Old sailor still spry
A WWII medal of honor winner returns to Kaneohe
GEN. DOUGLAS MACARTHUR famously said that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. What do old sailors do? Dissolve? At 97, John Finn seems unlikely to do either.
"What a tough old bird!" an admirer blurted out Tuesday, shaking the hand of his hero. Finn laughed delightedly.
The Medal of Honor awardee recently returned to the scene of his heroism 65 years ago, the old seaplane ramp at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, which in 1941 was Kaneohe Naval Air Station. Let's just quote the actual medal 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."
Finn was an older man even in 1941, a veteran aviation ordnanceman who had seen first-hand Japanese depredations in China. He's the oldest surviving Medal of Honor winner, and the only one of 15 awardees at Pearl Harbor still alive. (All 15 went to U.S. Navy personnel.)
A chief petty officer in 1941, he retired in 1956 as an officer and still lives on his ranch near San Diego. The military base at Kaneohe has a large building named after him, and when Finn and several other Kaneohe Pearl Harbor veterans visited, it emptied out as sailors and Marines queued up to shake his hand.
"A great breed that one day will be gone," said one man standing off to the side, marveling at the scene. He turned out to be Finn's son Joe, visiting the base for the first time.
"Well, I've heard about Kaneohe Bay my whole life. Dad often had his Navy friends over and they'd sit around the table and talk about the war, but no gory stuff. I knew about the Medal of Honor, but he never talked about it much. The stories they told were all humorous. They didn't like talking about the awful stuff that happened.
"Like, he was describing the attack and one ordnanceman was firing back at the Japanese with a shotgun. He kept scampering here to there looking for a place to hide and finally backed into a big pipe. But when he fired his shotgun, it like to have blown his ears out. They laughed and laughed over that one."
At that moment, there was a burst of laughter from the Finn Building lobby, which has a bust of Finn mounted on the wall.
"I bet you he'll be back when he's 105!" said Joe Finn.
Navy Chief Lyle Eagle had been assigned as Finn's escort at the 2001 reunion, and was happy to see him again.
"He's like walking naval history," said Eagle. "And he's such a character. At the 60th reunion, he said he always needs a woman to help put the Medal of Honor around his neck, and when my wife helped him do that, he gave her a big hug. 'I've been getting grab-ass all these years, thanks to this medal!' he said."
At the corner of a gigantic Kaneohe hangar, Finn points to a modest metal door.
"Right through there -- my favorite stairwell in the world," he says. "I hid in there whenever the planes were shooting directly at me. The base was so new you could smell the new cement under there."
A dozen yards away, a scab of newer cement covers a bomb crater, and shrapnel scars spider-web away from the impact point. Finn points up at the sky.
"I could actually see the bombs falling. Hard to believe. But down they came. Then the Zeros circled around and began shooting up the ramp."
He ducks into the building again, through the same door, 65 years later, and seems to know exactly where the crew chiefs will be hanging out inside.
Petty Officer 1st Class Ivan Cruz, an aviation ordnanceman, is grinning from ear to ear. "I tried to meet him several times before, when he came to the base, but I always missed out. I had to shake his hand."
"Because," Cruz explains, "John Finn is a hero to every aviation ordnanceman in the Navy, and always has been."
Chief Erik Rhodes shakes Finn's hand and the two commiserate about how long it takes to get promoted in this man's Navy.
"Aw, hell," says Finn. The horror of war is long behind him, but the pride of serving in the Navy still fills him. "I was a seaman when I started, and I'm still a seaman at heart. At least, what's left of me."