TRIBUTE: A legend is not a made-up story but a true story made somewhat bigger than life as circumstances warrant. Former Glen Rock Police Chief Neil Finn, who died Friday at 88 was just such a legend.
Some parts of the legend weren’t 100% accurate, but the facts, more often than not, were actually better that the stories.
The key to the legend was that Neil was a Marine during World War II. The fact is that he volunteered as a kid and served as a Navy Corpsman — a combat medic — during the Battle of Shuri Castle on Okinawa, the very last ground engagement the Marines fought against the Japanese and one of the second world war’s bloodiest military actions.
Surrounded by caves and tunnels, Shuri Castle wasn’t actually a castle — as in Downton Abbey or Disneyland — but a medieval Manchu Chinese ruin atop one of a series of hills where you could get shot in the back while making a frontal assault. Not many places in Europe or the Pacific had that reputation.
The Japanese knew that Okinawa could be used to stage air raids against Japan, and although it was late in the war, they literally fought to the death.
The other Marines considered Neil Finn, all of 17 years old, one of their own. “Doc,” as they called him, treated 200 combat-wounded Marines and fellow Corpsmen, saving some of their lives. But he couldn’t save his best friend, an Irish kid from Boston a year or two older than Neil was who was disemboweled by a shell fragment — ours or theirs, nobody knew — and who died in his arms, hopefully given the second shot of morphine before the shock wore off.
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Arrangements for Neil Finn, who was Glen Rock’s police chief for 33 years: Visiting hours 2-4 and 7-9 p.m. Tuesday at Vander Plaat-Caggiano Funeral Home, 13-31 Saddle River Road, Fair Lawn. Memorial service 10 a.m. Wednesday at the funeral home, followed by interment in George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus. READ MORE….
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The closest Neil himself came to getting shot was when he set his steel helmet down on the remnants of stone wall and a bullet knocked it flying through the air. The helmet came down with a bullet hole on each side.
“If your thick Irish head had been inside of it, it would only have a hole in one side,” a tough Irish sergeant told him.
Neil never told me these stories to boast. He was a modest man, and a very honest one. I heard them when one of my tutorial students, a Korean kid who later got into a U.S. medical school, needed to interview a World War II veteran for extra credit in a Ridgewood High School U.S. history project. I took him to meet Neil, who was glad to oblige.
Neil knew as well as I did that there were 200,000 Koreans soldiers serving in the Japanese Army but he treated the Korean kid like a long-lost nephew — and at the end of the interview Yoon thanked him for his service with tears in his eyes.
His love for contemporary non-fiction gave Neil a perspective on the world that is often lacking in people in certain lines of work. He was also more sensitive than he let on, even about himself. He got so tired of people kidding him about his awful handwriting, in fact, that he taught himself calligraphy — and when he discovered that nobody had written a one-man biography about Major John Andre, the Swiss-born British officer who took the drop in the Benedict Arnold treason case during the Revolutionary War, he wrote one himself — with a pen.
The manuscript was entirely in a long-hand script so flawless that it looked as if it had been done by a machine.
When I checked the book against “The Traitor and the Spy” by James Thomas Flexner, it was factually accurate to the point where I spotted exactly one small mistake in several hundred pages.
One misleading part of the legend, which sometimes cropped up in nasty politics, was that Neil was secretly the brother of two other Glen Rock police officers. Wrong.
It was no secret to anybody that Bert and Bob Kerrigan, fraternal twins, were Neil’s full brothers. Their mother died in childbirth, and when the orphaned twins were adopted by an aunt, Neil’s father — also a Glen Rock police officer — authorized the foster father and mother to give both boys their own name to avoid confusion.
All three brothers were intelligent and effective police officers, and the fact that they were brothers was no secret to anybody who knew Glen Rock — or appreciated their honest and noble work.
One of the last times I saw Neil Finn was at a Memorial Day parade a few years ago. He had just read one of my books, and to my astonishment he shook hands with me and then told me it was an honor to know me. I don’t need to say that the feeling was more than mutual.
Neil’s military service was at least 200 hundred times more impressive than my own — I volunteered for Army Airborne, took a stateside jump injury and honorable discharge — and his contribution to the community of Glen Rock and to Bergen County was the equal as anyone’s.
I was the one honored to write about him.
By John Koster
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