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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 21, 2009

From the editor
What does it mean to be a hero?

Cindy Pollard is hosting a 100th birthday party for an American Hero. That’s how she bills it.

She’s an inveterate host. Pollard created the Home Front Café in Altamont to resemble her mother’s World War II-era kitchen. Villagers treat her place as their own. Pollard puts great effort into welcoming veterans and inviting local youth to hear their stories.

She’s expecting up to 1,000 to attend the May 31 birthday party for John Finn so the event will be celebrated at the village hall. Finn — the oldest surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor — will be joined by two other Medal of Honor recipients. Both of them served in the Army during World War II: Francis Currey received his medal for valor on Dec. 21, 1944 in Malmedy, Belgium; Nicholas Oresko received his for rushing a German bunker in the midst of point-blank rifle fire near Teltington, Germany on Jan. 23, 1945.

Only 97 Medal of Honor recipients are alive today; 23 of them served in World War II. “Of those, just 10 can get around,” said Pollard. Three of them will be at her party.

Pollard said she has organized the event because she wants to encourage young people to be involved in their country.

She said of the Medal of Honor recipients, “They did something heroic and honorable — acts of great courage — because it had to be done.”

After the cake has been cut and the Mulligan sisters have sung, after the speeches have been made and the citations have been read, three peace roses will be planted in the village park, one in the name of each of the three men.

“The world is certainly changing,” said Pollard. “I just hope we keep our dignity.”

Finn was dining at the Home Front Café on September 11, 2001. He shared a stoic thought with Pollard on that day when our nation was shaken by terrorists’ attacks. “I never thought there would be a day after Dec. 7, 1941,” he said. But there was.

That was the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said would live in infamy, but that Pollard is worried is forgotten by the young.

On that day, Finn was at the naval air station at Kanoehe Bay in Hawaii. The Japanese flew overhead before bombing Pearl Harbor.

Finn, his Medal of Honor citation says, “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 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.”

“My medal was given to me by Admiral Nimitz on board the flagship Enterprise in Pearl Harbor on September 15, 1942,” says Finn. He talks, late into the night, from his home in San Diego. His voice crackles as he takes forays into recesses of his past.

“Everybody wants to know about Pearl Harbor,” Finn says. But, looking back at those 68 years that came after, he sees December 7, 1941 as just one day in a 30-year Naval career.  “I had 15 years’ service,” says Finn. “ I had risen to the rank of chief petty officer. I had served on the east and west coasts, in China, and in Panama.”

Asked if he had been afraid, he says, “Old John Finn had 15 years in the Navy. I had to study machine guns and pyrotechnics and all this stuff to kill people; that was my business....

“You start in the galley, where you learn where to put the slop. On a farm, you’d throw it to the pigs. But, in the Navy, everything is regulated...You have to learn how to handle the situation so you’re not drenched in garbage.”

Finn had performed a variety of duties. He tells about his work in a straightforward way. He worked, for example, as a Navy photographer “for a whole damn year,” he says. Finn had stepped into the job after the photographer had killed himself. “I knew him well,” says Finn. “He took a straight razor and damn near cut his head off right in the photo lab.”

Finn wasn’t born a hero but he says he was born a gun nut.

He was born in Los Angeles on July 24, 1909 and moved with his family to the nearby farm country when he was young. He describes it as a horse-and-buggy era and says the place is unrecognizable today.

His father’s family hailed from Ireland and his father’s father, he says, “was a big shot in St. Louis — the greatest cattle rancher in the whole Mississippi Valley.”

His parents met and married when his mother was 17 and his father was nearly twice that age.

As a kid, he remembers, “I was intrigued with sailing vessels. I wanted to be a man of sail.”

Finn quit school in the eighth grade — he says it’s because he hated arithmetic.

“I would not study arithmetic. I would not open the book,” he recalls. “I had the idea I was going to be a cowboy. Cowboys count cattle. I could do that.”

He went to work for an old Italian farmer, planting and harvesting truck garden crops. He gave the money he earned to his mother.

When he was 17, he joined the Navy. That was in 1926. Finn didn’t swim well — “I could almost drown in a mud puddle,” he says — but he liked the Navy from the start. He was frustrated, though, to be on shore duty so long. “Here I am in the Navy and I couldn’t get to sea,” he says. “Finally, it came in 1929, I was transferred to a huge battle cruiser...almost 600 feet long. I was still just a little curly-headed boy on my first enlistment.”

