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Lt. John William Finn: Pearl Harbor's Last Hero, 68 Years Later

11:30 AM, Dec 7, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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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: