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Hibernian Chronicle: John Finn, hero of Pearl Harbor

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Minutes later Finn was driving with several men to the U.S. Navy base at Kaneohe Bay on the east coast of Oahu, Hawaii. It was under fire from Japanese planes — the opening assault of the surprise attack on nearby Pearl Harbor. Finn ran to a mounted gun and began firing at enemy aircraft. Two hours later he had twenty-one shrapnel wounds and a record of heroic action that would earn him the first Medal of Honor for World War II. Today, at 96, he is the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.
John W. Finn was born on July 24, 1909 in Los Angeles. His grandparents on his father’s side were immigrants from Co. Galway, Ireland. His father supported the family as a shipping clerk in a machinery firm and later as a plumber. Young John left school at age eleven to work. In 1926, at the age of seventeen, Finn enlisted in the Navy. He looked so young that his mother had to accompany him to the recruiting station to verify his age. Finn’s lack of formal education didn’t hold him back in the Navy and by 1935 he’d risen to the rank of chief petty officer. Six years later, in December 1941, he found himself stationed at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii as Navy aviation chief ordnance officer.
The U.S. had remained neutral during the first two years of the war, but relations with Japan had deteriorated significantly over the course of 1941. To curb Japanese incursions into Indochina and China, the U.S. imposed an oil and steel embargo, frozen Japanese assets, and demanded a withdrawal. The military government of Gen. Tojo Hideki, emboldened by Japan’s successes in the Pacific and that of Germany in Europe (the Soviet Union appeared on the verge of collapse) and desperate to break American economic sanctions, devised a plan of attack. They believed America was unprepared militarily to make a significant impact on the Allied cause against the Axis powers. They also doubted America’s resolve to fight over a sustained period of time.
The plan called for a lightning quick attack against the U.S. Pacific fleet that was based in Hawaii. The Roosevelt administration suspected such an attack was imminent, but were uncertain about the timing and location. Preparedness was further undermined by poor communications — a warning of the coming attack was sent to Washington just hours before it occurred but it was never delivered to the key people. Elsewhere, when radar picked up a large squadron of planes over the Pacific, they were misidentified as being American.
The attack commenced a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. on Sunday December 7 and caught American forces completely by surprise. The Pacific fleet was a sitting duck and the Japanese pilots took full advantage. Those Americans, who could, eventually fought back. When John Finn reached his base, it was too late to launch any Navy pilots (their planes were in flames), so he ran to a mounted .50 caliber machine gun and began firing. His position was completely exposed and soon came under fire. Despite numerous shrapnel wounds, Finn kept up the fight. “I just kept shooting,” he later said in an interview, “because I wasn’t dead.” Witnesses later claimed that he shot down at least one Japanese plane. “I’m not sure I shot a plane down, but I can take credit for shooting at every plane I could bear on.”
Two hours later Finn was receiving medical treatment for twenty-one shrapnel wounds and learning the dreadful details of the attack. More than 2,400 soldiers, sailors, and civilians were dead, along with more than 1,000 wounded. Eighteen ships, including all eight battleships of the Pacific fleet, were sunk or badly damaged. Over 350 aircraft, most while still on the ground, were destroyed.
Nine months later, Finn (now an Ensign) received the Medal of Honor aboard the USS Enterprise from Admiral Chester Nimitz. The official citation bears reading in full:
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 December 7, 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 machine gun 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.

Finn remained in the Navy for the duration of the war and stayed on after 1947 in the Navy reserves. He retired in 1956 (at 47 years of age) with the rank of Lieutenant. He spent the next few decades running a repair shop in San Diego and then a 92-acre ranch 70 miles outside San Diego that he and his wife Alice (who died a few years ago) bought in the late 1950s. He still lives there at 96 and shows no signs of slowing down. Intensely patriotic (and proud of his Irish heritage), he attends World War II memorial services and serves as a spokesman for causes such as the current campaign to raise funds to secure and preserve the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Sources: Donald M. Goldstein, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor; www.medalofhonor.com; and the San Diego Tribune. Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm

Dec. 7, 1972: Lawmakers in Ireland remove the “Special Position” clause regarding the Catholic from the Irish Constitution, eliminating its privileged status among the nation’s many faiths.
Dec. 13, 1862: The Irish Brigade suffers horrendous casualties in its heroic assaults against Confederate lines in the Battle of Fredricksburg.

Dec. 8, 1966: Singer Sinead O’Connor is born in Dublin.
Dec. 9, 1942: Author Joe McGinniss is born in Rye, NY
Dec. 13, 1890: Playwright Marc Connelly is born in McKeesport, PA.

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