I met John Finn at a Memorial Day service on Mount Soledad a few years ago. He sat quietly in the last row of dignitaries seated behind the podium during the ceremonies. As I darted about taking photos for the local newspaper, he caught my eye and we exchanged quiet nods as the keynote speaker rambled on. I didn't know who he was at the time but despite his age and obvious frailty he projected the unmistakable swagger of "that generation" - the veterans of WWII.
At the very end of the proceedings, the speaker turned to look at John and said how deeply honored he was that John - who was the oldest living recipient of the Medal of Honor at the time – had trekked out to attend the Memorial Service that day. The crowd responded with a long standing ovation and John rose slowly and unsteadily from his chair , drawing his hand to his head in a salute.
It was a touching moment and I made a few photos with my long lens. I thought that it would nice to have a cleaner photo of John though so, as the proceedings ended and the dignitaries began to leave their seats, I made my way over to John and introduced myself. He was hard of hearing and two people were assisting him to walk. We spoke about his service and the medal. Even though he must have answered the same questions numerous times, he was patient with me and his answers seemed spontaneous, sharp and witty.
We spoke for a couple of minutes at the most but I was very conscious of his frail physical condition and didn’t want to keep him too long. I asked if I could take a quick photo with the Mount Soledad Memorial in the background. As I stepped back to line up the shot you see above, I bumped into someone. I turned around to apologize and saw that there were about 50 people gathered behind me. Other veterans, Marines in uniform, young men and women - they had converged on the stage right after the ceremony, pushing past Mayor Jerry Sanders, the other politicians and dignitaries directly to John. They had been standing there listening to our conversation in silence absorbing every word. I barely had time to make this frame before they pressed around me, reaching forward to shake his hand, expressing their gratitude and appreciation. The two people who were helping him were obviously used to this and began to gently but swiftly move him on toward a waiting car.
It was an amazing sight to see so many people treat this old man with such respect and reverence, a touching experience that I will always remember.
John died at the age of 100 on May 27. RIP.
You can read about John’s actions at Pearl Harbor that led to him receiving the Medal of Honor and much more in this Washington Post piece from last week here:
Copyright Ronan Gray, 2010, all rights reserved.