The Medal of Honor isn’t an award given without careful thought and consideration, so those who are chosen to receive it are known for having gone above and beyond the call of duty. In 1942, a US Navy Chief Petty Officer named John Finn became the first serviceman to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II.
In late 1941, John Finn was stationed on the island of Oahu, in the then-Territory of Hawaii. It was one of the many places he would serve during his long career in the Navy, which began with his enlistment in July, 1926 and completion of training in San Diego in the late 1920s. Finn, who joined the Navy just before his 17th birthday, worked as an aviation ordnanceman with a focus on anti-aircraft guns.
John Finn and the Attack on Pearl Harbor
On December 7, 1941, John Finn, then a chief aviation ordnanceman, was stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, in charge of a group of sailors tasked with the maintenance of the weaponry of a squadron of PBY Catalina flying boats. Located on the eastern end of the island, on a peninsula more than an hour away from Pearl Harbor, Finn and his fellow servicemen stationed at Kaneohe Bay also came under attack by the forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
On that Sunday morning, Finn was at home when he heard the sound of gunfire. Before he was fully aware of the unfolding situation, a neighbor alerted him that he was wanted at the station immediately. On the short drive, he was met with views of Japanese warplanes swooping in over the island, peppering the ground with machine gun fire and targeting the air station.
Though the PBY Catalinas couldn’t get off the ground, Finn’s men were manning the mounted machine guns to fire on the attacking planes. Wanting to jump in and help, Finn took a machine gun from a member of his squad and attached it to a movable tripod. Rather than find a place to hide and fire from, the chief aviation ordnanceman set himself up in the open, ensuring he had a clear view of the incoming attackers.
While continuing to shoot at the Japanese planes, Finn suffered multiple injuries, but they didn’t stop him from holding his ground for two hours. In all, he suffered 21 individual wounds, including a bullet in his foot and a serious shoulder injury. Eventually, he went for medical treatment, but it didn’t stop him for long. Once tended to, Finn returned to lending aid, this time arming the planes that hadn’t been destroyed in the attack.
The First Medal of Honor of World War II
Having risked his life protecting his men and the country, John Finn drew attention from higher-ups. In 1942, he was commissioned as a Limited Duty Officer, a position he held for five years. On September 14, 1942, he was given the highest military decoration: the Medal of Honor. Admiral Chester Nimitz presented him with the award aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), making him the first Medal of Honor recipient of World War II.
His heroics on December 7, 1941 would go down in history, but John Finn continue to serve for another 15 years, finally retiring with the rank of lieutenant in 1956.
John Finn’s Lasting Legacy
Before his death on May 27, 2010, John Finn remained an active member of the World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient communities. He did his best to make as many appearances as possible, even when he reached advanced age and traveling became difficult.
A year before his passing, Finn attended a ceremony for National Medal of Honor Day at Arlington National Cemetery. He stood beside President Obama for a wreath-laying ceremony, and later was welcomed as a guest to the White House.
Shortly before his passing, Finn was given the honor of being the namesake for one of the US Navy shuttle boats that ferry visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. He’s joined by additional Medal of Honor recipients who have also had USS Arizona Memorial shuttle boats named for them.
Additional tributes can be also be found at Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe and along US Route 80, where a section was named “John Finn Route.” The most prominent honor came in 2017, when an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer was commissioned into service: USS John Finn (DDG-113).