PINE VALLEY, CALIF. — In a clear, strong voice, John Finn told the group that gathered to honor him Saturday that he did not understand all the fuss being made about him.
"I can't believe this," Finn told the 500-plus people outside the La Posta Diner. "All I ever was was an old swab jockey. . . . What I did I was being paid for."
What Finn did was take control of a .50-caliber machine gun at the Navy base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and fire at the Japanese attack planes that violent morning that changed the world, Dec. 7, 1941.
Wounded five times, he refused to be evacuated and kept firing at the planes that were strafing the base and its sailors. Watching Finn's courage, other sailors rallied to his side, manning other guns.
For his actions, Finn was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Now he's less than a month from his 100th birthday, making him the nation's oldest Medal of Honor recipient and the only living recipient from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Several veterans groups and others assembled at the diner Saturday to honor Finn in advance of his July 23 birthday. It was a morning full of commendations, including a proclamation from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors marking Saturday as John Finn Day.
"He looks great, doesn't he?" said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
The event was organized by Bud Wharton, the La Posta Diner's owner. Finn's son, Joe, worked at the La Posta for several years. Located on Old Highway 80, 50 miles east of San Diego, the diner is a favorite haunt of motorcyclists tooling along Interstate 8.
At Wharton's request, dozens of motorcyclists revved their engines in appreciation of Finn. A plaque honoring Finn from the John B. Squibob Chapter 1853 of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, a Western state historical group, was placed at the diner.
Finn, a Los Angeles native, was a chief petty officer and aviation ordnance man on the morning of the attack. He retired as a lieutenant in 1956 and has lived in eastern San Diego County.
He's had a series of honors recently. He stood beside President Obama on March 25 as the president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
A ceremony in Finn's honor was held last week at the Navy facility in Bahrain. And a flag is making its way to Finn after flying above several aircraft carriers.
"He represents all that is good and right with this country," said Navy Capt. Russ Thompson, commanding officer of the El Centro Naval Air Facility, who emceed Saturday's event.