main story image for facebook sharing

History and Heritage

Honoring a Legend:

The Man Behind USS John Finn

Before it went down in infamy, December 7, 1941 dawned an ordinary, lazy Sunday in Hawaii.

Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Finn was in bed with his wife, Alice, on the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, when a plane suddenly streaked past his window with a flash of red a little before 8 o'clock that morning.

That's odd, he thought. His PBY squadron regularly sent Catalina "flying boats" out on sub patrols, but this one wasn't following the usual flight plan. Then he realized it was part of a formation of single-engine planes. Then machine guns started to fire.

"Who's firing machine guns?" he remembered thinking years later in an oral history. "That's my business! I would normally know - even if it was the squadron next to ours, I'd get the word that they're gonna be doing something with machine guns. Well, you normally don't shoot machine guns on an air station. If you're gonna shoot the machine guns, you go to a designated range where you can fire those guns safely and not kill a bunch of people. All of this ... went through my head - Hey! It's Sunday! ... Who's flying planes?"

Someone banged on Finn's door as he pulled on a pair of dungarees. It was a neighbor, the wife of one of his petty officers. She had heard he was wanted at the hangar right away. He and her husband, Eddie Sullivan, took off in Finn's car, obeying the base speed limit of 20 mph. "I had to observe the thing," Finn said, unaware history was unfolding in front of him.
He rounded a hill, heard a "terrible roaring" and saw a plane that was unmistakably Japanese.

"I heard it coming with a wide open gun - I guess it was a Zero - and he got right abreast of me," he remembered. "This plane made a wingover and I looked up and saw two great big old dirty red balls, and I said to Sullivan, 'this is the real McCoy. It's the Japs.' I stomped on the throttle, went right down to my hanger, jumped out of my car, ran 150 yards to where my armory was located. When I got there, this is where the battle started for me. Right in front of my armory door."

Finn had spent his life preparing for such a moment. He grew up in farm country outside of Los Angeles and joined the Navy at the age of 17. By that fateful December day, he had risen to the rank of chief petty officer in just nine years. He had been a rib stitcher for fabric aircraft wings, fought to go into ordnance and toured around the world from France to Panama to Alaska to the Philippines.

He served on USS Lexington (CV 2), which he called the Navy's first "big" aircraft carrier. He had also been nearby on the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA 30) for some of the very first moments of Japanese aggression, long before the U.S. was ever involved, when Japan invaded China in the 1930s.

"That Yangtze Patrol was composed of little flat-bottomed river boats, and they could go ... about 1,500 miles up the Yangtze. ... You got China and Japan, the United States, Great Britain, Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Italy - we're all in the city of Shanghai with warships here. Here come the Japanese. And I counted with my own eyes one day, 21 Japanese transports. Now this is all against international rules and regulations of war. ... They landed their marines in the city of Shanghai ... and they went in there and they just blew the hell out of that place. ... I thought we were going to go to war!"

So when Finn actually went to war years later, outside his own armory, he may have been caught off guard, but he knew just what to do. Inside, about 10 500-pound, TNT-loaded depth charges sat on trucks.

"I instantly knew, they had to get out of that hanger," he said. "If the hanger caught on fire ... I didn't know how sensitive the fuse may be." Finn ran through the hanger, following the sound of machine gun fire as he ordered Sailors to move the depth charges. He took charge of gunners who were already firing back at the Zeros that strafed the base, destroying PBYs and anything else pilots could target.

Then he grabbed another machine gun, and dragged it into the middle of the parking lot, where he "could see in all directions. ... I could see over the hangar and I could see to the north out over the bay and see to the south." Finn took aim, firing over and over again through thick, choking, black smoke that billowed everywhere.

One enemy plane "boiled up out of that smoke, had a great ring of black smoke around his propeller that he had picked up," Finn recalled. "Right down the barrel of that machine gun ... I instantly started firing at him. ... I'm sure that I got, at least, four rounds right down his propeller. And he came boiling overhead. He was so close to me, over me. ... I was standing on one leg, hanging onto the gun, and [the air pressure] forced me right down to the ground on my knees. I came right up ... strong, and tried to get on him as he flew over my head."

According to his subsequent Medal of Honor citation, Finn was "in a completely exposed section" as he fired away at the swooping, dive-bombing Zeros for about two and a half hours. He made a perfect target for enemy strafing, and shrapnel shredded his body. In fact, he recalled, his "left arm wouldn't work anymore and my left foot had been shot and I had to walk around on my heel." By the end of the battle, Finn had also sustained wounds in his chest, belly, right elbow and right thumb. He was scratched all over, including his head - more than 20 "holes" in all, he remembered.

Finn ignored his wounds, battling on, according to the citation, "with complete disregard for his own personal safety." Even after the attack waned, "it was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention." Then, still in pain, but with bandages covering his bloody wounds, he returned to his squadron and supervised Sailors as they rearmed the handful of planes that could still fly.

Finn was finally admitted to the hospital the following day. He was discharged two weeks later, but the war had ended for him in the same place it began. Finn's injuries required years of healing and prevented him from deploying overseas during World War II. He was temporarily promoted to ensign and then lieutenant, and spent the next few years serving stateside.

In September 1942, Adm. Chester Nimitz awarded him the Medal of Honor, making Finn, who remained in the Navy after the war, the first serviceman to receive the Medal of Honor for extraordinary valor during World War II. Fifteen men received the award for the attack on Pearl Harbor. According to the Navy's History and Heritage Command, the other 14 medals recognized heroism in rescue operations. Finn's was the only one awarded for combat.

Finn, who will be immortalized by the destroyer USS John Finn (DDG 113), set to be commissioned this weekend, died at the age of 100 in 2010. He had been the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient prior to his death, and was the last of the Pearl Harbor recipients.

"I was a chief," he said before his death. "I had a 35-man ordnance crew. And of course I got the hell shot out of me, but it didn't kill me. ... I got the Medal of Honor, but if you hear what happened to some of those Medal of Honor guys, what I did was nothing."

Editor's note: Quotes from Finn are from oral histories owned by the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project: