One of the most touching and little known stories of Pearl Harbor, and a memory of John Finn

Beneath the placid waters of Pearl Harbor, 58 sailors, who died when the USS Utah was sunk by Japanese fighter planes on Dec. 7, 1941, silently guard the remains of a shipmate. Article here: the remains of a baby girl.

Utah Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, remained at his post in the boiler room as the Utah capsized to ensure that men in engineering compartments could escape during the Japanese attack; his was one of the 15 who earned the nation’s highest award for valor. Five survived the attack to wear the Medal of Honor, one of whom was later killed in WWII.


“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”  We quote it; we just don’t practice it very well.” — John Finn, sole surviving Pearl Harbor MOH Recipient, 2004.


“It’s not always the outside enemy, but sometimes the enemy from within. Today, you talk to people and many of them say, ‘What is this Pearl Harbor all about?’ They think patriotism is embarrassing and old fashioned,” Mr. Finn said. ” Well, I’ll tell you, I remember that day, and patriotism is all we had.’

Navy Chief Finn was awakened that morning by the sound of unfamiliar aircraft engines over the U.S. Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay on the north side of Oahu. Leaving his wife in their apartment, Finn, at 32 and only five years away from retirement, dashed to his base and grabbed a .50 caliber machine gun. He began shooting at anything flying and didn’t even feel the 21 pieces of shrapnel that slammed into his body from exploding bombs.


He is credited with downing one of the first enemy aircraft of WWII. Despite his wounds he remained at his position through the morning, through the two waves of attacking aircraft.

For his heroic actions, Chief Finn would receive the first Medal of Honor of World War II. Mr. Finn would fight through the rest of the war, retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 1947.of attacking bombers. After being directly ordered to leave his post for first-aid, he returned and actively supervised the rearming of returning planes.

Even the youngest Pearl Harbor veterans are in their late 80s.  We won’t have them much longer.

I had the honor and privilege getting to know Mr. Finn over a decade of Medal of Honor activities; in 2002 at the Recipient convention in Shreveport I spent most of the evening listening to the stories of his Navy career and his colorful life.

It was 3 a.m. The old machine-gunner at 96 didn’t drink as much as I, but he kept eating fruit from the buffet and a beer was seldom out of his reach. He talked of the ships he served aboard in the 1920s before my parents were born. He spoke of seeing the Jap bullets striking the ground around his position, the Zeroes rolling in through the dark clouds of smoke, the dead and dying.

Finally and with real regret, I stood and said, “Mr. Finn, request permission to leave the bridge. I am unable to carry on.” He gave me a snappy salute and said, “Okay son. We’ll see you down here in the morning.” He turned back to the others and continued along his almost 80 years of memories.

The next morning, and in great pain, I returned to the hospitality room late to find Mr. Finn showered and shaved, in freshly pressed slacks and a sport shirt, his Medal around his neck and a baseball cap at a jaunty angle.

When called a hero during a 2009 interview Finn responded:

“That damned hero stuff is a bunch crap, I guess. […] You gotta understand that there’s all kinds of heroes, but they never get a chance to be in a hero’s position.”

Mr. Finn died at age 100 on the morning of May 27, 2010, at the Chula Vista  Veterans Home; his wife, Alice Finn, died in 1998. He was the last surviving Pearl Harbor Medal of Honor Recipient, the oldest living recipient, and the only aviation ordinanceman to have received The Medal.

God bless Mr. Finn and his shipmates, living and dead, his fellow Recipients, our WWII veterans on tomorrow’s anniversary.


About Gary Alexander

Volunteer coordinator for veterans support network in North Texas. Now retired from his private psychotherapy practice, I specialized in the diagnosis and treatment posttraumatic stress, working with victim assistance programs, veterans and the Veterans Administration for over 20 years. After being wounded in action in Vietnam, I was medically retired from the Marine Corps and know first hand many of the readjustment difficulties and psychological stresses experienced by today's OIF and OEF veterans. I am available, at minimal cost, to speak at your functions on several subjects including veterans issues, Vietnam, the Medal of Honor, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and critical incident debriefings.
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4 Responses to One of the most touching and little known stories of Pearl Harbor, and a memory of John Finn

  1. Paul Wiseman says:

    Here here ….Gary……and a toast to John……old friend CHEERS!

  2. Chris Profota says:

    He was a great recipient. He was always full oflife even to the end. He was the last one to leave the hospitality suite at the hotel it seemed. Thanks for the story.
    Chris Profota

  3. Bob Mack says:

    Great story, GA. Sorry I never had the opportunity to have a beer with the Chief, but I can surely raise a glass or two in his honor tonight.

  4. Ron says:

    John was one of my favorites of them all. He was always fully “wound up”! All you had to do was mention something or some one connected to Pearl Harbor or any of his duty stations and he would give you full details in a lengthy story. What a mind and memory! God bless him and all our comrades in arms.

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