Remembering Pearl Harbor
If I said the words, "September 11," I imagine most people in North America would be able to associate that date almost automatically with the horrific terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania in 2001.
At one time there was a similar, almost automatic association of December 7 to another surprise attack on America -- the Japanese military raid on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941.
More than 2,300 American servicemen lost their lives that day. The Pacific fleet was dealt a crippling blow. "Remember Pearl Harbor!" would become the mantra for whipping up patriotic fervor during the war that followed that "day of infamy."
Many heroes emerged from the crucible of that awful day as well. One man, a chief aviation ordnance man at the small Naval air base at Kaneohe Bay, was one of those unlikely heroes. When he died in 2010 at the age of 100, he was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient, recognized for his courageous actions that day 71 years ago.
Admiral Chester Nimitz (right) congratulates
Lt. John W. Finn after Finn received the Medal of Honor.
His name was John William Finn. As we approach the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day this Friday, here is John Finn's story.
Chief Finn was sleeping in that Sunday morning, looking forward to spending a little extra time with his wife, Alice. Being the chief ordnance officer at the Kaneohe Bay base, he was a little puzzled by noise that sounded like .50-caliber machine-gun fire coming from the nearby airfield. No practices or exercises were scheduled.
There was a knock at the door, and a neighbor told Finn that he was needed at the hangar.
Accompanied by two other Navy servicemen, Finn was driving his 1938 Ford along the idyllic Hawaiian roadway when a small airplane came in low. He knew immediately that the engine sound was not from one of the PBY reconnaissance aircraft assigned to the base. As the plane's wing tipped as it began a run at the base, Finn saw the telltale Japanese Zero insignia and realized that Kaneohe Bay was under attack.
PBY reconnaissance aircraft
Kaneohe Bay is about five minutes’ air time from Pearl Harbor, so many consider the attack there the first official American action of World War II.
Arriving at the airfield, Finn was immediately immersed in the battle. First he went to the armory and broke out machine guns and ammunition to mount some kind of resistance to the Japanese onslaught. Then he set up a .50-caliber machine gun in a very vulnerable position and began to return fire against the strafing Zeroes. One plane was shot down and some attributed the "kill" to Finn and his brazen defense of the airfield.
Asked about his bold attempt to defend his turf, Finn said he was simply outraged at the audacious attack: "I was so mad. I guess I didn't have the sense to be frightened." Hit by shrapnel over a dozen times, Finn refused to leave his gun post until he was under direct orders. Then he helped set up makeshift defenses for the base before finally seeking medical attention early Monday morning, nearly 18 hours after the attack began.
Finn was hospitalized and wasn't released until Christmas Eve.
Nine months later, the newly promoted Lieutenant Finn traveled to Pearl Harbor with his wife. There he boarded the USS Enterprise and was awarded the Medal of Honor by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
Like most heroes, John Finn never saw his actions as heroic. He humbly described himself as a "good ol' Navy man doing my job."
After his retirement from the Navy in 1956, John and Alice returned to their native Southern California. Alice died in 1998, but John pushed on, still fervently patriotic and still a hero to all who ever knew him or heard his story from that first Pearl Harbor Day -- Dec. 7, 1941.
Here is Lt. John Finn's Medal of Honor citation:
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, Lt. Finn 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 were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.