The Link Between A War Hero And Infamous Mobster

ErikBrown Edward “Butch” O’Hare in his Grumman F4F “Wildcat” (1942) — US Navy Photo [Public Domain]
“Having lost the assistance of his teammates, Lieutenant O’Hare interposed his plane between his ship and an advancing enemy formation of…twin-engine heavy bombers. Without hesitation, alone and unaided, he repeatedly attacked this enemy formation, at close range in the face of intense combined machinegun and cannon fire…shot down five enemy bombers and severely damaged a sixth before they reached the bomb release point. As a result of his gallant action — one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation — he undoubtedly saved his carrier from serious damage.”
Medal of Honor Citation for Edward “Butch” O’Hare
According to Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom in their book Fateful Rendezvous, chaos erupted on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington on February 20, 1942. A chutai, a squadron of Japanese land-based bombers, were attacking the carrier group off the coast of Papua New Guinea and all hell was breaking loose. Ed O’Hare had just managed to get his F4F Wildcat off the flight deck as a damaged Japanese bomber attempted to crash itself into the carrier on a suicide run.

As O’Hare’s plane took off, the anti-aircraft guns of the Lexington lit up. Machine guns and cannons erupted at the malevolent green and brown bomber careening towards the carrier. As the bomber was torn to pieces, O’Hare got his bearings of the situation. A combat air patrol was already in the skies attacking the chutai, knocking planes out of the air as fire from their own ships came dangerously close to the fighter planes.

O’Hare and his partner Marion Dufilho were told to sit tight in reserve. As they stuck close to the fleet, they watched an elaborate acrobatics show unfold between fighters, bombers, and the hellfire from the ships below unloading on the skies. Suddenly, O’Hare and Dufilho were notified that a second chutai of bombers was coming in from another direction.

The formation of eight bombers was only twelve miles away and the two reserve pilots were ordered to engage. As standard procedure, both pilots primed their guns, firing a quick test burst. O’Hare’s fifty-caliber guns lit off, however, Dufilho’s jammed. Now, only one active plane was left to engage the squadron alone.

The Second Wave

“All of us on the flight deck and the bridges became so intent watching the aerial battles that it was hard to concentrate on our duties. At times the entire ship’s company burst into cheers as our fighters shot the bombers down into the sea. It was not as though we were in the midst of a life and death struggle, but as if we were at a baseball game.”
— Admiral Wilson Brown, “Fateful Rendezvous: The Life of Butch O’Hare,” Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom

O’Hare and his toothless wingman Dufilho spotted a V-shaped formation of Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers. These planes came equipped with machine guns on the plane’s top, sides, and rear — with the gun in the tail being a particularly deadly 20mm cannon. The formation was meant to give the chutai overlapping fire protection.

O’Hare tried to wave Dufilho back to the carrier, but he wouldn’t leave the fight. Although the second Wildcat might serve as a distraction, O’Hare had to attack the entire squadron with only 450 rounds of ammo. In other words, he had only ten short bursts of fire to take out the threat, it was a next to impossible task for his first combat flight. Fortunately, the two Wildcats weren’t noticed by the chutai.

The Japanese planes continued to the Lexington as O’Hare came in on a high-side pass to avoid the dreaded tail gun and hit the back of the formation. A quick burst of fire dropped a plane out of line, followed by a second. He’d have to dodge the planes as they dropped out of formation, then readjust to make another pass. He’d sweep his Wildcat around again to make a second attack.

Two F4F Wildcats, Edward O’Hare In Rear Plane (1942) — Photo By H.S. Fawcett, U.S. Navy, [Public Domain]

On the second high-side pass, he knocked two more Betty’s out of the group. But the Japanese guns managed to strike his plane at least three times. O’Hare pressed on for a third pass, but this time the air around him started to fill with black puffs of smoke — his own ships were firing anti-aircraft rounds in his direction. Still, he came in for a third pass at the chutai, knocking another two out of formation — one of them exploded violently as the engine blew off the plane.

As O’Hare ran out of ammunition, he could only watch the remaining bombers attack the carrier — each bomb missing its target. The closest they got was sprinkling water on the deck when the explosives went off in the ocean.

The Chicago Mafia and “Easy” Eddie O’Hare

Edward O’Hare was awarded the medal of honor for his bravery that day. His trainers in the academy likely only saw a promising pilot from the Midwest and nothing more. However, in training, he had to cope with shadows from his family and youth. He’d also have to deal with the death of his father in 1939 — not a traditional death or a traditional man.

His father known as “Easy” Eddie O’Hare was gunned down in his car, likely by infamous mobster Al “Scarface” Capone. Eddie had gone to law school when his son was young, eventually making a name for himself in Chicago. As fact-checking site Snopes points out, the elder O’Hare made it big by doing shady things. Eventually, not only was he Al Capone’s lawyer, but also his business partner.

While “Easy” Eddie liked easy money and was more than willing to bend the law, he pushed his son along a different route. He did whatever he could to make the boy happy, and also invested heavily in his education. This eventually led his son into the naval academy and flight.

Whether out of remorse or trying to save himself with a plea-deal, the elder O’Hare turned against his partner Capone. As can be expected, this didn’t turn out well. However, his son’s name fared much better in the annals of history.

The unforgettable O’Hare
Japanese G4M “Betty” Bombers (Circa 1940)— Wikimedia Commons

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, John Blades notes that Edward O’Hare was the first ace pilot in the Pacific for his aerobatics that day. The military paraded him around to boost public morale and sell war bonds. However, the pilot never let fame go to his head. Ewing and Lundstrom, in their book, even note that O’Hare took the time to write a thank you letter to the employees at Grumman for building his plane.

Edward could have taken the easy path and just been a spokesman for the military but, instead, he asked to go back to the war. Unfortunately, O’Hare was shot down on a night-time test mission in the Pacific in November 1943. If the name O’Hare sounds familiar to you, it should. The large airport in Chicago, O’Hare International Airport, is named after him.

While most airports in the country are often named after presidents, this particular one is named after someone who didn’t take the “easy” route

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

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