For years I taught a course on the history of World War II. I liked to ask the students if any of them had ever flown into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Invariably, one or more in each class had. This was not surprising, because for the last 40 or 50 years O’Hare has been the first- or second-busiest airport in the world, as measured by landings and takeoffs. I then asked if anyone knew the origin of the airport’s name. “Probably some Chicago mayor,” was the most common response.
The airport’s namesake, Edward Henry O’Hare, was born in March 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was followed by sisters Patricia and Marilyn, who described him as the ideal big brother. O’Hare’s father, Edgar Joseph “E.J.” O’Hare, taught him to hunt, fish, and swim, and he, in turn, would later help teach his sisters to do the same. One thing above all, though, interested O’Hare, and that was speed. Whether it was a wagon, a bicycle, a horse, a motorcycle, or a car, O’Hare wanted to be riding in it or on it and going as fast as possible. By the time he was a teenager, he was riding motorcycles and driving cars. He didn’t care much for mechanics and let others soup up engines, but he was a demon in the saddle or behind the wheel.
By the time O’Hare reached his teenage years, his attorney father had developed business interests in Chicago and Florida, and E.J. began worrying that his frequent absences were allowing his son to slack off. Discipline was what the young lad needed! O’Hare suddenly found himself enrolled at the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois, some 25 miles from the family home in St. Louis.
Surprisingly, he adjusted to his new no-nonsense existence fairly quickly and earned good grades. He played guard on the football team, but was no better than average. At the same time, he excelled on the firing ranges and became the rifle team’s captain as a senior. His marksmanship was outstanding with pistol, rifle, and shotgun. O’Hare graduated with honors in 1932.
With Missouri congressman John J. Coch ran sponsoring him, O’Hare won an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1933. He suffered through his pleb year like all the rest. He was going to play football but decided it was too time-consuming. He did play on the water-polo team, though, which allowed others at the academy to see another side of the easygoing and generous guy. In competition, O’Hare turned aggressive.
Life at the academy improved significantly for O’Hare and his classmates after their torturous pleb year. By the time he was a senior, a midshipman 1st class, he was actually enjoying himself. Although he liked to sail—he had his own small sailboat moored at the academy—he was not a big fan of the summer cruises on ships he described as “old tubs” and “scows.” What he wanted to do was fly. He graduated with his class in June 1937. The class that had started out 417 strong in 1933 was now down to 323. O’Hare left Annapolis with a commission as an ensign, a new Chevy his father had given him, and the nickname Butch, the result of a comment made by his sister, Patsy, at an academy function.
O’Hare spent the next two years serving aboard the battleship New Mexico before reporting to flight school at Pensacola in June 1939. Having a natural aptitude for flying, O’Hare performed well in all phases of training, excelling especially in aerial gunnery. He received his wings in May 1940. In July, he was welcomed aboard the carrier Saratoga in San Diego Bay and assigned to Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3). Determined to become a valued pilot in VF-3, O’Hare flew at every possible opportunity. He was fortunate that Saratoga’s flight officer was Lt. John “Jimmy” Thach, who looked for two qualities above all others in his fighter pilots: natural aptitude and competitive spirit.
Thach liked to take his cocky young pilots aloft to dogfight with him one-on-one, showing them they still had a lot to learn. When O’Hare’s turn came, Thach was in for a surprise. O’Hare, said Thach, “didn’t make any mistakes. I did everything I could to fool him and shake him, and he came right in on me and stuck there, and he could have shot me right out of the air.” Thach watched O’Hare closely during the next month and concluded the young ensign “had a dedication to winning” and took to dogfighting “faster than anyone else I’ve ever seen.” In August, O’Hare was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade).
The next year saw O’Hare on Pacific exercises with both Saratoga and Lexington, as he became one of the first to fly the new Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, and helped Jimmy Thach develop a dogfighting tactic to counter the superior speed and maneuverability of the Japanese Zero. The “Thach weave” would become critical to the Navy’s success in the Pacific.
O’Hare also got married. While O’Hare was visiting friends who had just had a baby, a nurse, Rita Wooster, walked into the hospital room. O’Hare took one look and fell in love. He asked her to marry him that night. Rita was stunned and, although taken by the handsome pilot, offered numerous reasons not to rush into anything. Six weeks later they were married in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Phoenix, Rita wearing Patsy’s wedding dress.
