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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

WWII hero downplays achievement

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

At 11:10 a.m. yesterday — 20 minutes before the press conference was set to begin — a lone figure appeared at entrance of Sam Snead's Tavern at the Navy Marine Golf Course across from Honolulu International Airport and peered through the glass.

John Finn, a Medal of Honor winner from World War II, regales a crowd at Sam Snead's Tavern by showing how Japanese aircraft came down on him as he fired a .50-caliber machine gun at them. He was a keynote speaker last night at the 109th Anniversary of Navy Chief Petty Officers at the Hickam Officers Club.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

John Finn received the Medal of Honor from Adm. Chester Nimitz in 1942 for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Advertiser library photo • Dec. 7, 1966

"Hi! I'm John Finn," the man said, as Lt. Cmdr. Jane Campbell opened the door to greet him.

And for the next hour and a half, Finn, 93 — all 5 feet 5 inches and 125 pounds of him — cracked wise, flirted in two languages and regaled astonished onlookers, Navy personnel and reporters with a blizzard of anecdotes, war tales and pertinent asides.

Easily the most animated human on the premises, Finn had come to Honolulu to be keynote speaker at last night's 109th Anniversary of Navy Chief Petty Officers at the Hickam Officers Club.

The scheduled morning press conference was to give the press a chance to meet the man who is a virtual Guinness Book of Records:

First Medal of Honor recipient in World War II, oldest living Medal of Honor holder from any war, last surviving Medal of Honor winner from Dec. 7, 1941, and, according to Campbell, the only known Medal of Honor recipient to have survived two Japanese attacks. (Finn was also in China in 1932 when Japan attacked Shanghai.)

Finn, a San Diego kid who enlisted in the Navy at age 17 in 1926 and became a Chief Petty Officer in a short nine years, said he had no idea what he would talk about at Hickam. He'd think of something when he got there. No one at the press conference doubted it.

But of all the subjects Finn addressed yesterday, the one he could never seem to get to were the details of why he'd been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as a Chief Ordnanceman on Dec. 7, 1941 at the Naval Air Station in Kane'ohe.

Why did you get the medal? one reporter wanted to know.

"Well, I didn't have enough sense to come in out of the rain," he said.

What happened that morning? he was asked more than once.

"Here's the full story," he finally said. "The Japanese came in, kicked the hell out of us and then left. That's what happened."

History, of course, records it a bit differently. Before the first shot was fired at Pearl Harbor that morning, Japanese planes attacked at Kane'ohe. Finn, 32, was home in bed with his wife, Alice, but soon was driving full speed to Hangar 3.

There, as the hangar burned, Finn set up a .50-caliber machine gun outside, in plain sight of diving enemy fighter planes, and began to fire. He didn't stop firing until the last plane left. By that time he was a bloody mess, having been wounded 21 times.

Ordered to the aid station, Finn, who had lost the use of one arm and could barely walk, soon returned to the air station to spend the rest of the day supervising the rearming of planes. He went to the hospital the next day. They didn't let him leave for 16 days.

"I took a little shrapnel," he said when asked about his wounds. "I was bleeding in 21 places — but it wasn't nothing."

Finn downplays the heroics and virtually every historic account that says he shot down an enemy plane.

"I've never said I shot down anything, but I've been credited with shooting down the whole Japanese fleet. ... This idea that John Finn was the only man firing is the biggest bunch of malarkey that ever was. There were men firing machine guns when I got there."

Finn was more interested in talking about being able to fit into his old Navy uniform or that the shoes he had on yesterday were the ones he was wearing when Adm. Chester Nimitz presented him with the Medal of Honor on Sept. 15, 1942.

On that day Nimitz spoke of "Finn's magnificent courage in the face of almost certain death."

Sixty years later, Finn is still very much alive.

How does it feel to be the oldest Medal of Honor survivor of World War II?

"Well, it makes me feel sad," he said. "I'm the oldest and the last . ... What's the future of being the oldest and the last? So, I don't feel nuttin', as the guy said."

Still, Finn said he was happy to be there.

Then, with a smile, he added, "I'm happy to be anywhere these days."