John S. Canton – Colonel, United States Marine Corps

27 October 2005

By the time John S. Canton began a Marine Corps career distinguished by a string of far-ranging intelligence missions, he already was a young man of the world.

His parents were Spanish immigrants. His birthplace was Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, and he spoke French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and three North African Berber dialects.

Yet, as a young man, he barely knew English.

When he enlisted in the Marine Corps in September 1940, he had to master the language in boot camp, said his son, John A. Canton.

Colonel Canton, a former San Diegan who served with the French Foreign Legion before his 31-year Marine Corps career, died October 13, 2005, in a nursing home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 86.

The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer's disease, which was diagnosed in 1999, his son said.

Within three years of joining the Marine Corps, Colonel Canton was promoted to Lieutenant. In the South Pacific during World War II, he saw action in the Northern Solomons, the Green Islands and in the occupation and defense of Cape Torokina on Bougainville.

One of the highlights of his career returned him to his Moroccan roots. From 1960 to 1965, he assumed the dual role of commanding officer of U.S. Marines in Morocco and liaison for U.S. forces to the Moroccan monarch.

Colonel Canton accompanied King Hassan II in 1961 to the White House for a conference with President Kennedy and carried out assignments, in his role as liaison, for the Moroccan Royal Cabinet.

“When Morocco was at war with Algeria in 1963, he advised the Moroccans on military strategy,” John A. Canton said. The role resulted in one of the highest honors conferred by the king of Morocco, the Ouissam Alaouite.

“John was exactly right for the role he played there,” said retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel John Wickham, who served with him in Morocco. “He knew the king and the crown prince well and he was very valuable because of his linguistic gifts.”

Colonel Canton returned to the United States in 1965 to serve three years in Washington, D.C., as chief of intelligence at U.S. Marine Corps headquarters.

His final tour of duty sent him to Vietnam in an intelligence role in Da Nang. He retired from active duty in 1971 with his fourth Legion of Merit.

As a civilian, he formed a consulting company in Morocco. Representing U.S. defense contractors in supplying transport vehicles, he negotiated contracts with the Moroccan government. His principal partner was prominent Moroccan financier and industrialist Othman Benjelloun.

“Working side by side with him, I was fortunate to learn about how to work at the highest levels of business and government of two countries with completely different cultures,” John A. Canton said.

“He was able to seamlessly bridge the gap between Arabs, Berbers, Europeans and Americans – and not only as a translator. He had the ability to convey complete cultural understanding while maintaining a highly cultured and gracious demeanor.”

Colonel Canton, who had bought a home in La Jolla in 1977, operated his business until retiring in 1984.

He was born January 16, 1919, just months after his father died in the flu epidemic of 1918. As an infant, he moved from Brooklyn to Casablanca with his mother, who remarried.

Tutored by his maternal grandfather, who operated an international import business, Colonel Canton developed his linguistic expertise.

As a young man, Colonel Canton excelled as much in gymnastics as he did in languages, his son said.

In 1939, Colonel Canton enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. Assigned to an artillery detachment, he fought the forces of Nazi Germany in northern France, Belgium, Sudan and Abbeville, France.

He was wounded in Dunkirk, France, and was evacuated to England along with about 345,000 Allied troops. The evacuation was prompted by a German invasion that the Allies were powerless to counter.

After the evacuation, he took a discharge from the French Foreign Legion and returned to the United States, where he had relatives in New York.

“He joined the Marines, thinking he would go back to Europe and fight the Nazis,” said Rosalie Dahl, his former wife. “Instead, he went to the South Pacific.”

After boot camp in Paris Island, South Carolina, Colonel Canton underwent advanced training in San Diego at Camp Elliot and Camp Mathews. He also drilled at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado.

He was stationed in San Diego again in 1944 when he met Dahl. She was employed at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Hollywood, where he had gone on leave.

Within a couple of weeks, they married in San Diego and honeymooned in La Jolla.

In the early 1950s, Colonel Canton's intelligence-gathering duties took him to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Yugoslavia and Albania.

With his family living in Cardiff, Colonel Canton reported to Korea in 1953. During the Korean War, he suffered shrapnel wounds in a kidney from mortar fire. The wound resulted in a Purple Heart.

He was treated in a hospital in Yokouska, Japan, before being sent to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.

After the Korean War, Colonel Canton was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, and then to the Army Intelligence School in Fort Holabird, Maryland.

Because of the classified-nature of his missions, Colonel Canton rarely discussed them with his family. One thing was certain, though: He was a dedicated Marine.

“As complex as he was, he had one very simple principle in life: unquestionable duty to your country,” John A. Canton said. “He was a Marine's Marine.”

Colonel Canton was divorced from Dahl in 1981. He later married Katherine Lowe, with whom he settled in Sarasota in 1996.

In addition to his wife, survivors include daughters, Cecilia M. Canton and Jeanne J. Luna, both of Coronado; sons, Ramon D. Canton of San Rafael, John A. Canton of Spring Valley and Coronado, and Paul J. Canton of La Jolla; stepsons, Stephen Lowe of Bethesda, Maryland, and Major John Lowe of Fredericksburg, Virignia; brother, Joseph Garcia of Redlands; 14 grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Burial with full military honors is scheduled for December 19, 2005, at Arlington National Cemetery. Donations are suggested to St. Wilfred Episcopal Church, 3773 Wilkinson Road, Sarasota, Florida 34233, or to the Alzheimer's Association, 1230 South Tuttle Ave., Sarasota, Florida 34239.

John S. Canton, 86, a Marine Corps colonel who served as an intelligence and combat officer in three wars, died October 13 at a nursing home in Sarasota, Florida, where he lived. He had dementia.

Colonel Canton was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, where his family had an import-export business. He attended secondary school and an engineering college in France.

He returned to the United States shortly before World War II and joined the Marine Corps. Because he spoke French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and some Slavic languages, he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA. He was an intelligence agent in Yugoslavia and France and also served as a combat officer in the South Pacific.

He was a combat and intelligence officer in the Korean War and an intelligence officer in Vietnam. He also served in China, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, where he was a military liaison to King Hassan II, whom he had known while growing up.

He served at the Pentagon periodically before his retirement from the Marines in 1971. He received four awards of the Legion of Merit, a Purple Heart and many decorations from foreign governments.

In 1971, Colonel Canton formed a consulting firm in Morocco that represented U.S. defense contractors supplying materials to the Moroccan government. He moved to Pensacola, Florida, in 1978 and retired from business in 1984.

From 1985 to 1989, he lived in McLean, where he was a member of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. He lived in Front Royal, Virginia, from 1989 to 1996 and was a member of the vestry at Calvary Episcopal Church. He had lived in Sarasota since 1996.

His marriage to Rosalie Dahl Canton ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 24 years, Katherine Canton of Sarasota; five children from his first marriage, Cecelia M. Canton and Jeanne Canton Luna, both of Coronado, California, Ramon D. Canton of San Rafael, California, John A. Canton of Spring Valley, California, and Paul J. Canton of La Jolla, California; two stepsons, Stephen W. Lowe of Bethesda and Army Major John M. Lowe of Fredericksburg; a brother; 17 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.


  • DATE OF BIRTH: 01/16/1919
  • DATE OF DEATH: 10/13/2005

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment