If there was one supreme miracle that emerged from America’s defeat at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it was Japan’s failure to find and destroy the four U.S. aircraft carriers which should have been docked there. For all practical purposes, those carriers and the air power they projected constituted our nation’s principal remaining military footprint in the vast Pacific frontier in which the war with the Empire of Japan would be fought.
One of those carriers – USS Lexington – was assigned a dangerous mission in February, 1942, just sixty days into the conflict, when ordered to interdict enemy shipping at Rabaul, the Japanese stronghold in the New Britain Island chain. Unfortunately, a Japanese long distance patrol aircraft spotted the flattop while still hundreds of miles away from the target, and flights of twin-engine “Betty” bombers were dispatched. Just as it appeared the attack had been fought off by U.S. Navy fighters and the ship’s own firepower, a second formation of nine “Bettys” lined up for a bombing run. Six F4F Wildcats managed to take off from Lexington’s deck in time to carry out an interception, but within minutes, fuel, distance and ammunition limitations left Lt. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare and his wingman the last line of defense. When his wingman had to peel away with his guns jammed, O’Hare was left alone to save the Lexington. His expert marksmanship and superb flying skills came to bear as he repeatedly flew directly into the teeth of the bomber formations, quickly knocking five aircraft from the sky. One observer noted that three burning Bettys could be seen falling at one time, and when the Grumman’s guns were examined after the fight, it was calculated that he had only had to expend an average of sixty rounds from his .50 caliber machine guns for each shoot-down. He ran out of ammo just as several more Wildcats arrived on the scene.
For this action, O’Hare was promoted to Lt. Commander and became the first naval aviator in WW II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, presented by President Franklin Roosevelt himself, at a time when the U.S. was badly in need of some positive war news. The citation read, in part “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in aerial combat, at grave risk of his own life and beyond the call of duty. . . he undoubtedly saved his ship from serious damage.” Before returning to combat, the airman went on war bond tours, taught aerial combat tactics to new trainees, and got to spend time with his wife Rita, and baby daughter Kathleen whom he hadn’t previously gotten to meet.
Edward H. O’Hare was born March 13, 1914 in St. Louis, the son of a well-to-do lawyer and businessman also named Edward. The pudgy son would quickly be distinguished by the neighborhood nickname of “Butch” and would fall in love with aviation from an early age. His family sent him to Western Military Academy at age 13 where he became well known for his marksmanship on the rifle range, and set his sights on the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated from Annapolis in 1937 and was assigned to sea-going duty (required at the time), until finally able to take Navy pilot training in 1939. (It is instructive to note that the majority of his Academy and early training classmates gave their lives in World War II.)
Part of the O’Hare story involves Edward “Senior”, a longtime personal attorney and business associate of the Chicago mobster, Al Capone. It was “Easy Eddie” who became a secret informer for the FBI, and whose testimony eventually sent the gangster to prison. The elder O’Hare was gunned down by Capone’s “hit men” in November, 1939. Whether relevant or not, the relationship between the father’s need for “redemption” and the son’s intense sense of honor has become a matter of mythical dimension for some writers.
When Lt. Commander O’Hare returned to the Pacific in November, 1943, the Gilbert campaign was underway, and the Japanese had adopted a new strategy which favored nighttime attacks on the U.S. fleet. Radar was in its infancy, and O’Hare – now Air Group Commander (CAG) on the carrier Enterprise – was experimenting with a new interception technique employing radar-directed “night-fighters”. On the night of November 20th, O’Hare, now flying the newer and faster Grumman F6F “Hell Cat” fighter led his “Black Panthers” against a flight of Mitsubishi G5M “Betty” bombers, in a dangerous maneuver in which the heavier U.S. TBF “Avenger” aircraft carrying radar equipment, guided the F6Fs into attack position. In the course of this darkness-shrouded melee, O’Hare’s fighter disappeared from radar and went missing.
For sixty years, the incident would be described as a “friendly-fire” loss, by a succession of chroniclers who all bought into a scenario penned by a writer who wasn’t there, and never interviewed any of the survivors. (And who may not have been familiar with the deadly 20mm canon carried in the “Betty’s” tail.) Current and more persuasive research convinces me that O’Hare was indeed shot down by the enemy.
Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare would receive two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. And most memorable of all, a time-honored Chicago airport originally known as “Orchard Field” (ORD) would be renamed in 1949 “O’Hare International Airport”, the third busiest airport in the world.
I think his Dad – “Easy Eddie” would be proud.
Butch O’Hare poses beside a Navy F4F-3 Grumman Wildcat fighter in 1942. The most highly- regarded book on this subject is “Fateful Rendezvous. . .” by Ewing & Lundstrom
The Grumman Aircraft F4F Wildcat fighter was the best carrier plane available to go up against the Japanese in 1942. It would be succeeded by the F6F Hellcat which stood a better chance against the famous and agile Mitsubishi “Zero”.