John William Finn was born on July 24, 1909 in Los Angeles, California. He enlisted in the navy just before his seventeenth birthday in July 1926. After briefly working with a ceremonial guard company, he attended General Aviation Utilities Training, initially working in aircraft repair and later became an Aviation Ordnanceman, working on anti-aircraft guns. By 1935, he had risen to the rank of Chief Petty Officer, just nine years after enlisting.
Once Chief Finn was officially an Aviation Ordnanceman, he deployed aboard USS LEXINGTON (CV-2). Following his tour with LEXINGTON, Chief Finn moved on to be a part of the precommissioning crew with USS HOUSTON (CA-30). Chief Finn also served aboard USS JASON (AC-12), USS SARATOGA (CV-3), and the USS CINCINNATI (CL-6). He then transferred to shore duty with Patrol Squadron Fourteen/Forty-Five in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.
Just before 8 o’clock in the morning on December 7, 1941, Chief Finn, who was in bed with his wife, Alice, heard the sound of low-flying aircraft and machine guns. On his way to the hangars, he caught sight of Japanese planes in the sky attacking the base. Chief Finn grabbed a 50-caliber machine gun and mounted it on an improvised tripod and set it up in an open area near a runway and began firing. After two and a half hours of shooting at Japanese Zeroes, Chief Finn had sustained over twenty 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 to his scalp. Chief Finn did not leave his post until he received direct orders to go seek medical attention. He put himself back into the fight after receiving emergency treatment by rearming planes as they returned.
Chief Finn’s heroism and bravery earned him the first Medal of Honor to be awarded in World War II. On September 15, 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz awarded him the Medal of Honor for his “magnificent courage in the face of almost certain death.”
In June 1942, Chief Finn was temporarily commissioned as an Ensign, rising in rank to Lieutenant two years later serving with Bombing Squadron 102 aboard the USS HANCOCK (CV-19). Following his transfer to the Fleet Reserve in March 1947, he reverted to the enlisted rate of Chief Petty Officer. In September 1956, he was placed on the retired list as a Lieutenant.
After the military, Chief Finn moved to a ranch near Pine Valley, California with his wife and son. He and his wife fostered five Native American children which led to them being honored by the Diegueno tribe.
Chief Finn passed away at the age of 100 on May 27, 2010 in a veteran’s home in Chula Vista, California. He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the oldest living recipient, and the only Aviation Ordnanceman to have ever received the medal.
Navy Medal of Honor Citation for John W. Finn, USN
Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
32nd President of the United States of America
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, Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, he promptly secured and manned a .50 caliber machine gun 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 are considered to be in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.