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#PeopleMatter: Remembering the Honor, Courage and Commitment of Lt. John W. Finn

July 23, 2014 | By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
090628-N-1590R-122 LA POSTA, Calif. (JUNE 28, 2009) Retired Navy Lt. John William Finn arrives at La Posta Inn during his 100th birthday celebration. Finn was presented the Medal of Honor by Adm. Chester Nimitz in September 1942 for heroism during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Finn manned a .50-caliber machine gun during the first attacks by Japanese aircraft as they flew over Kaneohe Bay. Finn continued to attack enemy plains despite being hit five times by strafing fire. He is the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. (U.S. Navy photo by Antonio D. Ramos/Released)  
Like the man for whom the ship is named, USS John Finn (DDG 113) will be built to fight, durable and ready to go the moment her crew brings her to life. That is when the 63rd Arleigh Burke-class destroyer joins the fleet in 2016. So we'll talk instead about the ship's namesake on the occasion of his birthday, July 23, 1909.

Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160927-N-ZW259-5685

John William Finn was born in Compton, Calif. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and joined the Navy at age 17 upon obtaining his mother's permission. He apparently was pleasantly surprised about the food he received at the Naval Training Center in San Diego. After reading the recruitment brochure that the food would be "plain but wholesome," Finn was prepared for boiled potatoes and rice, which he hated, according to an interview posted on "Definitely the finest Navy chow I ever ate," he recalled of the roast beef, watermelon and fruit served there. Finn didn't allow his lack of a high school degree to keep him from working through the enlisted ranks, becoming an Aviation Ordnanceman and being promoted to chief petty officer in just nine years. "Everyone thought I was a boy wonder," recalled Finn in a June 17, 1994 Hoist article. "I was just in the right place at the right time."

During his career, Finn served with aircraft squadrons on USS Houston (CA 30), USS Saratoga (CV 3), USS Cincinnati (CL 6) and USS Hancock (CV 19). By December 1941, Finn was stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay where he was the chief aviation ordnanceman with a PBY Catalina flying boat squadron. Then 32, Finn was with his wife, Alice, at their apartment about a mile from the hangar on the island of Oahu in Hawaii when he heard gunfire that Sunday morning, Dec. 7. A neighbor pounded on his door, "They want you down at the squadron right away," she 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 crew in his squadron, was quick to take a .50-caliber machine gun being used by the squad'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.

On Sept. 15, 1942, Finn received the first Medal of Honor for World War II, the only combat Medal of Honor out of the 15 Medal recipients from the Pearl Harbor attack. The rest were for rescue attempts. 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 on 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."

Photo By: MC2 D. Keith Simmons
VIRIN: 160927-N-ZW259-5686

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).

Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160927-N-ZW259-5687

Besides the destroyer 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 story. At the time Creighton was serving as the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) Force weapons officer, and he too 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."
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 160927-N-ZW259-5688