Medal of honor: John W. Finn
Every weekday for 110 straight days we will feature a different living recipient of the Medal of Honor. These are the men who have received their nation's highest military honor. Brian is a board member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. The words and photos are courtesy of Artisan Books, publishers of "Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty by Peter Collier with photographs by Nick Del Calzo.
JOHN W. FINN
Aviation Ordnance Chief, U.S. Navy
John Finn dropped out of school after the seventh grade and worked at various jobs until a few days before his seventeenth birthday, when he joined the Navy. It was 1926, and the world seemed permanently at peace, without even a rumor of war. What Finn wanted was to travel. Over the next few years, he got his wish, serving on a variety of ships that took him up through the Panama Canal and six hundred miles up the Yangtze River.
In December 1941, he was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Kanoehe Bay, Hawaii. He had moved rapidly through the ranks during his years in the Navy and was now a chief petty officer in charge of a twenty-man ordnance crew whose primary duty was maintaining the weapons of a squadron of PBY naval patrol planes. On the morning of December 7, he and his wife were in their quarters about a mile from the aircraft hangars when he was awakened by a popping noise. His first irritated thought was that some fool had decided to do gunnery practice on a Sunday morning. Then he heard planes passing overhead and shouting in the street, followed by a loud knock on his door. It was the wife
of one of his men. When he asked her what was wrong, she just pointed up in the air and ran off.
Still not aware of what was causing all the confusion, Finn jumped in his car and headed for the hangars. He was observing the base’s strictly enforced speed limit of twenty miles an hour until a fighter plane came roaring down out of the sky above him. He watched it with curiosity for a moment until he saw the “red meatball” of the Japanese insignia, then rammed the car into second gear and stomped on the accelerator.
He came to a skidding stop at the launching ramps where the amphibious patrol planes were towed back and forth between the water and their hangars and found total chaos. Most of the thirty-six PBYs were already on fire. (Only three would be left at the end of the day because they happened to be on antisubmarine patrol when the Japanese attacked.) Some of his men were inside the burning planes trying to fire at the enemy from the PBYs’ machine guns. Others were struggling to get the guns out of the damaged planes; there were no stationary gun mounts to hold them, and the sailors were trying to improvise using pipe from the machine shop and other materials.
Finn found a mobile instruction stand on which guns were sometimes mounted to teach gunnery. Although enemy planes continued to strafe the position, he moved the stand into a parking area where he would have clear visibility. Then he set a .50-caliber machine gun on it and began to shoot. He held his position for the next two hours. The Japanese fighters went by too quickly to track with the gun. He did hit some of the slower-moving bombers, although they quickly disappeared over the tree line so he couldn’t know if any crashed. He didn’t stop firing until all the enemy planes had gone and it was quiet again.
Finn had been hit by shrapnel in twenty-one places; several were serious wounds. His left arm was numb, and a bullet had passed through one foot. Following medical treatment, he returned to the squadron area and supervised the rearming of the remaining American planes.
Nine months later, Finn was awaiting sea duty when he was informed that he was to receive the Medal of Honor. It was presented to him on Sept. 14, 1942, on board the USS Enterprise in Pearl Harbor by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
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