By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
(Editors Note: This is Part I of a three part series blog featuring John Finn and brief information of other Medal of Honor recipients following the Dec. 7, 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor.)
Dec. 7, 1941 started like any other Sunday morning for John Finn and his wife. They were at their apartment about a mile from the hangar where Finn, then 32, worked as the chief aviation ordnanceman with a PBY Catalinaflying boat squadron on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.
Then suddenly they heard gunfire. Shortly afterward, someone was pounding at Finn’s door: “They want you down at the squadron right away,” the neighbor exclaimed.
Finn at first wasn’t sure it was anything but a drill, even observing the base’s 20 mph speed limit. Then “I heard a plane come roaring in from astern of me,” he recalled later in an interview with Larry Smith for “Beyond Glory,” an oral history of Medal of Honor recipients.
“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. Well, I threw it into second and it’s a wonder I didn’t run over every Sailor in the air station.”
By the time he arrived at the hangar, most of the PBYs were on fire.
Finn, who managed the 20-member ordnance crew in his squadron, was quick to take a .50-caliber machine gun being used by the squadron’s painter.
“I knew I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter,” Finn is quoted as saying in his Los Angeles Times obituary in 2010.
While under fire, Finn mounted his gun to a moveable tripod platform used for training that had him exposed to enemy machine gun strafing fire.
“We had ordnance gun crews, but no stationary gun mounts,” he explained in a 2009 interview with the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) at the Washington Navy Yard. “We could have done a better job if we had had those mounts. Every man was determined to find a machine gun to fight back and we did what we could to fight and turn them away.”
He fired on Japanese planes for the next two hours. When it was over, his left arm hung useless after a shoulder injury, a bullet fractured his foot and his body was bleeding from a multitude of shrapnel wounds.
“I got shot in the left arm and shot in the left foot, broke the bone. I had shrapnel blows in my chest and belly and right elbow and right thumb. Some were just scratches. My scalp got cut, and everybody thought I was dying….I had 28, 29 holes in me that were bleeding,” he recalled for Beyond Glory.
In a 2009 interview, Finn said the Japanese planes were so close “I could see their (pilot’s) faces.”
After getting just rudimentary treatment for his injuries and still limping from pain, Finn insisted on returning to the hangar to arm American planes that survived and wait for a second attack from the Japanese. He didn’t seek treatment at a hospital until the next morning.
“A lot of men were shot during this time…I was angry,” Finn said in the NHHC interview. At Kaneohe Bay, 19 men were shot, while at Pearl Harbor, more than 2,000 would die.