Medal of Honor Recipient John William Finn

Instructor: Jason Waguespack

Jason has taught Political Science courses for college. He has a doctorate in Political Science.

This lesson examines the life of John William Finn. You will learn about his life and his service in the U.S. military, and of his actions at the attack on Pearl Harbor that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A Pearl Harbor Veteran

Remember the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor? The film was about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Some people thought it was pretty cool, while others thought it was rather corny. One man who did like it just happened to be at Pearl Harbor that day. 'It's helped educate people who didn't know about Pearl Harbor and what happened there,' John William Finn told the Boston Herald newspaper after attending the movie's premiere.

Not only did Finn fight the Japanese at that battle, he earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.

John William Finn
John William Finn

Early Life and Military Service

John William Finn was born in Los Angeles County on July 24, 1909. He went to school but dropped out after the seventh grade, taking up several jobs until he joined the Navy in 1926 at age 17. Finn had wanted to travel the world, and thanks to the Navy, he did just that, traveling along the Yangtze River in China and along the Panama Canal. Over the years, he rapidly moved up in rank, serving on various naval stations and ships. By 1941, Finn had become the chief petty officer in charge of a maintenance crew of plane munitions at the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Finn was in bed with his wife when he heard planes pass by his apartment. He hurried out of bed, got dressed, and sped to the naval station. On the way he got his first good look at a Japanese plane flying overhead. He later described the rising sun emblem on the passing plane as a 'meatball.' By the time he arrived at the station, many of the planes in the hanger were already hit from Japanese strafing fire and could not take off.

Two men were already manning machine guns outside the hanger. Finn grabbed a .30-caliber machine gun and mounted it on an instruction stand. He positioned the gun in an open section of the parking ramp and fired continuously at the oncoming Japanese planes. The fighter planes went over so quickly Finn could not be sure if he hit any of them. He did hit some of the slower-moving bombers, but they vanished over the trees after they passed so Finn did not see whether any had crashed.

A Japanese bomber in action at Pearl Harbor. Finn was able to shoot some of the bombers, but did not see whether any crashed.
Japanese bomber in action at Pearl Harbor

Japanese planes constantly blasted the runways with cannon fire, kicking up shrapnel. Finn was in the open and was repeatedly hit by the debris, but for the next two hours he refused to budge from his spot. Finn was shot in the left arm and left foot. Shrapnel struck his scalp, stomach, chest, right elbow and right thumb. His wounds got so bad he couldn't even use his left arm. Still, he kept firing his weapon until the skies went quiet. He only left his post on specific orders to get medical treatment.

Medal of Honor

Finn was one of just five living servicemen from the Japanese attack on Hawaii to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award given by the U.S. government. The other ten died in the attack and received posthumous medals. Finn received the award at Pearl Harbor from Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, on board the carrier USS Enterprise. Finn later recounted Nimitz as saying, 'Finn, it gives me great pleasure to pin or hang this medal on your neck.' Finn would receive the only award for combat from the Pearl Harbor attack. The rest were all awarded for rescue attempts.

John William Finn with his wife, Alice, after receiving his Medal of Honor in September 1942.
John William Finn with his wife Alice

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