BRIDGEPORT, Pa. — On Memorial Day weekend, the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) looks back at the story of United States Naval Academy alum/Lieutenant Commander Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare – a United States Navy aviator during World War II.
Born on March 13, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri to Edward Joseph O’Hare and Selma A. (Lauth) O’Hare. O’Hare had two sisters, Patricia and Marilyn. When their parents divorced in 1927, Butch O’Hare and his sisters stayed with their mother Selma in St. Louis while their father Edward moved to Chicago. Butch’s father was a lawyer and accountant who worked closely with mobster Al Capone. Edward O’Hare turned against him and helped convict Al Capone of tax evasion.
In 1932, Butch O’Hare graduated from the Western Military Academy. In 1933, he was nominated to the Naval Academy from Missouri. On July 24, 1933, he entered the Naval Academy as a midshipman and was active in water polo at Annapolis. Midshipman O’Hare graduated 256 of 323 Midshipmen on June 3, 1937.
In 1937, O’Hare’s roommate wrote, “After five years of life in a military school, Ed set his course toward the noblest of callings. It did not take him long to become oriented for he possesses the trait of being at home wherever he chances to be. Like the sea-lion, Ed soon found himself in the water working out with the suicide-squad. His love for the water, however, was outweighed by the temptations and inducements of the radiator club. The possessor of a winning personality, Ed has found no trouble in making lasting friendships; he is always ready with a pat on the back when you need it most.”
From June 1937 until 1939, Ensign O’Hare was assigned to battleship USS New Mexico.
In June 1939, Ensign O’Hare was assigned under instruction at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., to become a naval aviator.
In November 1939, Ensign O’Hare’s father was gunned down in the streets of Chicago, most likely by Al Capone’s gunmen. During Capone’s Federal tax evasion trial in 1931 and 1932, O’Hare’s father provided incriminating evidence which helped finally put Capone away. There is speculation that O’Hare’s cooperation was in exchange for the younger O’Hare’s appointment into the Naval Academy. Whatever the motivation, the elder O’Hare was gunned down in his car, a week before Capone was released from incarceration.
Ensign O’Hare finished his naval aviation training May 2, 1940.
On July 1, 1940, Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG) O’Hare was assigned to Fighter Squadron Three (VF-3) aboard aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Lieutenant John Thach, then Executive Officer of VF-3, discovered O’Hare’s exceptional flying abilities and closely mentored the promising young fighter pilot. Lieutenant Thach, who later developed the Thach Weave aerial combat tactic used to this day, emphasized gunnery in his training. In 1941 more than half of all VF-3 pilots, including LTJG O’Hare, earned the E for gunnery excellence.
In early 1941, Fighting Squadron Three transferred to aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) while Saratoga entered overhaul.
On Monday morning, July 21, 1941, O’Hare made his first flight in a Grumman F4F Wildcat. Following stops in Washington and Dayton, he landed in St. Louis on Tuesday. Visiting the wife of a friend in a hospital, O’Hare met his future wife, the nurse Rita Wooster, proposing to her the first time he met her. After O’Hare took instruction in Roman Catholicism to convert, he and Rita married in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Phoenix, Ariz. on Saturday, September 6, 1941. For their honeymoon, they sailed to Hawaii on separate ships with O’Hare on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. However, O’Hare was recalled to duty the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
On Sunday evening, January 11, 1942, as Lieutenant O’Hare and other VF-3 officers ate dinner in the wardroom, carrier Saratoga was damaged by a Japanese torpedo hit while patrolling southwest of Hawaii, she spent five months in repair on the West Coast, so VF-3 squadron transferred to the USS Lexington on January 31, 1942.
On February 20, 1942, Lieutenant O’Hare was the only Navy fighter pilot available in the air when Japanese bombers were attacking his aircraft carrier. Lexington, which had been assigned the task of penetrating enemy-held waters north of New Ireland. While still 450 miles from the harbor at Rabaul, the Lexington picked up an unknown aircraft on radar 35 miles from the ship. A six-plane combat patrol was launched, two fighters being directed to investigate the contact. These two planes, under command of LCDR John S. Thach shot down a four-engine Kawanishi H6K4 Type 97 (“Mavis”) flying boat about 43 miles out at 1112. Later two other planes of the combat patrol were sent to another radar contact 35 miles ahead, shooting down a second Mavis at 1202. A third contact was made 80 miles out, but reversed course and disappeared. At 1542 a jagged vee signal drew the attention of the Lexington’s radar operator. The contact then was lost, but reappeared at 1625 forty-seven miles west and closing fast. Lieutenant O’Hare, flying a F4F Wildcat BuNo 4031 “White F-15”, was one of several pilots launched to intercept. Of the incoming nine Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers, at this time five had already been shot down.
