The story of Edward "Butch" O'Hare (and his father Edward O'Hare, or "Easy Eddie" O'Hare) might be one of lessons learned, a father teaching his son the value of integrity, and of a war hero from a midwestern town. It also might be a story that confirms the notion that, depending on who you know and what you do, even if you're morally destitute, with enough cleverness you can live a life of great wealth and privilege and pass it on to your offspring, who achieves redemption of the family name after an amazing wartime feat and self sacrifice. Which one is it? We'll try to figure that one out.
Butch O'Hare, first and foremost, is known as one of St. Louis's most celebrated World War II heroes. He is the namesake of Chicago's O'Hare Airport (it was originally named Orchard Field) and we'll see why in a minute. Butch was born on March 13, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri to Edward J. and Selma O'Hare. His father was a wealthy businessman and attorney and as such, the O'Hare family was one of the wealthiest and well-known in the Gateway City at the time. They were one of the few families around who actually had an in-ground swimming pool in the yard complete with diving boards. Many of Butch's friends (many of those girls) said that it had been the only time they'd ever seen one.
The story of Butch actually begins with his father and how exactly he had brought the O'Hares to such wealth. His occupation as an attorney was the subject of much mystery and rumors. He was allegedly working for the notorious Al Capone, the infamous mob boss in Chicago during the Prohibition era in the United States. As Capone's attorney, Edward O'Hare was privy to a lot of sensitive information - valuable information - about the mob boss. Years after divorcing Buth's mother, and while seriously dating a woman named Sue, he was gunned down one night. Almost immediately, their family name was being smeared all over town, fueled by the rumors that "Easy Eddie" was killed because he had worked for Al Capone and was instrumental in getting him convicted of tax evasion by ponying up some of that sensitive information to the Feds for the trial. Butch's mother vehemently denied any mob involvement on the part of Eddie, but it did not keep the family from becoming pariahs around town.
The special on Butch O'Hare that I viewed one night while making spaghetti on my local PBS station was what inspired me to create this node. I find it interesting that the special, part of a series about interesting and famous St. Louis historical landmarks and people, only mentioned that it was a rumor that Edward J. O'Hare worked for the mob - it barely mentioned Capone. All of the internet research I've done, though, indicates that there wasn't much mystery to it; often it is reported as fact. Is it 100% substantiated now that Butch's father was working for Capone? Was his father a criminal, not reluctant at all about helping Capone and only dropped dime on him when he saw an opportunity to avoid prosecution on himself? If all my internet research is to be believed, the answer to both questions is yes, which would reveal a great bias in my local PBS station, KETC-9, which might not surprise some of you since it is a St. Louis station; it surprises me, however, because it is a very upstanding institution here, just as much about education and integrity as the entire PBS network is.
But, I'm getting off track. Butch's father's death probably had a great deal to do with his success in the military, in more ways than one. Edward was instrumental in getting Butch the great position he had in the Air Force; Butch perhaps did what he did in the military to polish his family name and restore it to its former glory in the community.
Butch was sent to Western Military Academy at the young age of 13. He became an excellent marksman and became president of the rifle club. This skill would later prove invaluable to him. But when he wasn't proving how good of a shot he was in school, he was at home living a life of leisure and luxury. He spent a lot of time with his group of friends, a good portion of it riding around in his automobile. He was the only one of his friends to have one. In the PBS special his former girlfriend said in an interview that once so many of them were piled in there that the car turned over while trying to make a curve. But the group merely brushed themselves off, tipped the car back up, piled in it and took off again!
In 1933, after graduation, he went to the US Naval Academy. Upon his graduation he received choice duty on the USS New Mexico (BB-40). It was required that all new officers spend at least two years in surface ships before specializing in aviation, so he would have to wait for his ultimate goal of taking to the air. He got there in 1939 when he began flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, learning the basics on N3N-1 and Stearman NS-1 biplane trainers. In November of that year was when his father was gunned down.
After the somber funeral, Butch returned to the Pensacola. He moved up to flying more advanced biplanes like the Vought O3U and SBU-1 scout bomber (it had a top speed 205 mph, which was fast for the time). In 1940, he completed the required flying in patrol planes and advanced land planes. In May of that year he was assigned to VF-3, the USS Saratoga's Fighting Squadron with CO Warren Harvey. The great John "Jimmy" Thatch, XO at the time, later succeeded Harvey as CO. In July Butch made his first career landing. Thach loved to outfly the new pilots by letting them gain altitude on him, let them think they were outflying him, but then Thach would just outmaneuver them. But O'Hare was different and despite Jimmy's best efforts, Butch kept him at bay. Obviously this impressed Thach immensely and he decided to mentor the young O'Hare boy.
O'Hare's days on the Saratoga ended in early 1941 when the ship underwent a major refit at Bremerton. That is when Butch took the assignment that would eventually make him famous. The V-3 transferred to the Enterprise. In July of that year more major life changes came for Butch. He met his future wife Rita and flew a Wildcat for the first time. Six weeks later they wed and went to Hawaii on their honeymoon.
