Medal of Honor recipient Navy Lt. John Finn holds his hat over his heart during the opening ceremonies of the 2009 Medal of Honor convention at Soldier Field in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green / The Associated Press)
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SAN DIEGO — Retired Navy Lt. John Finn — the first American to receive the nation's highest military award for defending sailors under a torrent of gunfire during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — died Thursday. He was 100.
Finn was the oldest of 97 Medal of Honor recipients from World War II still living. He died at a nursing home for veterans in Chula Vista, outside San Diego, according to a Navy statement.
Despite head wounds and other injuries, Finn, the chief of ordnance for an air squadron, continuously fired a .50-caliber machine gun from an exposed position as bullets and bombs pounded Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay. He then supervised the rearming of returning American planes.
"Here they're paying you for doing your duty, and that's what I did," Finn told The Associated Press before his 100th birthday. "I never intended to be a hero. But on Dec. 7, by God, we're in a war."
President Barack Obama said "his modesty does not diminish his extraordinary conduct or the incredible example he has set for our men and women in uniform and for all Americans."
"I had the privilege of meeting Lt. Finn last year, and I was struck by his warmth and humility," Obama said in a statement from the White House. "As we mark Memorial Day, and pay tribute all who have fallen in defense of this nation, the passing of Lt. Finn is a reminder of the sacrifices that generations have made to preserve the freedoms we hold dear."
Finn, who enlisted in the Navy just before his 17th birthday, received the http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=2036">Medal of Honor on Sept. 15, 1942.
He later served as a limited duty officer specializing in anti-aircraft guns in San Diego, Hawaii, Washington, Panama and aboard aircraft carriers, the Navy said.
Finn retired in 1956 after three decades of service, but he continued to help young sailors and stayed active in Navy organizations, Lt. Aaron Kakiel said.
"He's been a real inspiration to a number of our aviation ordnance men and an example for the entire Navy," he said.
Born July 23, 1909, in Los Angeles, Finn lived for 50 years on his ranch near Live Oak Springs, outside San Diego.
Finn died at the Veterans Home of California in Chula Vista, the Navy said. Officials initially said he had died at his ranch.
He will be buried with full military honors. Kakiel said the Navy was still working with his family members on the details.
Read Finn's Medal of Honor citation
* http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=2036">Military Times Hall of Valor: John Finn