By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
(Editors Note: This is Part II 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. Click here to read Part I.)
On Sept. 15, 1942, Finn received the first Medal of Honor for World War II out of the 15 Medal recipients from the Pearl Harbor attack. Of the 15, 10 received their Medals posthumously.
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, during the ceremony on USS Enterprise (CV 6), remarked that Finn’s “magnificent courage in the face of almost certain death helped repel the Japanese attack…His complete disregard for his own life, in staying with his machine gun, although many times wounded, is the kind of American fighting spirit necessary to victory,” according to coverage by the Honolulu Advertiser.
But the day would bring mixed memories for Finn. “It was not a very happy occasion,” he recalled in 2009. “It was a tragic day for my family. My baby brother died on the exact same day I was awarded the Medal.”
After Finn recovered from his injuries in Pearl Harbor, he returned stateside and received a Limited Duty Officer commission in 1942, becoming a lieutenant in 1943. As an officer, he served with Bombing Squadron 102 and at several stateside training facilities and onboard the aircraft carrier Hancock (CV 19). Following his transfer to the Fleet Reserve in March 1947, he reverted to the enlisted rate of Chief Aviation Ordnanceman, although in 1956 when he retired, it was at the rank of lieutenant.
Finn and his wife moved to a cattle ranch in Pine Valley, Calif., where they raised animals and became foster parents to Native American children. Alice died in 1998, after 66 years of marriage.
Finn attended many Pearl Harbor commemorations in his final years as the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor from World War II. In 1999, he was invited as a guest for the premier of the movie “Pearl Harbor,” commenting to a New York Times reporter “I liked it especially because I got to kiss all those pretty little movie actresses.”
In 2009, upon the celebration of his 100th birthday on July 23, 2009, Sailors across the world participated in an effort to fly an American flag over all of the 11 aircraft carriers in the Navy’s fleet, as well as Naval Support Activity Bahrain, which was given to Finn.
The flag’s journey started on Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) in Seattle, then to San Diego aboard Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and Nimitz (CVN 68), the namesake of the legendary admiral who presented the Medal of Honor to Finn in 1942. Then it went to Yokosuka, Japan for George Washington (CVN 73) and to Pearl Harbor, where it was taken by helicopter to John C. Stennis (CVN 74) at sea.
From there, it went to Bahrain to be flown on Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) in the Persian Gulf. The flag was then taken back to the United States, where it flew over the fleet at Naval Station Norfolk: Carl Vinson (CVN 70), Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) and Enterprise (CVN 65).
Besides the destroyer (DDG 113) that will soon bear his name, there are other places that recognize the service given by this Medal of Honor recipient.
The headquarters building for Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet at Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe was named in Finn’s honor, and in 2009, a bio-diesel ferry used to bring visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial was also named after him. Three buildings in the former Naval Training Center San Diego were named the John and Alice Finn Plaza.
Finn died May 27, 2010 at the age of 100, just two months shy of his 101st birthday. At the time, he remained the only aviation ordnanceman to receive the Medal of Honor, a source of pride to others who shared his rate.
“I recall some 21-years ago as a young Sailor on the deck plate hearing stories about the heroism of John Finn, and heard his story a couple hundred times as a kid,” said then-Lt. Marcus Creighton, in a June 21, 2009 Navy.mil story. At the time Creighton was serving as the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) Force weapons officer, and he, too, was an aviation ordnanceman who became a limited duty officer. “We are a proud profession and Lt. Finn is a great source of that pride. Everybody needs their hero and Lt. Finn is the hero of the aviation ordnance community.”
Like the man for whom the ship is named, the 63rd Arleigh Burke-class destroyer will be built to fight, durable and ready to go the moment the future USS John W. Finn (DDG 113) joins the fleet in 2016. See our poster celebrating the ship’s commissioning here.