There were fifteen men awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Only five survived that horrible day. Only one of them remains. Lt. John William Finn, USN (Ret.) turned 100 years old on July 23 of this year, and he'll be attending the Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial today in Hawaii, returning to the Kaneohe Bay waters where he mounted an impressive one-man attack on Japanese fighter planes in the ambush that pulled the U.S. into World War II. Because the bay was attacked several minutes before Pearl Harbor proper, Finn is often called the first Medal of Honor recipient of World War II. Finn was 17 when he joined the Navy in 1926, eventually getting stationed at Pearl Harbor as an aviation ordnanceman, in charge of anti-aircraft guns, missiles, torpedoes, and distribution of small arms. On the morning of Dec. 7, a neighbor came to his door shouting, "They want you down at the squadron right away!" Before he could see any battleships, he saw Japanese aircraft in the sky as he drove toward the bay. When he arrived on the scene, he wrested a .50 caliber machine gun from his squadron's painter:
"I said, 'Alex, let me take that gun,' " Finn explained. "I knew that I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter." "I got that gun and I started shooting at Jap planes," Finn said in the salty language not uncommon among veterans of that long-ago war.
He put the gun on a makeshift mount, moving it to an open and vulnerable area, where he could clearly see enemy aircraft. Finn was wounded -some reports say more than 20 times- as he stood in the open under Japanese fire. This is the citation for his Medal of Honor:
For extraordinary heroism distinguished service, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. During the first attack by Japanese airplanes on the Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, on 7 December 1941, Lt. Finn promptly secured and manned a .50-caliber machinegun mounted on an instruction stand in a completely exposed section of the parking ramp, which was under heavy enemy machinegun strafing fire. Although painfully wounded many times, he continued to man this gun and to return the enemy's fire vigorously and with telling effect throughout the enemy strafing and bombing attacks and with complete disregard for his own personal safety. It was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention. Following first aid treatment, although obviously suffering much pain and moving with great difficulty, he returned to the squadron area and actively supervised the rearming of returning planes. His extraordinary heroism and conduct in this action were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
"I was out there shooting the Jap planes and just every so often I was a target for some... They were Japanese fighter plane pilots. I can remember seeing, in some cases, I could see their faces," " Finn told CNN this summer. "Medical help comes later. If you're busy shooting a machine gun or a rifle or a pistol or doing anything, you can't worry about getting medical attention." He says it in the matter-of-fact tone we've come to expect from the generation we call the greatest, and spurns all the hero talk:
"That damned hero stuff is a bunch crap, I guess. Well, it is one thing that I think any man that is in that, you gotta be in that position," Finn said. "You gotta understand that there's all kinds of heroes, but they never get a chance to be in a hero's position."
This summer, the Navy gave Finn a birthday present befitting a hero, whether he likes the title or not: Finn was presented with an American flag that had flown over all of the 11 aircraft carriers in the Navy's fleet. It was on the Abraham Lincoln in Seattle, then sent to San Diego for a day aboard the Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz, whose namesake the legendary Adm. Chester Nimitz put the Medal of Honor around John Finn's neck in 1942.
From there it went to Yokosuka, Japan, for the George Washington. Next stop was Pearl Harbor, where it was put aboard a cargo helicopter and taken to the John C. Stennis, at sea on assignment. Then it was on to Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, to be flown on the Dwight D. Eisenhower. The final leg was Norfolk, Va., where the flag was carried from ship to ship to be hoisted up the masts of the Carl Vinson, the Enterprise, the Theodore Roosevelt, the Harry S. Truman and the George H.W. Bush.
Here are a few pictures of the flag's journey , which was coordinated, appropriately, by each aircraft carrier's aviation ordnanceman. Finn still gets around well, and participated in a wreath-laying ceremony with President Barack Obama at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on National Medal of Honor Day, with the help of walking sticks. He also regularly attends events for the dwindling number of Medal of Honor recipients still alive. In this video interview, filmed at a 2009 gathering in Texas, you'll see he hasn't lost his grit or his sense of humor, either. "I'm 99 years old, and I might be wrong, but I think that the United States-our Republican form of government-will prevail," he said before adding with a chuckle: "I won't be around when it happens, unless it happens next month." We were blessed to have had him with us on Dec. 7, 1941 and we're blessed to have him with us still today, 68 years later. Thank you, Lt. Finn.
This video is from an independent film called "A Hero's Welcome," which I'm now going to see. Below the fold is another picture of Finn being awarded the Medal of Honor by Nimitz. Beside him is his wife Alice, with whom he lived until her death in 1998.
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