There is a lot to learn to be a sailor, he says. “I wanted to be a gunner’s mate. They wanted me to be an aviation mechanic...I was a gun nut. My mother’s family, the Niles family, were early American gunsmiths. When I joined the Navy, I had 17 guns of my own. Most boys my age were lucky to have a BB gun.”

He goes on, with a chuckle, “They told me gunner’s mates don’t do nothing but loaf. They said, ‘You are a fine mechanic. You will build airplanes” — and that’s what I did.”

Still, he got a chance to fire a gun when it mattered most.

“I got a lot of shrapnel but it didn’t knock me down or put me out,” says Finn matter-of-factly. “I finally got to sickbay at one o’clock on December 8...When I got there, the sickbay was filled. There were 19 dead in my outfit; near 1,400 were killed at Pearl Harbor.

“It would be easy for a guy to start telling all the details of what happened in a battle.. First thing, you’ve got to remember ’em .... It’s a deep, deep subject.”

Finn doesn’t express prejudice towards the Japanese. “You’ve got to give them credit,” he said. “They really gave us a whuppin’ on December 7. But they bit off more than they could chew.”

He goes on, “The Japanese are a military people. They don’t believe in surrender. They don’t mess around. I wouldn’t say they are my favorite type of people. Everything is serious with them. You can’t hate them because they’re Japanese.”

Finn values his medal. “I’m supposed to be the first man to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II,” he says. “You do not get the Medal of Honor for playing a game of poker.”

But, at the same time, it hasn’t given him an inflated sense of self-importance.

Asked what it was like in March to lay a wreath with President Barack Obama at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and later visit the White House, Finn said, “These things happen if a Medal of Honor guy lives long enough. You can’t believe all the stuff he is invited to participate in. It gets to be quite a chore,” Finn says with a chuckle.

“The Medal of Honor is a big accident,” says Finn, describing how the acts of valor have to be witnessed and documented. “Being a hero really is stupid. I didn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain....Those situations can be desperate. If you want to be inspired by heroic deeds, read what people did in their everyday duties. There is enough hero in all those guys to receive a Medal of Honor.”

Finn remembers serving in the Navy with Medal of Honor recipients from World War I. It’s not something they would make a big deal of, he says. “Eventually, someone tells some stories and yarns. ‘That old guy over there has something damn few people have’...It’s more or less an accident...It’s never perfect.”

The recipients meet as members of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Finn remembers 20 or 30 years ago looking up a recipient who didn’t come to the conventions. “I went to see him, to try to get him to put on his Sunday clothes and come to the convention,” Finn recalls. “I knocked on his door and he opened it just a crack. I saw two eyes. He couldn’t speak English. He said, ‘I no go place,’ and he closed the door. Click. He didn’t like the notoriety.”

Finn says he can do without the fuss but he likes the comradeship. “What I enjoy is meeting these men,” he says of the other recipients. “While you’re one of them, you didn’t do what  they did. I’ve often thought about it, especially those that jump into a fire and save someone’s life. I’ve never understood how they have the guts.”

Finn tells about one soldier who jumped into an inferno and had his nose burned off.

“If you’re hit by a bullet, you’re wounded or dead,” said Finn. “Facing a bullet, you don’t see that bullet coming. You find out when you wake up in the hospital. I was shot in the arm, chest, foot, and belly...Anything that bleeds is a wound. If it’s bad enough, it kills you.”

 But Finn has survived and will soon be turning 100.

“That doesn’t mean a damn thing to me,” says Finn of reaching the century mark. “I just realize, hey, I’m different. Who the hell would think of living to be 100 years old?”

He concludes, “I will not be 100 until July 24. We’re here today and gone tomorrow.”

We’re glad Finn is here today and doubly glad that Cindy Pollard has invited the community to celebrate him and the other Medal of Honor recipients on May 31. We are impressed with the way Finn knew but respected his country’s enemies. And we like the way he appreciates the work of all those who serve their country.  We like his straight talk and hope many will flock to the party to hear it.

Happy birthday, Lt. Finn.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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