John Finn dies at 100; oldest surviving Medal of Honor recipient

In this Dec. 7, 2006, photo, John Finn salutes at the groundbreaking ceremony for the USS Oklahoma memorial at Pearl Harbor.
In this Dec. 7, 2006, photo, John Finn salutes at the groundbreaking ceremony for the USS Oklahoma memorial at Pearl Harbor.
(Lucy Pemoni / Associated Press)

Retired Navy officer John Finn, who received the Medal of Honor for his bravery during the Japanese attack on military installations in Hawaii that plunged the United States into World War II, died Thursday at the Veterans Home of California in Chula Vista.

At 100, Finn was the oldest surviving recipient of the nation’s highest medal for valor and the only recipient still alive among those who received the medal for actions during the attack of Dec. 7, 1941.

As his health declined, Finn had moved recently to the veterans facility from his longtime home in Live Oak Springs in rural eastern San Diego County.

Although he was a guest of honor at numerous gatherings of veterans and Medal of Honor recipients — including at the White House, where he was greeted by President Obama — Finn routinely declined to accept the accolade of hero.


“I can’t believe this,” Finn told the more than 500 people who gathered last year at a local diner to celebrate his birthday. “All I ever was was an old swab jockey.... What I did I was being paid for.”

Rousted from bed by the explosions that chaotic morning in Hawaii, Finn immediately manned a machine gun and began firing at the Japanese attack planes that swooped low over the naval air station at Kaneohe Bay on their way to their primary target, the U.S. planes and ships at Pearl Harbor.

“I loved the Navy,” he often told reporters, “and that day I was just furious because the Japanese caught us napping and made us pay for it.”

Wounded numerous times by bullets and shrapnel, Finn refused to be evacuated. His leadership and courage gave heart to dazed sailors to begin fighting back against the new enemy.

Born July 23, 1909, in Los Angeles, John William Finn attended high school in Compton and enlisted in the Navy at age 17. Before being stationed at Kaneohe Bay, Finn had served in the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone and China and aboard ships in the north Atlantic.

At Kaneohe Bay, he was a chief petty officer and an aviation ordnance chief assigned to maintain the weaponry on a PBY Catalina flying boat squadron.

When the attack began, Finn found a .50-caliber machine gun in the armory and mounted it on an instruction platform, which provided him with no protection. Despite his wounds, he kept firing and reloading for more than two hours.

“It was only by specific orders that he was persuaded to leave his post to seek medical attention,” according to the Medal of Honor citation. “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.”


During the war, Finn served as an instructor and aboard several ships, including aircraft carriers. Promoted to the officer ranks, he left active duty in 1947 and joined the reserves. He retired in 1956 as a lieutenant.

In retirement, he worked as a gunsmith, ran a salvage yard and raised horses and cattle. He spoke often of the Navy as a good career choice for young men and women.

“His story will continue inspiring generations to come while also reminding us all about the contributions and sacrifices of America’s greatest generation,” said Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Alpine), a longtime friend.

Finn was particularly important to aviation ordnance specialists: sailors whose job, while significant to projecting air power, is decidedly unglamorous. Last year at the U.S. Navy facility in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, aviation ordnance specialists held a ceremony in Finn’s honor.


Survivors include his son, Joseph. Finn’s wife, Alice, died in 1998.

Plans for a funeral are pending.