TBT: When America needed a hero

Butch O'Hare seated in the cockpit  of his Grumman
F4F "Wildcat" fighter, circa Spring 1942.
Two months after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, America needed some good news.

The nation had been shocked by the crushing defeat suffered in the surprise Japanese attack on Hawaii on December 7, 1941. And it seemed like there had been nothing but bad news since. General Douglas MacArthur’s forces in the Philippines had been driven into retreat, and the capital city of Manila had fallen. Japanese troops had captured Hong Kong and Singapore. German armies stood within sight of Moscow, while their submarines prowled the U.S. east coast close enough to observe the lights of Atlantic City and Coney Island. Things were bad all around.

And then; just when the nation most needed a hero; came the story of a young naval aviator named Edward “Butch” O’Hare.

Edward O’Hare was born in St. Louis in 1914. His father, known as EJ, had been a lawyer in Chicago for Al Capone, before turning on the gangster and supplying his financial records to help the Internal Revenue Service in their investigation. EJ enrolled his son in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois, because he thought the boy was in need of a cure for laziness. EJ had discovered a passion for flying, and his son had picked it up too. Soon the younger O’Hare earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

As the Second World War was breaking out in Europe in the fall of 1939, Butch O’Hare was making training flights at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida. The next spring, he officially earned his aviator wings, having received especially high marks for gunnery. While ferrying an airplane across the country, O’Hare stopped in St. Louis to visit his mother. There he met his future wife, Rita, a nurse at a local hospital. They were married six weeks later, before O’Hare had to report back to duty.

F4F-3A Wildcats flown by LCMDR. Thach (F-1) and Lt. O'Hare (F-13)
during the aerial photography flight of April 11, 1942.
Late 1941 found O’Hare flying a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter plane off the deck of the aircraft carrier Saratoga. The ship was in port on the west coast undergoing maintenance when the news from Pearl Harbor arrived. A few weeks later, Saratoga was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and knocked out of the fight for several months. O’Hare’s squadron was transferred to her sister ship, USS Lexington.

Lexington was soon on her way to the South Pacific, where Japanese forces were threatening the key city of Rabaul in New Guinea. If Rabaul was lost, the line of communication between the United States and Australia would be severed. Lexington’s task force was being sent to stop them.

On February 20, 1942, a Japanese scout plane spotted the Lexington group approaching, and a flight of land-based bombers; planes nicknamed “Betty” by the Americans; took off to intercept them. Lexington and her escorting ships met the first wave of Japanese bombers with ferocious anti-aircraft fire from the ships and from Lexington’s fighter planes, and successfully fought off the attack.

Lieutenant O’Hare and his wingman launched from Lexington’s flight deck just as this air battle was ending. But seconds later came a call from Lexington’s combat information center that a second wave of Japanese planes was inbound from the opposite direction. The two Wildcat fighters were the only aircraft in position to intercept this attack wave.

Things immediately got worse. O’Hare’s wingman’s guns jammed, leaving him to fight the incoming bombers alone. With the survival of his carrier and his shipmates at stake, O’Hare didn’t hesitate. He swooped in on the attacking Japanese from behind and above, starting on the right side of their V-formation, and began knocking enemy planes from the sky.

It turned out that his gunnery instructors at Pensacola had been right: O’Hare precisely directed his fire into the right engine of the first of the Bettys, forcing it out of the attack. He quickly shifted fire to the next plane in line, setting it on fire. He swung around and attacked the formation again, blowing a hole in the fuel tank of a third bomber and forcing its pilot to turn for home. Soon a fourth bomber was crashing into the sea. O’Hare came back for a third pass, with only seconds to hit the bombers again before they reached the American ships.

Now he targeted the lead of the Japanese formation, shooting down the lead plane’s wingman before firing on the leader himself. The lead bomber was blown apart in a violent explosion as O’Hare came back in to finish off one of the damaged planes, but his guns ran out of ammunition before he could complete the job. He turned his plane away just as the American ships opened fire with their anti-aircraft guns.

The decimated Japanese force dropped their few remaining bombs, but all missed. Other American flyers arrived on the scene in time to witness at least three of the bombers crashing into the sea from O’Hare’s attacks. A review of the radar account of the battle by Lexington’s commanding officer, Captain Frederick Sherman, would credit O’Hare with shooting down five enemy planes in the space of just a few minutes, quite possibly saving the ship and everyone aboard.

Sherman and Vice Admiral Wilson Brown, the task force commander, recommended O’Hare for a medal for his action that afternoon. O’Hare didn’t want the recognition. “The other officers in the squadron would have done the same thing,” he said.

Higher-ranking officers and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had other ideas.

When Lexington returned to Pearl Harbor on March 26, Lieutenant O’Hare was greeted by a crowd of radio reporters and newspaper photographers. The story of his heroism had gripped the nation. Here was a lone American pilot who put his plane between a force of enemy bombers and his ship, then attacked; alone; over and over again, stopping only when his ammunition ran out.

With five enemy aircraft shot down, O’Hare had become an Ace. Furthermore, he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in aerial combat, at grave risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”

Medal of Honor presentation on April 21, 1942.
Roosevelt would personally bestow the Medal upon O’Hare; along with a promotion to Lieutenant Commander; at a White House ceremony less than two months after the battle. O’Hare toured the nation, rallying support for the war effort. He made a special trip to Bethpage, New York, to visit employees at the Grumman factory where his airplane had been built, thanking them for their hard work and encouraging them to keep churning out aircraft to help win the war.

Meanwhile, the fight in the Pacific continued. Soon, O’Hare was back with his squadron, and a year later he was the air group commander aboard the carrier Enterprise, now flying the F6F Hellcat fighter. In that role, O’Hare devised an innovative approach to finding the enemy during the night: two Hellcats would accompany a radar-equipped Avenger torpedo plane to hunt down and attack Japanese aircraft in the dark.

O’Hare got the chance to try out his new tactic in November 1943 when Enterprise was assigned to the task force covering the U.S. invasion of Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. It was during one of these night engagements that Butch O’Hare’s Hellcat was shot down by a Japanese fighter. His body was never recovered.

Rear Admiral Arthur Radford, commanding the Enterprise task force and a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled of O’Hare that he “never saw one individual so universally liked.” O’Hare’s Western Military Academy classmate Paul Tibbetts, who would later fly the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, recalled that O’Hare was, “a hell of a fine man.”

Lieutenant Commander O’Hare’s memory continued to be honored after the war. In 1945, the Navy commissioned a destroyer, USS O’Hare, which would defend America’s shores for close to 30 years. Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick proposed in 1947 that the city’s new airport be named in honor of the young pilot whose family had such unique ties to the city. The idea caught on, and on September 17, 1949, Chicago’s City Council officially named the new field “O’Hare International Airport.”

In 1963, when O’Hare Airport was formally dedicated, President John F. Kennedy, himself a veteran of the Pacific War, laid a wreath at the memorial on the airport’s grounds honoring O’Hare.

The Grumman Wildcat fighter which O’Hare flew on his Medal of Honor mission was lost by another pilot not long after the flight. Today a replica of the Wildcat stands in Terminal 2 at O’Hare Airport as part of a memorial to a young, Illinois-educated pilot who saved his ship and gave a battered nation a hero just when it needed one the most.