sets up in Rock Falls Park.

“After Vietnam this was like the Hilton,” John said.

John doesn’t tell many of his peers that he is a veteran. Word starts to spread around campus that there is a disturbed veteran living in the park. He doesn’t know the disturbed veteran is himself.

“I heard the rumors and I’m thinking ‘I wonder who that is?’” John recalls. “You don’t know you’re crazy.”

Before meeting his wife, a female student wanted to go to his place to study. John gave her directions that would take her down a few different roads and eventually a green and yellow tent.

“She looked at me and said, ‘I’m not coming to that,’” John said. “That’s when I started to realize something might be odd.”

Focused on his studies and determined not to blow his chance, John earns his bachelor’s and master’s degree in education from the college, but it wasn’t easy.

Even with groups around campus for Vietnam veterans, John doesn’t participate. Still, his roommate before getting married, is also a veteran. The two become battle buddies.

Like most veterans who return from combat, there is an adjustment period, John said. He was no exception.

“I was irrational,” John said. “You just want to be left alone.

“Eventually you square yourself away.”

After graduating, John goes to work for the Butler County ARC: an organization dedicated to helping children and adults with intellectual disabilities leave psychiatric homes and integrate back into their communities with some independence.

During this time, John met a girl at one of the homes who was blind but played the piano beautifully, he said. He believed she was only sent there because she was blind and not for any other disability.

John spoke to the man in charge and asked why she was there, knowing programs to give people their independence back existed. The answer has stuck with John to this day.

“He said, ‘Well, we’re keeping her because on Sunday when the parents visit, she plays the piano,’” John remembers, still angry about it to this day. “We got her out within a week.”

Through his years, John got to help so many people and watch them “bloom” over the years.

As the program became more successful and kept John occupied with more paperwork than visits, he began to look for a new career opportunity. A few months later he was accepted into the FBI but not without a slight hurdle to get past.

During the interview process, the interviewers were reviewing his academic file. John’s removal from the college all those years ago had caught back up to him.

The interviewers wanted to know what happened. John shared the story with them, but still refuses to say what it was he did that led to that decision by the school.

They had one question for him – “Were you drunk?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied without hesitation.

John was now a special agent with the FBI. Not long after, he volunteered for undercover duty.

For John, growing up in an Italian home in south Philadelphia, the culture of the mob was quite familiar. His experiences in Vietnam and use of small words made him a great undercover agent, John said.

Throughout his career in the FBI, eight of those years were spent undercover, talking with made men and building cases.

A minor highlight of his career had John found out – by the FBI – while waiting outside a know mob family associate’s business as part of his undercover work. Agents across the street began snapping photos, believing they had a new lead in their case.

Unfortunately, it was just John at work.

John eventually retired from the FBI. Afterwards he co-hosted a talk radio show and began publishing books. Around this time, John and the men he served with in Vietnam began reaching out and meeting up and telling stories of their time overseas.

No matter who you talked to from Company A, everyone had a Gunny story. John took notice.

For his actions in Hue, Canley was awarded the Navy Cross. Eventually, he would retire at the rank of Sergeant Major in 1981.

The stories about the Gunny, especially during what John refers to as the “three lost days of Marine Corps history,” in which the company was without an officer, began to spread around. Hearing the extraordinary feats of the Marine, who did everything he could to keep his men alive during that bloody battle, John knew Canley deserved the Medal of Honor for his actions.

He began by getting written statements from those who were still alive and started piecing together the necessary materials to request an upgrade to Canley’s Navy Cross.

The packet went up through the Pentagon 10 times and was rejected 10 times, always for bureaucratic reasons, John said. One day he received a call from an officer who had a problem with the packet matching up with their checklist.

“He said, ‘You have 11 missing signatures on the endorsement page,’” John said. “No, I don’t.”

The officer explained the signatures of those in Canley’s chain of command from that time must sign off on the pocket.

“And it hit me, so I said to him, ‘You realize they’re all dead?’” John asked.

That setback took John six months to find someone to get the packet moving past the hurdle. Eventually, the packet made its way to then-president Donald Trump’s desk in July 2018 where he approved it.

On Oct. 17, 2018 Sergeant Major (retired) John Canley, the beloved Gunny of Company A, was awarded the Medal of Honor. John was in attendance to see his years of work for his brother-in-arms realized.

Eventually, John would go on to write a book titled “The Gunny” detailing the events that led up to those three missing days and the bravery of all those he served with throughout his time in Vietnam.

Nearly three years later to the day of Canley receiving his Medal of Honor, Slippery Rock University hosted John and three other alumni who were recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award.

When he returned to Slippery Rock after all those years, the campus blew John away, he said.

And despite having to convince some people that Slippery Rock is an actual place with an actual university, John wouldn’t trade the education he received.

“I will say this, the education that I got at Slippery Rock was every bit as good as these Harvard, Yale, Ivy League [individuals],” John said. “Every bit as good.”

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Joe Wells
Joe is a senior communication major with concentrations in converged journalism and digital media production. This is his second year with The Rocket and first as the news editor. With a penchant for asking tough questions, his byline can be found on more than 100 articles for The Rocket including many breaking news and investigative pieces. During the hours he’s not wearing the hat of student journalist, he spends his time as a husband, father and dog owner in Slippery Rock.

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