The story of the only man awarded the Medal of Honor for combat on December 7, 1941.
December 7th, 1941 is “a date which will live in infamy” as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time. The attack, which happened in two waves as 353 Japanese fighters were launched from six aircraft carriers, spurred everyone to their defensive positions including Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer John William Finn.
Finn was awoken in his bed when the Japanese first started their attack. He lived with his wife Alice in a house about a mile away from where he was stationed at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station (NAS). The NAS Kaneohe Bay was acquired by the Navy in 1939 and was used by three Patrol Squadrons for long-range reconnaissance flights using the PBY Catalina flying boats. Finn was in charge of twenty men and their primary task was to maintain the weapons of the PBY Catalina flying boat squadrons. The air station was about 15 miles from Pearl Harbor and Battleship Row and was attacked minutes before Pearl Harbor.
The sound of gunfire and low-flying aircraft awoke Finn. As he was trying to place what was going on, his neighbor knocked on the door. “They want you down at the squadron right away!” she told him when he opened the door. He hastily threw on his chief hat and a pair of dungarees and got into his car. Finn tried to maintain the 20 mph speed limit as he drove to the air station. “I got around [a curve], 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 recalled in an interview with Larry Smith for the 2003 book Beyond Glory. “Well, I threw it into second, and it was a wonder I didn’t run over every sailor in the air station.”
Once he arrived, Finn saw that most of the PBY Catalina flying boats were hit and on fire. His men were already firing back at the planes with machine guns from the PBYs. Some of the men were firing from inside the blazing planes while others detached the guns and used improved stands. He immediately took control of a machine gun from the squadron’s painter and moved the makeshift tripod of spare pipes into a better position out in an open area.
He began openly firing at the Japanese without any cover for over two hours. Finn, in a 2009 interview, stated that his only thought was to continue to fire at the planes even though he was an open target. “In some cases, I could see their faces,” Finn reminisced. Despite being repeatedly shot (he had 21 distinct wounds in his right foot, left shoulder along with shrapnel injuries to his chest, stomach, right elbow and thumb and a scalp laceration), Finn kept up his counterattack. “I didn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain,” he later quipped.
The first Japanese aircraft that was destroyed in action was shot down by the men of Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station. Finn, himself, is credited with shooting down a plane. “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.”
Finn only left his post under specific orders to seek medical attention for his wounds. Undeterred by his injuries, Finn returned to the hangars later that day to help rearm returning planes. That is not to say his injuries were in any way superficial. Finn spent the next two weeks in the hospital recovering from them.
The attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station killed 18 sailors and destroyed all but 6 of the 33 PBY Catalinas on the ground or floating just offshore. The surviving flying boats were damaged and only the three Kaneohe Bay PBYs that were out on patrol at the time were deemed fit for service at the end of the attack.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese planes damaged eight U.S. Navy battleships (four of which sunk), three cruisers, three destroyers, one anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer. In addition, the Japanese destroyed 188 U.S. aircraft. Over 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,282 wounded. The attack also ushered in the formal entry of the United States into World War II.
On September 15, 1941, Finn was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on December 7th. He was awarded the honor on-board the flight deck of the USS Enterprise in Pearl Harbor by the Pacific commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. There were 15 Medal of Honor recipients from that fateful day. Of those, 14 were for rescue attempts, Finn was the only Medal of Honor awarded for combat. His citation reads:
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, Kanoehe Bay, on 7 December 1941, Lieutenant Finn 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 were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Finn served through the rest of the war and retired from the Navy in September 1956 as a lieutenant. He and his wife Alice were foster parents to five Native American children and had a son Joseph. They moved to a ranch outside of San Diego where they raised cattle, horses and chickens. Of his peaceful ranch, Finn stated that it was “a place to ride my motorcycle, shoot my guns on my own property and collect my junk.” Alice died in 1998.
During his retirement, Finn made many appearances. He stood besides President Barack Obama during the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on March 25, 2009 at the National Medal of Honor Day ceremonies held at Arlington National Cemetery. At 100 years of age, Finn was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.
On May 27, 2010, only a few months after the ceremonies in Washington, Lt. John W. Finn passed away. Shortly before his death he was asked how he felt about being called a ‘hero,’ Finn was insistent that he was not a hero. “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.”
Richard Goldstein, “John Finn, Medal of Honor Winner, Dies at 100,” New York Times, May 27, 2010.
T. Rees Shapiro, “Lt. John W. Finn, Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 100,” The Washington Post, May 29, 2010.
Larry Shaughnessy, “Oldest Medal of Honor recipient, 100, downplays ‘hero’ talk,” CNN.
Lieutenant John William Finn (1909-2010), Naval History & Heritage Heritage Command.
Congressional Medal of Honor Society