John William Finn
Engagements: • World War II (1941 - 1945)
John William Finn
Lieutenant John William Finn was a U.S. Navy officer who received the U.S. military's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. He was the first recipient of the Medal in World War II.
John William Finn, a plumber's son, was born on 23 July 1909 in Los Angeles, CA. Finn dropped out of school after the seventh grade. He enlisted in the Navy in July 1926, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, and received recruit training in San Diego. After a brief stint with a ceremonial guard company, he attended General Aviation Utilities Training at Naval Station Great Lakes, graduating in December. By April 1927 he was back in the San Diego area, having been assigned to Naval Air Station North Island. He initially worked in aircraft repair before becoming an aviation ordnanceman and working on anti-aircraft guns. He then served on a series of ships: the USS Lexington (CV-2), the USS Houston (CA-30), the USS Jason (AC-12), the USS Saratoga (CV-3), and the USS Cincinnati (CL-6). After being promoted to Chief Petty Officer in about 1936, he served with patrol squadrons in San Diego, Washington, and Panama.
In December 1941, Finn was stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. As a chief aviation ordnanceman, he was in charge of twenty men whose primary task was to maintain the weapons of a PBY Catalina flying boat squadron. On the morning of 7 December 1941, Finn was at home in bed with his wife, Alice, when just before 8:00 am, he heard the rumble of low-flying aircraft and sporadic machine gun fire coming from the hangar a mile away. Finn recalled how a neighbor was the first to alert him, when she knocked on his door saying "They want you down at the squadron right away!"
Amid the confusion, he threw on a pair of dungarees and his chief's hat, and started driving as calmly as possible to the nearby hangar (seeing Japanese planes in the sky on the way), while maintaining the base's 20-mph speed limit. "I got around, and I heard a plane come roaring in from astern of me. As I glanced up, the guy made a wing-over and I saw that big old red meatball, the rising sun insignia, on the underside of the wing," he said in an interview with Larry Smith for the 2003 book "Beyond Glory," an oral history of Medal of Honor recipients. "Well, I threw it into second, and it was a wonder I didn't run over every sailor in the air station."
His men were trying to fight back by using the machine guns mounted in the PBYs, either by firing from inside the flaming planes or by detaching the guns and mounting them on improvised stands. In 2009 Finn explained one of the first things he did was take control of a machine gun from his squadron's painter. "I said, 'Alex, let me take that gun'...knew that I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter."
Finn then found a movable platform used for gunnery training, attached the .50 caliber machine gun, and pushed the platform into an open area from which he had a clear view to give the Japanese what he called a "warm welcome." For more than 2 1/2 hours he fired at wave after wave of strafing Japanese Zeroes until the attack ended, even after being seriously wounded, because, as he later said, "I didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain." In total, he received 21 distinct wounds, including a bullet wound in his left arm; a broken left foot; shrapnel to his chest, stomach, right elbow and thumb; and a laceration on his scalp.
He finally left his improvised machine gun post under specific orders to seek medical attention. After a few bandages, he returned to the hangar later that day to help arm the surviving American planes. He later spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from his wounds.
Finn was credited with bringing down one plane on his own, but he played down his achievement. "I can't honestly say I hit any," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001. "But I shot at every damn plane I could see."
Medal of Honor
Rank and organization: Lieutenant, U.S. Navy.
Place and date: Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Territory of Hawaii, 7 December 1941.
Citation: For extraordinary heroism distinguished service, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. During the first attack by Japanese airplanes on the Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, on 7 December 1941, Lt. Finn promptly secured and manned a .50-caliber machinegun mounted on an instruction stand in a completely exposed section of the parking ramp, which was under heavy enemy machinegun strafing fire. Although painfully wounded many times, he continued to man this gun and to return the enemy's fire vigorously and with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks and with complete disregard for his own personal safety. It was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention. Following first aid treatment, although obviously suffering much pain and moving with great difficulty, he returned to the squadron area and actively supervised the rearming of returning planes. His extraordinary heroism and conduct in this action were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
For his heroic actions, Finn was formally presented with the Medal of Honor on 14 September 1942, by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. The ceremony occurred in Pearl Harbor on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6). Of the 15 Medal of Honor recipients from Pearl Harbor, 14 were for rescue attempts; Finn's was the only one awarded for combat.
In 1942 he was commissioned, and he served as a Limited Duty Officer with the rank of Ensign. In 1947 he was reverted back to his enlisted rank of Chief Petty Officer, eventually becoming a Lieutenant with Bombing Squadron VB-102 and aboard the USS Hancock (CV-19). He retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant in September 1956.
Medals and Awards
Medal of Honor
From 1956 until shortly before his death, Finn resided on a 93-acre ranch in the desert at Live Oak Springs, near Pine Valley, CA. There he raised cattle, horses, and chickens, and ran a scrap yard with his wife, Alice. Finn said he found his occupation peaceful, and above all was pleased to have "a place to ride my motorcycle, shoot my guns on my own property and collect my junk."
He and Alice became foster parents to five Native American children, causing him to be embraced by the Campo Band of Diegueño Mission Indians, a tribe of Kumeyaay people in San Diego. John Finn was a member of the John Birch Society.
In his retirement, he made many appearances at events honoring veterans. On 25 March 2009, he attended National Medal of Honor Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. With the aid of walking sticks, he stood beside U.S. President Barack Obama during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Later that day, Finn was a guest at the White House. It was his first visit to the White House, and his first time meeting a sitting President. In celebration of Finn's 100th birthday, The Association of Aviation Ordnancemen presented him with an American flag which had flown on each of the 11 aircraft carriers then in active service.
When called a hero during a 2009 interview Finn responded: "That damned hero stuff is a bunch crap, I guess. [...] You gotta understand that there's all kinds of heroes, but they never get a chance to be in a hero's position."
Death and Burial
Lieutenant John William Finn died at age 100 on the morning of 27 May 2010, at the Chula Vista Veterans Home. His wife, Alice Finn, died in 1998. He is buried at Saint Carmel Cemetery in Live Oak Springs, San Diego County, CA. Survivors include a son, Joseph.
|Honoree ID: 21||Created by: MHOH|