On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, then-Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Finn was in bed at home when he heard the sound of aircraft and machine guns firing. He got out of bed and began to drive down to the hangars where he worked. He saw a plane fly by.
“As I glanced up, the guy made a wing-over, and I saw that big red meatball, the rising sun insignia on the underside of the wing,” recalled Finn years later.
He raced to the hangars where his job was to maintain the weapons for aircraft and found his men fighting. Some were mounting machine guns on improvised stands, and others were firing machine guns still mounted on burning planes.
Finn wasted no time. He took over a machine gun that was being manned by his squadron’s painter.
“I knew that I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter,” he said.
Setting up a movable tripod platform that was used for training, he mounted the machine gun and pushed the platform out into an open area. He then proceeded to fire at Japanese aircraft for two and half hours, even as he was wounded by enemy fire 21 times.
“I got shot in the left arm and shot in the left foot, broke the bone,” said Finn. “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.”
Finn received medical treatment for his wounds, but his day wasn’t over. He returned to the hangars to help arm the remaining American planes.
Adm. Chester Nimitz presented Finn with the first Medal of Honor of World War II on Sept. 15, 1942.
Finn eventually retired from the Navy at the rank of lieutenant in 1956. He died at the age of 100, May 27, 2010. He was buried next to his wife at a cemetery on the Campo Indian Reservation, Calif.
Finn was asked in a 2009 interview for the Naval History and Heritage Command what he would do if he enlisted in the Navy today.
“I would be doing the same thing when I first came in,” said Finn. “After finishing my training, I realized I was born to have done what I was doing in the Navy. To this day, I still feel the same.”
Story by MC2(SW) Phil Ladouceur