The Lexington’s radar picked up a second formation of Bettys only 12 miles out, on the disengaged side of the task force, completely unopposed. The carrier had only two Wildcats left to confront the intruders: Lieutenant O’Hare and his wingman LTJG Marion W. “Duff” Dufilho. As the Lexington’s only protection, they raced eastward and arrived 1,500 feet above eight attacking Bettys nine miles out. LTJG Dufilho’s guns were jammed and wouldn’t fire, leaving only Lieutenant O’Hare to protect the carrier. The enemy formation was flying very close together and using their rear facing guns for mutual protection. Lieutenant O’Hare’s Wildcat, armed with four 50-caliber guns, with 450 rounds per gun, had enough ammunition for about 34 seconds of firing.
Lieutenant O’Hare’s initial maneuver was a high-side diving attack employing accurate deflection shooting. He accurately placed bursts of gunfire into a Betty’s wing fuel tanks; when the stricken craft on the right side of the formation abruptly lurched to starboard, he ducked to the other side of the V formation and aimed at the enemy bomber on the extreme left. When he made his third and fourth firing passes, the Japanese planes were close enough to the American ships for them to fire their anti-aircraft guns. Lieutenant O’Hare managed to shoot down five bombers, and damage a sixth. The three survivors managed to drop their ordnance, but all three bombs missed. LCDR Thach arrived at the scene with other pilots of the flight, later reporting that at one point he saw three of the enemy bombers falling in flames at the same time.
With his ammunition expended, Lieutenant O’Hare returned to his carrier, and was fired on accidentally but with no effect by a .50-caliber machine gun from the Lexington. Lieutenant O’Hare’s fighter had, in fact, been hit by only one round during his flight, the single bullet hole in F-15’s port wing disabling the airspeed indicator. According to LCDR Thach, Lieutenant O’Hare then approached the gun platform to calmly say to the embarrassed anti-aircraft gunner who had fired at him, “Son, if you don’t stop shooting at me when I’ve got my wheels down, I’m going to have to report you to the gunnery officer.”
LCDR Thach calculated that Lieutenant O’Hare had used only sixty rounds of ammunition for each bomber he destroyed; an impressive feat of marksmanship. In the opinion of Vice Admiral Wilson Brown Jr. and of Captain Frederick C. Sherman, commanding the Lexington, Lieutenant O’Hare’s actions may have saved the carrier from serious damage or even loss.
The Lexington returned after the New Guinea raid to Pearl Harbor for repairs and to have her obsolete 8-inch guns removed, transferring some of her F4F-3 fighter planes to the USS Yorktown including the plane “White F-15” that Lieutenant O’Hare had flown during his famous mission. The pilot assigned to fly this aircraft to Yorktown was told by Lieutenant O’Hare just before takeoff to take good care of his plane. Moments later, the fighter rolled down the deck and into the water; the pilot was recovered, but “White F-15” was lost.
On March 26, 1942, Lieutenant O’Hare was greeted at Pearl Harbor by a horde of reporters and radio announcers. During a radio broadcast in Honolulu, he enjoyed the opportunity to say hello to Rita…”Here’s a great big radio hug, the best I can do under the circumstances” and to his mother… “Love from me to you”. On April 8, 1942, he thanked the Grumman Aircraft Corporation plant at Bethpage (where the F4F Wildcat was made) for 1,150 cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a grand total of 230,000 smokes. Ecstatic Grumman workers had passed the hat to buy the cigarettes in appreciation of O’Hare’s combat victories in one of their F4F Wildcats. A loyal Camel smoker, Lieutenant O’Hare opened a carton, deciding, that it was the least he could do for the good people back in Bethpage. In his letter to the Grumman employees he wrote, “You build them, we’ll fly them and between us, we can’t be beaten.” It was a sentiment he would voice often in the following two months.
By shooting down five bombers Lieutenant O’Hare became a flying ace, was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and became the first naval aviator to be awarded the Medal of Honor. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt looking on, Lieutenant O’Hare’s wife Rita placed the Medal around his neck. Lieutenant O’Hare was described as “modest, inarticulate, humorous, terribly nice and more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing”.
O’Hare was not employed on combat duty from early 1942 until late 1943 as returned to St. Louis for Welcome Home on April 25, 1942. A newspaper headline read, “60,000 give O’Hare a hero’s welcome here.” The United States in 1942 badly needed a live hero, and Butch O’Hare was a young, handsome naval aviator, so he participated in several war bond tours the following months.
