This week’s America250 salute is Navy Veteran John Finn.
Dec. 7, 1941, is a day that will live in American minds forever. Japan’s surprise attack on the military base at Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, directing the course of the war in the Allies’ favor and leading to their victory in 1945. However, at the time, total victory was far from clear. When Japanese aircraft began to bomb the base, American service members had to valiantly defend the port despite being outnumbered and completely caught off guard. John Finn, one of these brave service members at Pearl Harbor, answered the call of duty.
John William Finn was born in July 1909, in Los Angeles, California. He said in an interview with the Veterans History Project (VHP) that he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and worked on a “beautiful farm” on the banks of the Los Angeles River. He then worked at a brush factory until he was eligible to enlist in the Navy at age 17.
When Finn arrived in San Diego for basic training in 1926, he said it was “the farthest away I’d ever been from home,” but said that boot camp was “wonderful.” After basic training, Finn went to Aviation General Training School in Great Lakes, Illinois. He learned the basics of how aircraft function and learned a bit of everything besides flying the aircraft themselves. Finn returned to San Diego working at the North Island Naval Air Station, where he helped build aircraft.
Finn first arrived in the Pacific while on a tour on USS Lexington in the early 1930s. In another VHP interview, he listed numerous places he visited throughout the 1930s, including Pearl Harbor, Guam, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Alaska.
When Finn was at Kaneohe Bay on Dec. 7, 1941, it seemed like a regular morning. He was a chief aviation ordnance man, in charge of a 35-man crew. He was lying in bed when he heard engines and machine gun fire, and if anyone was supposed to be firing guns, he “would have known about it.” As he got dressed and drove out toward the hangar of the base, he heard a “horrible roaring,” and realized it was the Japanese attacking.
When he arrived at the hangar, he took a .50-caliber machine gun and brought it out right away to shoot at the enemy aircraft. In an open parking lot to get better vision, Finn said that he “shot at every damn thing I could.” This lasted for two and a half hours until the attack on Kaneohe Bay was over. Over the course of his actions, shrapnel pierced him multiple times, injuring his left arm and left foot. After receiving first aid, still injured, he helped rearm returning aircraft from the attack.
In a ceremony at Pearl Harbor in September 1942, Finn received a Medal of Honor from Adm. Chester Nimitz for his bravery during the Dec. 7 attack, according to his Medal of Honor Citation. He also received a Purple Heart for his actions. Finn’s actions displayed the bravery, courage and spirit which would propel the successful American island-hopping campaign in the following years.
Finn stayed in the Navy until 1956, working on USS Hancock with a bombing squadron. He retired as a lieutenant in September 1956. In his retirement years, he lived on a ranch in Pine Valley, California, until he was put in a nursing home, according to a New York Times article. Finn passed away at the age of 100 in May 2010. He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from the Pearl Harbor attack.
We honor his service.
VA is highlighting 250 Veterans leading up to July 4, 2026, which marks 250 years of independence. Learn more about the countdown to 250 years of the American spirit at https://america250.org/.
Writer: Ryan Beane
Editor: Alexander Reza, Julia Pack
Fact Checker: Giacomo Ferrari
Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley