For the USA, day one of WWII came on the 7th December 1941 at Pearl Harbor, where sixteen Medal of Honor acts of valor took place. Fifteen of them were onboard ship as servicemen tried to beat back the surprise attack from the Japanese Imperial Forces. One man, John Finn, a Chief Ordnance Officer at the airbase at Kaneohe Bay, became the first to be recognized for his actions that day.
For Finn it had started much like any other working day on the base. In a later interview he remembered he had heard gunfire, but being housed at a military base, this was nothing unusual, so he was not overly concerned. Then, at a little before eight in the morning his neighbour hammered on his door.
‘They want you down at the squadron right away!’ she said.
Finn drove the mile down to the hangars watching the Japanese planes as they strafed the airfield, dropping their bombs, destroying the PBY Catalina flying boats on the tarmac. His VP-11 squadron was going up in flames without a plane being able to leave the ground.
Unprepared and caught off guard the men of VP-11 Squadron did their best to fight back using the machine guns mounted in the aircraft on the ground. Some took the machine guns out of the aircraft and set up with improvised stands to take the fight back to the Japanese.
One of the first men Finn met was the squadron’s painter. He took the gun from the man knowing he had more experience firing a machine gun than a decorator. He then found a movable tripod platform that was used as a gunnery training device and fixed the 50 caliber weapon to it.
In an interview in 2009, Finn said, ‘I got that gun and I started shooting at Japanese planes… just every so often I was a target for some… I could see their (the Japanese pilots’) faces.’
In order to get a better chance of hitting his targets Finn moved out into an open area on the runway, drawing the Japanese pilots’ fire. He was strafed multiple times and received twenty-one distinct wounds. A bullet went clean through his right foot, while another struck him in the left shoulder, which left him without feeling in his left arm.
Even so Finn stood his ground for a full two hours, despite his injuries, until the attack was finally over. He received medical treatment and later that day he returned to the hangars to oversee the arming of the surviving aircraft. His action resulted in Finn being awarded the first Medal of Honor of WWII.
The decoration was presented to Finn on 14th September 1942, by Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Enterprise. He survived the War, was commissioned in 1942 and eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant aboard the USS Hancock. He retired in September 1956 after thirty years of service in the US Navy.
He was born in 1909 and had a difficult time at school and dropped out, but then, at age sixteen he enlisted in the US Navy and discovered it was the life he was born to. He rose through the ranks at a rate that earned him the nickname ‘boy wonder’ and at age 26 he was already a Chief Petty Officer.
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John Finn spent his retirement attending many veterans’ events and in 2010 he became the oldest surviving WWII Medal of Honor recipient at one hundred years old. At that moment he was the first recipient and last surviving Pearl Harbor Medal of Honor veteran, cementing his status as a ‘hard man to kill.’