The first enlisted man to win the Medal of Honor

John William Finn was a chief petty officer in the United States Navy who played a critical role in the defense of Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack on 7th December 1941.

Finn was stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay and was one of the first to respond when the attack began.

Despite being wounded multiple times, Finn continued to return fire with a machine gun and even helped move injured sailors to safety.

He was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions, becoming the first recipient of the award during the Second World War.

The front page of the December 8th, 1941, edition of New York World Telegram reads, '1500 dead in Hawaii', and describes the U.S. decision to declare war on Japan.

30 Chilling Photos From The Attack On Pearl Harbor (

John William Finn

John William Finn, who was born in 1909 in Compton, California, had left school and joined the Navy at the age of 17. By the age of 32, Finn had attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer and was placed in charge of a detail of twenty men at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Aviation Station on the island of Oahu as the chief aviation ordanceman.

On the morning of the 7th of December 1941, the sound of gunfire and a neighbour pounding on his door shouting "They want you down at the squadron right away!" immediately woke up Finn. Instead of what doing what many people would do when confronted by a surprise bombing raid – run in the opposite direction, Finn demonstrated he was made of sterner stuff.

Still unsure of what was happening, he got in his car and drove to the air strip while staying below the base speed limit until a passing plane displayed the Japanese "Rising Sun" symbol on its wing. "I threw it into second [gear] at that time," recalled Finn, "and it was a wonder I didn't run over every sailor in the air station."

John William Finn, striking a suitably heroic pose.  And so he might, considering his actions on the 7th of December 1941 would earn him a well-deserved Medal of Honor.

John William Finn, Medal of Honor (

Hell and Mayhem

As Finn got to the hangers, he found a scene of hell and mayhem with men scurrying between flaming aircraft in search of cover or a way to protect themselves. He observed Japanese aircraft in the skies as he drove to the hangars, where he discovered that the airbase was under attack and that the majority of the PBYs were already on fire.

The machine guns installed on the PBYs were being used by Finn's men to fight back, either by firing from within the burning planes or by removing the guns and putting them on makeshift supports.

Later, Finn revealed that one of his initial actions was to seize control of a machine gun from the squadron painter. "I knew that I had more experience firing a machine gun than a painter" when I said, "Alex, let me have that gun."

The PBY Catalina was a versatile and reliable flying boat used extensively during the Second World War for maritime patrol, search and rescue, and transport missions. It could operate from land bases or water and was capable of long-range flights, making it ideal for reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare. Several were destroyed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The USS California burns after it was attacked with torpedoes.

30 Chilling Photos From The Attack On Pearl Harbor (

Finn took the 50 calibre machine gun and set it up on a mobile training platform. Finn ignored the personal risk that this left him entirely exposed to enemy fire and pushed the platform and all the ammunition he could find into an open location where he had a clear view of the attacking Japanese planes. In some instances, I could see the faces of the pilots, Finn remarked, "I got the gun and I started shooting at Japanese planes."

Officers' wives head to their quarters after hearing explosions and seeing smoke in distance. Mary Naiden, the woman who took this picture, is said to have exclaimed, "There are red circles on those planes overhead. They are Japanese!"

30 Chilling Photos From The Attack On Pearl Harbor (

21 injuries

Finn would fight the Japanese invaders on his own for the next two hours. Despite suffering 21 different injuries, including a gunshot wound to his foot and a shrapnel wound to his shoulder that left him unable to use his left arm, he continued to fire his homemade anti-aircraft weapon.

Finn continued his personal offensive despite this, and is credited with shooting down at least one enemy aircraft and damaging more, according to reports. In a 2001 interview, Finn was modest and remarked, "I can't honestly say I hit any, but I shot at every damn plane I could see."

The wing of a Japanese bomber is left in ruins after being shot down on the grounds of the Naval Hospital at Honolulu. Despite being repeatedly injured, Finn continued to fire on the attacking Japanese planes.

30 Chilling Photos From The Attack On Pearl Harbor (

Finn remained in his position until he was told to leave and get help. Finn claimed that when he arrived in sickbay, he observed several people who were in a worse situation than he was. In order to return to the armoury and spend the remainder of the day and night mending damaged weapons in case of an additional attack, he checked himself out after allowing the medics to bandage him.

Finn would spend the following two weeks in the hospital after receiving a second, more specific instruction to seek medical care.

Medal of Honor

On 14th September 1942, Admiral Chester Nimitz gave Finn the Medal of Honor while they were aboard the USS Enterprise. As is his habit, Finn would downplay his bravery. “I was merely an uneducated man who got mad as hell one day.”

In a 2009 interview, Finn was referred to as a hero. He responded, "That damned hero stuff is a bunch of crap, I guess. […] You gotta understand that there’s all kinds of heroes, but they never got a chance to be in a hero’s position.”

Finn was commissioned in 1942 and held the rank of ensign while working as a limited duty officer. He was demoted to chief petty officer in 1947 and afterwards promoted to lieutenant with Bomber Squadron VB-102 and onboard USS Hancock.

Alice Finn (left) admires the Medal of Honor awarded to her husband John W. Finn.

Lt. John W. Finn, Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 100 (


Finn remained a member of the American Navy until 1956, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Following the war, he moved back to California and established a modest ranch with his wife and son. Also, Finn and his wife took in five native American Indian children as foster children, earning them recognition from the Diegueno tribe. Moreover, Finn belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Prior to his death on 27th May 2010, at the age of 100, John William Finn was still active on his ranch. He is interred on the Indian Reservation where the kids he raised in foster care were raised. He was the final surviving member of the Pearl Harbor assault team to receive the Medal of Honor. Finn's efforts were "in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service," according to his Medal of Honor Citation.

John William Finn in later life.

Further reading