by: Rick Rogers

Staff Writer

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LED BY THE NATION’S OLDEST LIVING MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT and dozens of other San Diego County veterans, Pearl Harbor survivors are gathered in Hawaii today for the 65th anniversary of the attack that plunged the United States into World War 11 and them into history.

They were young men, if not boys, when Japanese torpedo-bombers struck on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. Now, the veterans have made what might amount to a final pilgrimage, and one focused on a hauntingly familiar message: America can be surprised only if it’s not watchful.

The survivors have repeated the theme of “ever vigilant” throughout the decades at reunions nationwide. But there’s an unmistakable urgency this year.

The veterans, who are dying at an average rate of three a day, believe this is their last hurrah . So they decided that their week-long commemoration in Oahu should be solely about them, their families and their buddies who didn’t survive the war.

This is the first time that we are going to have ceremonies strictly for the service members and their offspring . In the past, we have been used as a photo oppor-tunity for politicians at our own memorial,” said Pearl Harbor Survivors Association spokesman Arthur Herriford, whose group has gathered in Hawaii every five years since 1966 for a memorial service. This is our time to pay our respects to our fallen shipmates. This will probably be the last time,” said Herriford, 84, of Van Nuys, who was assigned to the light cruiser Detroit when the Japanese pounced that Sunday morning.

In 1991, the association had 18,000 members. Today, there are barely 5,000.

Some of the group’s chapters have closed due to a lack of members. The sense of finality seems to have struck a chord among the veterans . The reunion’s organizers initially thought 1,000 participants would be a good showing, considering the age of the survivors — all in their 80s and 90s — and the expense of the trip. Instead, 2,000 people are expected, including nearly 300 veterans. Many of them have made the commemoration a family affair by inviting their wives, children and grandchildren.

At nearly 100 people, the San Diego County contingent is the largest of any region represented at the event.

Fund raising efforts throughout the region enabled dozens of the veterans to travel to Oahu one last time to memorialize the events of Dec. 7.

“We figure this will be our last big ceremony,” Herriford said. “Five years from now, (2011) there won’t be many of us left” to gather in Pearl Harbor.

Campo’s John W. Finn , 97, is among the oldest survivors at today’s event and is the country’s oldest living Medal of Honor recipient. Finn is likely the first American hero of World War II, a depiction he would probably dispute. He showed his mettle Dec. 7 at the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station shortly before the main Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. His medal citation reads:

                    “During the first attack by Japanese airplanes. . .

                    Finn promptly secured and manned a .50-

                    caliber machine gun, completeiy exposed under

                     heavy enemy machine gun strafing fire. Al-

                    though painfully wounded many times, he contin-

                    ued 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 com-

                    plete disregard for his own personal safety.”

Adm. Chester W. Nimitz buttoned a blue ribbon with the bronze medal around Finn’s neck Sept. 15, 1942, aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise, which would become World War II’s most decorated ship.

At the time, a newspaper in Hawaii published a photo of Finn with Niinitz and Adm . Frederick “Bull” Halsey. The story quoted Nimitz as saying: “Finn’s magnificent courage in the face of almost certain death helped repel the Japanese attack. ... His complete disregard for his own life in staying with his machine gun . . . is the kind of American fighting spirit necessary to victory.”

Finn, then 33, was one of five Pearl Harbor survivors to receive the medal. Eleven other Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously.

The ounce of bronze changed Finn’s life and made him, as a member of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society put it, a rock star among fellow veterans. But Finn, whose eyes are the color of the light-blue ribbon that holds the country’s highest military honor, is in Hawaii this week for the same reasons as all other survivors.

‘This is going to be the last hurrah, and I certainly should be among those guys who are not around for the next reunion in Hawaii,” said Finn, who went through boot camp in Point Loma in 1926. “(The reunions) have gotten more intense as the years have gone by.” More intense because the veterans know their time is growing short.

At 85, Ben Boosinger is a younger member of San Diego County’s chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.  “We are down to a very few members. I think because of our age, we look at each other after our monthly meetings and honestly say that we hope to see each other next month,” he said. “It is important for us combatants in arms to remember each other on our way out, and to remember our fallen brothers who never really knew why they died.”

Three days after the Dec. 7th attack, Boosinger went to a different Navy ship and continued his wartime service. Most of the other survivors did, too, thinking they would soon return to Pearl Harbor to reminisce with former shipmates. “Some will see each other (today) for the first time since 1941,” Boosinger said.

Most importantly, he stressed, the Pearl Harbor attack should serve as a warning about what may happen when Americans drop their guard.

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Diane Bell

Pearl Harbor hero, 97

retraces his footsteps.

Sixty-five years ago today, John Finn was firing at Japanese planes about to attack Pearl Harbor. Finn made his heroic assault on the invading force as the planes flew over Oahu’s Kaneohe Bay military base en route to Pearl Harbor.

 On Tuesday, Finn retraced his steps of that morning and stood where he waged his machine-gun battle that won him the nation’s highest military award — a Medal of Honor. He had been nat home when enemy planes first flew over. His wife then innocently remarked that the plane was flying in the wrong direction and the pilot would surely get in trouble.

That plane’s deadly mission became clear when artillery fire erupted from the Kaneohe Bay airfield. Finn, chief petty officer and chief of ordnance, dashed to his headquarters in one of the hangars, where he organized his gathering team. Then he single-handedly dragged one of two gun mounts used for training about 40 feet to a concrete parking area and began firing a .50-caliber machine gun at the planes.

The hangars and all 33 of the on-base PBY flying boats were quickly destroyed by the Japanese. The smoke was blinding. but Finn is credited by some with having shot down one of the enemy planes. He says he aimed at every plane he saw. In his two-hour battle, he seemed oblivious to his own wounds from 21 pieces of shrapnel that riddled his body.

When asked recently if he was afraid, Finn replied, “I was too scared to be afraid.”

Finn, who now lives in Campo , was one of the first World War II Medal of Honor recipients . Despite his advancing age, his memory remains as sharp as a bayonet. Now 97, he has been called a living history lesson and a national treasure on legs. Finn has shaken the hand of every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt Autograph seekers still hound him.

A large building on the Kaneohe Bay military base bears his name and a painting in the mess hall depicts his heroic act. Finn has returned to Hawaii many times, but nearly half of his colleagues in San Diego’s Chapter 3 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association have never been back. So it became Finn’s dream to help them get to the association’s final reunion taking place this week in Hawaii.

Three San Diegans — David Brown, Dan DeMarco and Ladrue Jordan — formed a non-profit group called Pearl Harbor 65 to make Finn’s dream come true. Last spring they began making phone solicitations, sending out fliers and contacting defense firms for donations to cover the air fare, hotel and tour costs — at $1,207.41 a person — so that every survivor could attend who was willing and able. Fifty-three of the 126 San Diego County survivors, along with 30 caretakers, left Sunday on the six-day trip.

On Tuesday, the governor of Arizona hosted a dinner honoring the group in Hawaii. It was a black-tie affair, but Finn opted for a Hawaiian shirt and his Pearl Harbor Survivors hat. He gets special dispensation.

DeMarco, who logged more than 500 phone appeals — they are still short about $20,000 —isn’t even a veteran. He was spared serving in Vietnam because he drew a high draft number. But he is grateful to all war wterans and long ago vowed to do something some day to show it. “I just wanted to say,    Thanks,’ “DeMarco said.


San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper

Thursday, December 7, 2006 (Cover story)

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