By the time Pearl Harbor was bombed, the O’Hares had settled into married life in an apartment in Coronado. That ended when Saratoga sailed out of San Diego Bay on the morning of December 8, bound for Hawaii. A week later O’Hare and the others were looking at the devastation at Pearl. It was every bit as bad as they had been told. Within days Saratoga was off again, now on a course for besieged Wake Island. Just when the carrier was coming within range of the island, word came to turn back: Wake had fallen. Moreover, there were two Japanese carriers in the area with far more air power than Saratoga could muster. O’Hare and the other pilots were outraged, not so much at the Japanese forces overrunning Wake—they had expected that—but at turning back without a fight. One pilot exclaimed this was “a war between two yellow races.”
Now began several weeks of patrolling the waters west of the Hawaiian Islands. While at sea, O’Hare was notified of his promotion to full lieutenant. That may have boosted his morale some after the disappointment of the Wake Island mission, but then, on January 11, a Japanese sub put a torpedo into Saratoga, killing six sailors and causing extensive damage. The carrier limped back to Pearl and would be out of service for several weeks. In the meantime, VF-3 was attached to Lexington’s air group.
Early in February, Lexington left Pearl as part of a task force of cruisers and destroyers headed to the Southwest Pacific. By the early morning of February 20, Lexington had moved to a position off the coast of Bougainville, a large, jungle-clad island in the Solomon chain. Bougainville lay some 400 miles east of the Japanese base at Rabaul, recently taken from the Australians. The Japanese were rapidly developing Rabaul, at the northeast end of New Britain Island, possibly as a staging ground for an invasion of Australia, only 900 miles to the southwest. It was the task group’s mission to acquire intelligence on Japanese activity in the Solomons and, especially, at Rabaul.
Soon Lexington’s radar picked up a bogey, then another, and finally a third. Jimmy Thach and several others were sent in search. The Wildcat pilots discovered the three widely scattered planes. All proved long-range, Japanese reconnaissance aircraft—flying boats—and all three were shot down. Had they spotted the American task force, and had they radioed Rabaul?
A couple of hours later Lexington’s radar revealed a formation of nine planes headed toward the carrier. There were already a half-dozen Wildcats aloft on combat air patrol, and more were launched. The Wildcat pilots found the incoming planes, which would be called Bettys—the Navy’s identification code for the Mitsubishi G4M bombers. Not only could the twin-engine Betty bomb, but its crew of seven could put up a stout defense with the plane’s 20 mm cannon and four machine guns. Moreover, these crews on the incoming Bettys were the ones who had destroyed nearly all American aircraft on Clark Field in the Philippines—on the same day other Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor.
The faster and more maneuverable Wild cats darted in and out of the bomber formation and began flaming the Bettys, but not without loss. Two Wildcats were blown out of the sky. One of the pilots died instantly when a shell from a Betty’s 20 mm hit him directly in the cockpit, but the other pilot was able to parachute from his burning fighter and was rescued by a destroyer. All nine of the Bettys were destroyed. Low on fuel and out of ammunition, the Wildcats began returning to Lexington.
Suddenly, Lexington’s radar operators picked up another formation of bogeys. O’Hare and his wingman, Marion “Duff” Dufilho, having been held in reserve, now raced to their Wildcats and roared into the sky. As they gained altitude they tested their guns. Dufilho found his were hopelessly jammed. Nonetheless, he continued flying, hoping to divert some of the Japanese fire from O’Hare. Finally, O’Hare ordered him back to the carrier. O’Hare was left alone to face eight Japanese bombers bearing in on Lexington at a speed of more than 200 mph.
Sailors on the decks of Lexington watched anxiously as O’Hare began his attack. Only he stood between the Japanese bombers and “Lady Lex.” To conserve ammunition O’Hare closed to within a hundred yards before opening fire. His first burst hit the rearmost Betty’s starboard engine, exactly where he had aimed. Chunks of metal were blown out of the engine, and fire erupted as the plane began losing altitude.