On June 19, 1942 O’Hare assumed command of VF-3, relieving Lieutenant Commander Thach. He was relocated to Maui, Hawaii, to instruct other pilots in combat tactics. U.S. Navy policy was to use its best combat pilots to train newer pilots,
An anecdote by one of the training pilots about O’Hare, goes: “[O’Hare] was a great swimmer and spear fisherman, and he insisted that the squadron swim with him. Swimming with Butch O’Hare meant that at eight o’clock in the morning, you swam out into the ocean off Maui; he would still be out there at three in the afternoon! If he got hungry, Butch would roll over and dive, and the next thing you knew, he would come up with a fish of some sort. Then he’d just roll over and lie on his back like an otter and eat the thing raw! He really impressed us with that! One day, he came back to the surface with an octopus draped over his arm. He said, ‘Now, you have to learn how to kill these things, boys: you bite ’em right behind the eye.’ And with that, he chomped down! The octopus has some sort of spinal cord there, and biting it there does kill it! Then we had to go back to the beach where Butch would put these things in a frying pan with a little oil and some salt and stir them around. He enjoyed them, but they tasted like old rubber tires to me!”
Returning to combat in 1943 in command of squadron VF-6 on the light carrier USS Independence, he added to his list of awards by earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and later claimed a Gold Star in lieu of a second Distinguished Flying Cross.
According to orders dated September 17, 1943, October found Butch O’Hare as Commander Air Group (CAG) commanding Air Group Six on the famous USS Enterprise. Functioning as CAG, O’Hare was given command of the entire Enterprise air group of 100 pilots.
Faced with U.S. daylight air superiority, the Japanese quickly developed tactics to send torpedo-armed bombers on night missions from their bases in the Marianas against the U.S. aircraft carriers causing the United States to begin the first night-time aircraft based counterstrikes.
On the night of November 26, 1943, O’Hare volunteered to lead a mission to conduct the first-ever Navy nighttime fighter attack from an aircraft carrier to intercept a large force of enemy torpedo bombers. When the call came to man the fighters, Butch O’Hare was eating. He grabbed up part of his supper in his fist and started running for the ready room. He was dressed in loose marine coveralls. The ‘Black Panthers’, as the night fighters were dubbed, took off before dusk and flew out into the incoming mass of Japanese planes.
Confusion and complications endangered the success of the mission as the deadly danger of friendly fire in the dark caused potential problems. A Japanese bomber rose above and almost directly behind O’Hare’s 6 o’clock position causing one of the United States aircraft to open fire with a Japanese gunner firing back. O’Hare’s plane was apparently was caught in a crossfire and fell out of the sky. Reports from other planes noted that the plane released something that fell almost vertically at a speed too slow for anything but a parachute. Then something “whitish-gray” appeared below, perhaps the splash of the aircraft plunging into the sea.
After dawn a three-plane search was made, but no trace of O’Hare or his aircraft was found. O’Hare was then reported missing in action.
For 54 years there was no definitive answer as to whether he had been brought down by friendly fire or the Japanese bomber’s nose gunner.
As O’Hare went missing on November 26, 1943, and was declared dead a year later, his widow Rita received her husband’s posthumous decorations, a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross on November 26, 1944.
On January 27, 1945 the United States Navy named a destroyer USS O’Hare in his honor. The ship was launched June 22, 1945 with his mother, Selma O’Hare, as the sponsor. O’Hare was decommissioned on October 31, 1973, then transferred on loan and later sold to the Spanish Navy. In 1992, the Spanish Navy decommissioned and scrapped the ship.
Further, as a tribute to Butch O’Hare, on September 19, 1949, the Chicago-area Orchard Depot Airport was renamed O’Hare International Airport. A training F4F Wildcat similar to the one flown by Butch O’Hare was restored after recovery from Lake Michigan. It is currently on display in Terminal 2.
The same month, O’Hare’s name was engraved on the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific “Wall of the Missing” in Honolulu. In March 1963, President John F. Kennedy did a wreath-laying ceremony at O’Hare Airport to honor Butch O’Hare. The Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum is honoring O’Hare with an F4F-3A on display and a plaque dedicated by the USS Yorktown CV-10 association, “May Butch O’Hare rest in peace…”
Further, in Memorial Hall at the United States Naval Academy, O’Hare is remembered with his name is engraved under the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” Flag honoring those alumni killed in action.