John William Finn was born July 23, 1909 in Compton, California.
He joined the Navy in July of 1926, just before his 17th birthday.
By December of 1941, Finn had become a chief petty officer stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.
As a chief aviation ordnanceman, Finn was in charge of twenty men whose primary task was to maintain the weapons of a PBY Catalina flying boat squadron.
Then on the morning of December 7, 1941, Finn was at his home, about a mile from the aircraft hangars, when he heard the sound of gunfire.
Finn later 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!”
He drove to the hangars, catching sight of Japanese planes in the sky on the way, and found that the airbase was being attacked, with most of the PBY flying boats already on fire.
Finn’s men began fighting 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.
Finn later explained that 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.”
Finding a movable tripod platform used for gunnery training, Finn attached the .50 caliber machine gun and pushed the platform into an open area, from which he had a clear view of the attacking aircraft.
He fired on the Japanese planes for the next two hours, even after being seriously wounded, until the attack finally ended.
In total, Finn received 21 distinct wounds, including a bullet through his right foot and an injury to his left shoulder, which caused him to lose feeling in his left arm.
“I got that gun and I started shooting at Jap planes,” Finn said in a 2009 interview. “I was out there shooting the Jap planes and just every so often I was a target for some,” he said, “In some cases, I could see their [the Japanese pilots’] faces.”
Despite his wounds, Finn returned to the hangars later that day. After receiving medical treatment, he helped arm the surviving American planes.
John William Finn’s actions earned him the first Medal of Honor to be awarded in World War II.
He was formally presented with the decoration on September 14, 1942, by Admiral Chester Nimitz, for courage and valor beyond the call of duty.
The ceremony took place in Pearl Harbor on board the USS Enterprise (CV-6).
Medal of Honor 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, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, he promptly secured and manned a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on an instruction stand in a completely exposed section of the parking ramp, which was under heavy enemy machine gun 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 are considered to be in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.
In 1942 Finn became a commissioned officer, and served as a Limited Duty Officer with the rank of ensign.
In 1947, he was reverted to his enlisted rank of chief petty officer, eventually rising again to the rank of lieutenant with Bombing Squadron VB-102 aboard the USS Hancock (CV-19).
Finn retired from the Navy as a lieutenant in September of 1956.
In his later years he made many appearances at events celebrating veterans.
On March 25, 2009, Finn attended National Medal of Honor Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
With the aid of walking sticks, Finn stood beside 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
When called a hero during a 2009 interview Finn responded:
“That damned hero stuff is a bunch [of] 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.”
At the time of his death on May 27, 2010 at the age of 100, John W. Finn was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient and the last living recipient from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Finn is buried besides his wife at the Campo Indian Reservation’s cemetery, after a memorial service in El Cajon.
Now WE know em