Quickly switching to the next bomber in the formation, O’Hare sent a burst through its port engine. The engine broke away from its mount, and the Betty veered erratically to the right, then headed down in an uncontrollable spin. O’Hare had to pull up in a steep climbing turn to avoid colliding with the two falling planes.
Meanwhile, the sailors of Lexington watched O’Hare’s solo battle with the approaching bombers. Those below decks got a blow-by-blow description of the fight over the ship’s intercom by war correspondent James McCarthy. Loud cheers erupted each time it was announced that O’Hare had blown another Betty out of the sky. The skipper of Lexington, Capt. Frederick Sherman, himself watching all the action from the bridge, had to remind the men that this was not a football game.
O’Hare continued climbing, diving, banking, rolling, and firing. A third Betty broke into flames and began spiraling toward the sea, then a fourth, and a fifth. Before he ran out of ammunition, O’Hare, in four minutes of savage action, sent five Betty bombers plummeting into the Pacific and damaged two others. The wounded bombers and the one that remained undamaged dropped their bombs, which fell harmlessly into the sea, and headed for home. One made it all the way to an airfield at Rabaul, and the others ditched off nearby islands. They reported they had fought off several Wildcats and shot down two of them, and their bombs had damaged an American carrier. Radio Tokyo claimed the carrier was left in flames.
In his solo battle against eight Japanese bombers, Butch O’Hare not only saved the carrier Lexington but became America’s first ace of the war, having shot down five enemy planes. For his heroics, O’Hare was promoted to lieutenant commander and recommended for the Medal of Honor. O’Hare was called to Washington, and President Roosevelt personally decorated him with the medal, making O’Hare the first recipient of the Medal of Honor of World War II.
O’Hare was kept stateside for a time to make public appearances. Americans very much needed a morale boost, and Butch O’Hare was living proof that an American pilot could take on the Japanese and emerge victorious. O’Hare was eager to return to the Pacific, though. Finally, he caught up with his old squadron (VF-3) in mid-June in Hawaii. While he was away he had missed the Battle of the Coral Sea, where Lexington was sunk, and the Battle of Midway. Butch O’Hare was champing at the bit.
So great were O’Hare’s skills and knowledge that he was kept busy for more than a year training new pilots. He got back into action during the summer of 1943, now flying a Grumman F6F Hellcat. By fall he had shot down seven more Japanese planes in various engagements and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice—the first time for action over Marcus Island, and the second for action over Wake Island.
During the fall of 1943, O’Hare organized and led the first squadron of Navy planes to fight at night. Comprising Hellcats and radar-equipped TBF Avengers, the squadron was called the Black Panthers. Their missions were highly dangerous at best, and O’Hare always put himself in the most vulnerable position. On the night of November 26, 1943, O’Hare led his Panthers on a night mission to intercept Japanese planes intent on bombing the American fleet off Tarawa. O’Hare and his Panthers broke up the Japanese attack, shooting down and scattering the planes, but O’Hare was struck by fire and disappeared into the black night. For several days, it was hoped that he had been able to ditch, but no trace of him or his plane were found. O’Hare became the first recipient of the Medal of Honor to die later in the war. Two other recipients would join him before the war was over. O’Hare left behind his wife, Rita, and his nine-month-old daughter, Kathleen.
For creating and leading the Navy’s night fighters O’Hare was recommended for a second Medal of Honor. After review the award was downgraded one step, and in March 1944 he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
In 1947 Col. Robert McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, began advocating that Chicago’s new airport—being built on the site of a World War II Douglas aircraft assembly plant and airstrip—be named for O’Hare. Others, including veterans groups, soon endorsed his advocacy. When construction was completed in 1949, the airport was dedicated O’Hare International. Two-hundred thousand people attended the dedication ceremony, which included flyovers of nearly 200 planes and a performance by the Blue Angels. There was a rededication ceremony in 1963 featuring a speech by President Kennedy. In 1997 a permanent exhibit, including photos of O’Hare and a restored Grumman Wildcat like the one he flew in the early days of the war, was established in Terminal 2. My many trips to Chicago for Rockford Institute events have given me good excuses to visit the exhibit—and remember Butch O’Hare.