America’s Oldest Medal of Honor Recipient Dies at 100 – John William Finn (July 23, 1909-May 27, 2010)

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John William Finn courtesy of

BY DUANE A. VACHONJohn William Finn, the oldest living Medal Of Honor recipient, died on May 27th 2010 (July 23, 1909 – May 27, 2010). He received the United States military’s highest decoration for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II.

As a chief aviation ordnance man stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, he earned the medal by manning a machine gun from an exposed position throughout the attack, despite being repeatedly wounded. He continued to serve in the Navy until his 1956 retirement, eventually rising to the commissioned officer rank of lieutenant. In his later years he made many appearances at events celebrating veterans. At the time of his death, Finn was the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient and the last living recipient from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Born on July 23, 1909, in Los Angeles, California, Finn dropped out of school after the seventh grade.  He enlisted in the Navy in July 1926, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, and received recruit training in San Diego.

After a brief stint with a ceremonial guard company, Finn attended General Aviation Utilities Training at Naval Station Great Lakes, graduating in December 1926 . By April 1927 he was back in the San Diego area, having been assigned to Naval Air Station North Island. He initially worked in aircraft repair before becoming an aviation ordnance man and working on anti-aircraft guns.

Finn went on to serve on a several ships: the USS Lexington (CV-2), the USS Houston (CA-30), the USS Jason (AC-12), the USS Saratoga (CV-3), and the USS Cincinnati (CL-6). After being promoted to Chief Petty Officer in about 1936, he served with patrol squadrons in San Diego, Washington, and Panama.

By December 1941, Finn was stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. As a chief aviation ordnance man, he was in charge of twenty men whose primary task was to maintain the weapons of a PBY Catalina flying boat squadron. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Finn was at his home, about a mile from the aircraft hangars, when he heard the sound of gunfire. Finn recalled how a neighbor was the first to alert him, when she knocked on his door saying, “They want you down at the squadron right away!”. He drove to the hangars (seeing Japanese planes in the sky on the way) and found that the airbase was being attacked, with most of the PBYs already on fire.

His men were trying to fight back by using the machine guns mounted in the PBYs, either by firing from inside the flaming planes or by detaching the guns and mounting them on improvised stands. In 2009 Finn explained one of the first things he did was take control of a machine gun from his squadron’s painter. “I said, ‘Alex, let me take that gun’…knew that I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter.”

Finn then found a movable platform used for gunnery training, attached the .50 caliber machine gun, and pushed the platform into an open area, from which he had a clear view of the attacking aircraft. He fired on the Japanese planes for the next two hours, even after being seriously wounded, until the attack had ended. In total, he received 21 distinct wounds, including a bullet through the foot and an injury which caused him to lose feeling in his left arm. “I got that gun and I started shooting at Jap planes,” Finn said during an interview in 2009.  “I was out there shooting the Jap planes and just every so often I was a target for some,” he said, “in some cases, I could see [the Japanese pilots’] faces. Despite his wounds, he returned to the hangars later that day, after receiving medical treatment, and helped arm the surviving American planes.

For these actions, Finn was formally presented with the Medal of Honor on September 14, 1942, by Admiral Chester Nimitz. The ceremony occurred in Pearl Harbor on board the USS Enterprise (CV-6).

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, on 7 December 1941, Lieutenant 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 United States Naval Service.

On March 25, 2009, he attended National Medal of Honor Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. With the aid of walking sticks, he stood beside U.S. President Barack Obama during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Later that day, Finn was a guest at the White House. It was his first visit to the White House, and his first time meeting a sitting President.

Finn died at age 100 on the morning of May 27, 2010, at the Chula Vista Veterans Home. His wife, Alice Finn, died in 1998. He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the oldest living recipient, and the only aviation ordnance man to have ever received the medal. Upon his death, fellow World War II veteran Barney F. Hajiro became the oldest living Medal of Honor recipient.

From 1956 until shortly before his death, Finn resided on a 90-acre  ranch in Live Oak Springs, near Pine Valley, California. He and his wife became foster parents to five Native American children, causing him to be embraced by the Campo Band of Diegueño Mission Indians, a tribe of Kumeyaay people in San Diego. Finn is buried at the Campo Indian Reservation cemetery.

In addition to the Medal of Honor, Finn’s decorations include the Purple Heart; Navy Good Conduct Medal with two bronze stars; American Defense Service Medal; American Campaign Medal; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; World War II Victory Medal; and the Navy Occupation Service Medal.

  • Medal of Honor
  • Purple Heart
  • Navy Unit Commendation
  • Navy Good Conduct Medal with two bronze stars
  • American Defense Service Medal
  • American Campaign Medal
  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with five battle stars
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • Navy Occupation Service Medal
  • National Defense Service Medal