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Lt. John W. Finn, 100

Lt. John W. Finn, Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 100

Alice Finn admires the Medal of Honor awarded to her husband for his counterattack during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor.
Alice Finn admires the Medal of Honor awarded to her husband for his counterattack during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. (U.s. Navy Via Associated Press)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Saturday, May 29, 2010

Navy Lt. John W. Finn, who received the Medal of Honor for mounting a daring counterattack on Japanese airplanes from an improvised machine gun post during the raid on Pearl Harbor, died May 27 at a veterans home in Chula Vista, Calif. No cause of death was reported.

At 100, he was the oldest surviving recipient of the nation's highest honor for valor and was among the first to receive the award during World War II.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, then-Chief Petty Officer Finn was in charge of aviation ordnance and munitions at the Kaneohe Bay air station 15 miles from Pearl Harbor and Battleship Row.

He was in bed with his wife, Alice, that Sunday when, just before 8 a.m., he heard the rumble of low-flying aircraft and sporadic machine gun fire coming from the hangar a mile away.

Amid the confusion, he threw on a pair of dungarees and his chief hat, and started driving as calmly as possible to the nearby hangar, maintaining the base's 20-mph speed limit.

"I got around, and I heard a plane come roaring in from astern of me. 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," he said in an interview with Larry Smith for the 2003 book "Beyond Glory," an oral history of Medal of Honor recipients. "Well, I threw it into second, and it was a wonder I didn't run over every sailor in the air station."

When Chief Petty Officer Finn arrived at the Kaneohe Bay station, he commandeered a heavy-caliber machine gun and set it up on a makeshift tripod of spare pipes -- out in the open, where he had a clear view to give the Japanese what he called a "warm welcome."

He fired at wave after wave of strafing Japanese Zeroes for more than 2 1/2 hours, because, as he later said, "I didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain."

He was credited with bringing down one plane on his own, but he played down his achievement. "I can't honestly say I hit any," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2001. "But I shot at every damn plane I could see."

More than 2,400 service members and civilians died in the surprise attack, which led to the U.S. entry into World War II. By the end of the onslaught, Chief Petty Officer Finn had suffered more than 20 injuries, including a bullet wound in his left arm; a broken left foot; shrapnel to his chest, stomach, right elbow and thumb; and a laceration on his scalp.

He finally left his improvised machine gun post under specific orders to seek medical attention. After a few bandages, he returned to the hangar to help rearm returning planes. He later spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from his wounds.

Nine months later, on Sept. 15, 1942, he was awarded the Medal of Honor by Pacific commander Adm. Chester W. Nimitz on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in Pearl Harbor. Of the 15 Medal of Honor recipients from Pearl Harbor, 14 were for rescue attempts. His award was the only one awarded for combat.

John William Finn, a plumber's son, was born July 23, 1909, in Los Angeles. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade and enlisted in the Navy at 17. He became an officer shortly after receiving the Medal of Honor.

After retiring in 1956 at the rank of lieutenant, he moved onto a 93-acre ranch in the desert outside San Diego, where he raised cattle, horses and chickens, and ran a scrap yard with his wife. She died in 1998. Survivors include a son, Joseph.

Lt. Finn said he found his occupation peaceful, and above all was pleased to have "a place to ride my motorcycle, shoot my guns on my own property and collect my junk."

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