Among the most interesting people I have ever met is a man named John Finn. His knees don't work very well any more, but his mind is as sharp as the day I met him nearly forty years ago. He lives on a ranch, and until recently he cared for plenty of livestock, including a fairly large number of horses.
The animals are all gone now, but John hasn't slowed down much, and he still travels extensively. I saw him just two days ago, on the hangar deck of the USS Midway, a heroic ship of World War II and now a museum and hugely popular tourist attraction in San Diego. The occasion was a luncheon to celebrate John's 99th birthday.
John Finn is a man of action. Born in 1909, he can regale you with picturesque descriptions of what life was like in this country before the start of the First World War, and he spares listeners none of the colorful and occasionally unpleasant details that made living a challenge in a less sophisticated era.
In 1926, at the age of seventeen, John joined the Navy, and like Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles served aboard American gunboats that patrolled the rivers of inland China. This was a precarious time in Asia, and by 1932, war between China and Japan had begun, culminating in a full-scale Japanese invasion and the subjugation of China until the end of World War II in 1945.
By the time he had been in the Navy for fifteen years, he had become an aviation ordnance chief. On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, John and his wife were asleep in his quarters not far from the Navy PBY patrol plane hangars on Oahu when the Japanese attacked. He immediately raced to the hangar area, which was being strafed and bombed by the Japanese planes.
People of a certain age, me included, remember patriotic combat movies about the war, many starring John Wayne and other popular box-office attractions. Even to an impressionable youth, the scenes seemed occasionally overblown, with valor portrayed frequently merely for cinematic effect. Skepticism may be the chastity of the intellect, but as many of us discovered a few years later, no amount of hyperbole is sufficient to represent the reality of combat, and that Sunday morning was no exception.
Fearlessly, John Finn mounted a .50-caliber machine gun in an exposed position, firing at the attacking planes and destroying at least one of them. He manned his improvised post until the attack was finally over, at which time it was discovered that he had sustained twenty-one shrapnel and bullet wounds during his valiant defense. John was decorated with the Medal of Honor and today is the oldest living recipient.
While Finn's longevity is unusual, his valor is not, and we are free today because millions of our citizens have concluded that nothing is more important than sustaining the liberty the rest of us enjoy. Celebrating John's birthday is notable not because we honor him as an individual but because it reminds us of the brave sacrifice of his, and this, generation.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, about Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Pearl Harbor attack. It's widely known he thought that attacking the United States was a bad idea, and that being at war with us for more than about six months would result in Japan's defeat.
"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant," he is reported to have said about the United States, "and fill him with a terrible resolve." He could have been talking about John Finn.