Edward O'Hare

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Edward "Butch" O'Hare was the US Navy's first fighter ace of World War II, and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Edward O’Hare was born in St. Louis, Missouri on March 12, 1914. His father, E.J, “Easy” O’Hare, was a businessman, attorney and associate of Al Capone.[1] The young O’Hare was enrolled in the Western Military Academy at age 13, where he excelled in marksmanship. He graduated in 1932, and went on to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Upon graduation, he was assigned to the battleship New Mexico, and spent two years on surface ships. In 1939, O’Hare began his flight training. Once he completed his advanced training, he was assigned to VF-3 (Fighter squadron 3) on board the USS Saratoga, where he met John “Jimmy” Thach, then executive officer of the squadron. Thach, who was to become a legend in World War II for his fighter tactics, immediately recognized O’Hare as a natural-born flier, and became a mentor to the young pilot.[2]

At the time, VF-3 flew the F3F, a Grumman-built biplane, but in July 1941, the squadron made the switch to the Grumman Wildcat. That month was important to Butch for another, more personal reason. He met his future wife, Rita Wooster, and they were married six weeks later.

Like all the other American carriers stationed in the Pacific, the Saratoga was away from Pearl Harbor when the war began, but the Japanese caught up to her in January 1942, when a Japanese submarine hit the carrier with a torpedo. The Saratoga didn’t sink, but she had to undergo repairs stateside for the next five months. VF-3 was transferred to the Saratoga’s sister ship, the USS Lexington.

In the first months of the war, the carriers were used cautiously, being sent to attack Japanese positions on various islands. These attacks really amounted to little more than pinpricks, but they improved American morale, and brought the crews vital combat experience. The Enterprise and Yorktown conducted raids in the Marshall Islands in early February, while the Lexington sailed on February 16 for Rabaul. Rabaul, on the island of New Britain, had been taken by the Japanese less than a month earlier, and its large harbor made it a natural naval stronghold. It would become famous as the main Japanese base of the south Pacific. The Lexington’s job, scheduled for February 21, was to attack shipping there, hopefully dealing the Japanese a serious blow. However, the possibility of an attack was not lost on the Japanese Navy, and scout planes covered the area in search of enemy ships. On the morning of the 20th, while still 400 miles from Rabaul, a large Kawanishi H6K seaplane (Allied codename: “Mavis”), spied the Lexington battle group. It was immediately intercepted by the combat air patrol, led by Lt. Commander Thach. Before being shot down, the crew of the Mavis managed to send a message to Rabaul, and the Japanese wasted no time in responding. That afternoon, nine G4M “Betty” bombers appeared, headed for the Lex. The combat air patrol responded, and eight of the bombers were shot down by the fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Some were able to drop their bombs, but all their attacks missed. Nine more Betties showed up, but this time the fighter screen was scattered from dealing with the last raid. Only Butch O’Hare and his wingman were a position to attack, but his wingman’s guns weren’t working. O’Hare single-handedly bore into the Japanese formation, firing on bomber after bomber. Within a few minutes, he had shot down five of them and damaged another. By this time, his ammunition had run out, but the other Wildcats had regrouped, and three more bombers were shot down, again with no hits on the American ships.[3] With the element of surprise now lost, the operation had to be abandoned,[4] but the crew of the Lexington had good reason to be pleased with themselves. Not only had they destroyed seventeen Japanese planes for the loss of only two Wildcats and one pilot (the other was rescued by a destroyer), but the U.S. Navy had its first ace, an ace-in-a-day to boot. For his solo attack, which probably saved the Lexington, O’Hare was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, becoming the first naval aviator to be so honored. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presented the award, called O’Hare’s feat, “one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation.”[5] The new ace was also promoted, to lieutenant commander.

Public appearances and training new pilots kept O’Hare out of combat for the rest of 1942 and part of 1943. He returned to the Pacific theater aboard the USS Enterprise, now equipped with Hellcat fighters, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during strikes on Marcus Island in late August. He was similarly honored for heroic actions in a battle off Wake Island on October 5.[6]

In November, the Enterprise supported landings in the Gilbert Islands. The Hellcats owned the sky during the day, but the enemy had started using Betty bombers in night attacks. The favored solution was a night interception, but this had never been tried before. Pilots aboard the Enterprise developed a strategy to send two Hellcats up with a radar-equipped Avenger torpedo bomber. The Avenger would track the bandit and direct the Hellcats to an intercept. Hopefully, this would get the fighters close enough that they would see the bomber’s exhaust plumes and shoot them down. The plan was experimental, complex, risky, and absolutely necessary if the bomber threat was to be dealt with. O’Hare volunteered to lead the first mission, which would be the first nighttime fighter attack from an aircraft carrier. On November 26, 1943, incoming bogies were detected by the Enterprise’s radar and two sections of three planes were sent up, one of them led by O’Hare. It turned out to be his last flight.

Exactly what happened to Commander O’Hare is still unknown. The gunner on the Avenger was able to shoot down two bombers, but sometime after this, radio contact was lost with O’Hare. He may have been the victim of a lucky shot from another Betty’s gunner; it’s possible that he took evasive action and crashed into the sea (they were flying low enough that a high wave may have caught a wingtip); or O’Hare may have been the victim of friendly fire from the Avenger (the gunner reported firing at a third Betty without observing a result; this “Betty” may have been in fact O’Hare’s Hellcat). A thorough search failed to find O’Hare or his aircraft. He was declared dead a year later, and posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. He was survived by his wife and infant daughter.[7]

The main airport of Chicago, one of the busiest airports in the world, is named O’Hare International, in his honor.

References

  1. E.J. O’Hare at FindaGrave.com
  2. AcePilots.com
  3. Aces, by William Yenne, Berkeley Publishing, 2000
  4. The Pacific War: From Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, by Daniel Marston, Osprey Publishing, 2005
  5. Butch O’Hare at MedalofHonor.com
  6. O’Hare Biography
  7. Edward O’Hare at HistoryOfWar.org

Further Reading

  • Fateful Rendevous: the Life of Butch O’Hare, by Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom, Naval Institute Press, 1997
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