Less than a year later, on February 20, 1942, Butch O'Hare displayed his flying and marksmanship skills in grand fashion. The aircraft carrier Lexington was on a highly dangerous mission to penetrate enemy waters north of New Ireland to attack Japanese shipping in the harbor at Rabaul. But they were discovered by a giant four-engine Kawanishi flying boat. Lieutenant Commander Thach shot the "snooper" down, but not before it had radioed the Lexington's coordinates. Each of the Wildcats, along with the ship's anti-aircraft guns, destroyed all but two of the Japanese bombers that had subsequently zoomed in to attack the Lexington. But nine more were on the way. Six Wildcats, O'Hare among them, took off from the Lexington to engage them. Butch and his wingman spotted the bombers in their deadly "V" formation and dove to try to head them off. Since the other pilots were too far away to reach them before they dropped their potentially devastating bombs, it was up to them to stop them. But wait! The wingman's guns were jammed! Suddenly, Butch O'Hare alone had to save the Lexington.
O'Hare put the pedal to the metal and plunged into the enemy formation. With tracers from the enemy fire all around him, he carefully aimed at the starboard engine of the last plane in the formation and fired. He blew the engine out of the plane and, as it went down, O'Hare began firing at another plane. Butch O'Hare kept firing until five of them were down! Thach claimed that he even saw three of them in flames, crashing to the ocean at the same time. O'Hare got lucky, for when he ran out of ammo the other Wildcats joined the fight. The rest of the Japanese planes were sent to a watery doom and the Lexington was saved!
Thach did the math and figured out that O'Hare had only spent sixty rounds of ammunition for each plane he downed, which was astounding. O'Hare was promptly promoted to Lieutenant Commander and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the mission that saved the Lexington, "one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation."
This catapulted Butch O'Hare into celebrity and kept him out of combat until late 1943. His medal presentation, bond tours, and other commitments kept him quite busy. He became the hometown hero back in St. Louis and all of a sudden it looked like everybody was forgetting about the possible mob ties to his late father. O'Hare returned to combat on October 10, 1943 and wasted no time proving his fighting skills again; this time him and the future ace Alex Vraciu (his section leader) brought down more Japanese planes.
In November, the need to develop night fighting skills presented itself. The U.S. landed in the Gilberts (Tarawa and Makin) with cover from the carriers. They ruled the air and easily fended off Japanese attacks on the Navy's warships. Faced with this difficulty, the Japanese began sending torpedo-armed Bettys on night missions against America's carriers. "Betty" was the U.S.'s nickname for a Japanese Navy Type 1 Attack Bomber. The Japs called it "Hamaki," which is Japanese for cigar, in recognition of its cigar shaped fuselage. O'Hare, now Enterprise Commander - Air Group (CAG), became involved in developing night fighting counter-attacks, the first carrier-based night fighter operations of the US Navy. The Hellcats were fast, but small, too small to carry the primitive and bulky radars. (Their bulkness can mainly be attributed to the fact that they used old vacuum tube technology.) The radars were carried on Avengers (or Grumman Torpedo Bombers, a state-of-the-art torpedo bomber by early 1940's standards) on the Enterprise and the plan called for the ship's Fighter Director Officer (FDO) to spot the incoming Bettys for the Hellcats and the Avengers would lead the them into position very close behind the Bettys. Then, with a visual on the their blue exhaust flames, the Hellcats would close in and shoot them down. This plan was extremely dangerous, but necessary to thwart the potentially destructive Bettys.
The first test combat of the plan was on the night of November 27, 1943. The "Black Panthers," as the night-fighting planes were dubbed, consisted of two sections of three planes (two Hellcats and one Avenger). Butch led his section from his F6F. Confusion and complications muddled the test. The Hellcats had trouble finding the Avengers. The FDO had trouble putting them on target. A lightly armed Avenger piloted by Lt. Cdr. Phillips found attacking Japanese bombers and shot two of them down. O'Hare and Warren Skon got into position behind the Avenger in the dark, their only light from the burning gasoline of the downed bombers below. The Avenger spotted a bomber behind the Hellcats and Phillips' gunner, Alvin Kernan, fired at it. Moments later they attempted to contact O'Hare by radio. He didn't respond. Butch O'Hare was lost, leaving behind his wife and daughter, who was not yet two years old at the time.
That fateful night mission was the last time anybody ever heard from or saw Butch O'Hare. Did Kernan mistakenly shoot him down? Did the Japanese bomber shoot O'Hare down? Was there even a bomber there? The popular theory is that O'Hare indeed was brought down by friendly fire in the confusion of the dangerous mission. However, for their roles in protecting the carrier and in carrying out the Navy's first combat night-fighting mission, Phillips, Rand, and Kernan were awarded Navy Crosses. A court martial, the other alternative, was avoided, the Navy probably not wanting to admit that one of its biggest heroes were brought down by friendly fire.
In the years and decades that followed many St. Louisans wanted to dedicate something or another to O'Hare's name: buildings, monuments, and the like. His mother and wife didn't want to allow it, citing that Butch would not have wanted it, that his military duty was only about protecting his country. However, in 1949, Col. Robert H. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, to lead the charge to rename the Chicago airport in O'Hare's honor. A virtually intact F4F-3 Wildcat, like the plane O'Hare had piloted, was recovered from Lake Michigan. It was restored to look like the exact one that Butch flew and it is now exhibited in Terminal Two at the west end of the ticketing lobby at O'Hare airport.
O'Hare became a World War II combat legend, despite lingering questions regarding his father and the manner in which he met his end. Was his dad really working for the Mob and Al Capone? Did he get to where he was in the military because of his family's standing in the community? Was it friendly fire that shot him down? These may never be answered completely, but it doesn't matter: St. Louis, Missouri will always regard him as one of their most famous war heroes.