NBC news anchor Brian Williams emceed the banquet. The re-invigorated National Medal of Honor Museum was opened earlier that day. There are no better examples of great people on the planet than these real combat heroes.
In a stroke of good fortune, John “Jack” Finn sat next to me. He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By conjecture, he may have been the first American to return fire upon the enemy in World War II. He personally told me how that event unraveled and what he saw.
“I woke up next to a beautiful blonde,” he started, “my wife!” They argued about who was going to get up to make the coffee.
Finn had been an enlisted member of the United States Navy for over fifteen years by December 7th, 1941. He served as a Chief Air Ordinanceman and lived on base at Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station, some fifteen miles from Pearl Harbor. This strategic patrol base was attacked five minutes prior to Pearl Harbor.
As Finn recalled, “I noticed that the weapons being fired by the Japanese were not an American training routine because they did not fire at the accelerated speed of American machine gun fire. That cadence was too slow. I knew the sound of our guns and that was not the way they sounded. And the sound of the airplane engines were different, as well.”
It may be appropriate to note that Jack Finn may have inspired the well-known phrase “cussed like a sailor.” There were some “damns” and “hells” to spice his story. He commanded a remarkable presence for someone being a few weeks short of age 98.
“I drove my 1938 Ford down the runway to the hangars knowing that the base was under full attack.” He retold. “I gave orders to the men to supply an improvised machine gun emplacement.”
He manned one of the detached airplane machine guns by balancing it on cinder blocks while under the constant strafing of the Japanese air attack. His leadership and courage in the face of enemy fire became an example of the selfless bravado required by all Americans at the outset of this worldwide conflict. He received 21 wounds from mostly shrapnel, but remained on his machine gun emplacement for two and a half hours, his hands clutching the heated weapon with eyes upon every horizon. He left this post upon the command of a senior officer. He refused medical attention for 20 hours while assisting in the defense and recovery of his base. He declined to be admitted to the infirmary as it was overcrowded with other defenders, including civilians. He related seeing many casualties. His wife Alice dressed his wounds at home. Once admitted the next day, he was confined in recuperation until Christmas Eve.
Finn theorized that the Japanese had a sense of empowerment from before. He recalled his service upon a warship stationed in Shanghai in 1932 when the Japanese attacked that Chinese port. The Kaneohe Bay station was, in fact, on a limited alert status prior to the infamous Japanese attack. Three patrol planes were in the air and were, according to Finn, “the only three planes to survive.”
Jack Finn was born in Los Angeles on July 22, 1909, of Missouri stock. He died just weeks short of his 101st birthday on May 27, 2010, in San Diego.
There are baseball cards full of my childhood heroes. There are magazines and television shows dedicated to personalities held up high by the media. And then there are the real heroes of our military. Those soldiers that protect us, who fight our battles and earn, sometimes with their lives, our many freedoms are worthy of the highest regard imaginable. I will never forget Jack Finn — especially what he told me he saw and did on December 7, 1941. No book could have given me more of an impression than his personal testimony. He will always be a revered American hero.
Thomas (Tommy) McQueeney is a born and bred Charlestonian who graduated from The Citadel with a BA in English, and is a 30 year agent with State Farm Insurance in Mt. Pleasant.