An Internet myth, propogated mostly by e-mail, of course, came to my attention recently. It’s a touching story, widely circulated. It’s even been reprinted in Navy newsletters and in newspapers.
It concerned the story of Ed “Butch” O’Hare.
If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Butch O’Hare was one of the earliest heroes of World War II, and the Navy’s first ace. An ace, if you’re not familiar with aviation, is someone who shot down at least five enemy planes. But you probably know the name for another reason. We’ll get to that.
Pulled from his young wife and infant daughter at age 28 on the day after Pearl Harbor, O’Hare found himself flying Grumman Wildcats off of aircraft carriers, a real-life “Top Gun” against the Japanese. He even looked the part.
On February 20, 1942, O’Hare was stationed on the aircraft carrier Lexington, on a dangerous mission trying to penetrate enemy waters. A Japanese spyplane spotted the carrier and radioed back before U.S. fire could shoot it down. Soon, nine Japanese bombers were on their way. Six Grumman Wildcats took off, in a desperate effort to save the carrier.
Flying in a V formation, only two of the Wildcats were in position to get to the bombers. Those two planes happened to be O’Hare and his wingman. Two against nine. To make matters worse, O’Hare’s wingman’s guns jammed. He turned away, leaving O’Hare to take on the nine bombers alone. He dove into the bombers at full speed and took aim at the last bomber in the formation, tearing its engine off with a burst of machine gun fire. Playing to his strengths as a marksman and his plane’s ability to take lots of bullets and stay in the air (about the only redeeming quality the Wildcat had), he flew within 20-30 yards of the enemy planes and kept shooting until he ran out of ammunition. He downed five of the nine bombers and damaged several others. O’Hare’s bravery bought the rest of his formation some time, and they came in and shot down three more of the bombers. The Japanese managed to drop a few bombs, but none of them hit their target.
The real story isn’t quite how the e-mail forward tells it, but O’Hare did save his ship. This was important, seeing as Pearl Harbor was not even two and a half months before. We weren’t exactly overflowing with ships. For his heroics, he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and awarded the highest decoration of this country, the Congressional Medal of Honor. He also got a little braise from FDR, who called O’Hare’s actions “one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation.”
In 1943, O’Hare was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Gold Star, some of the Navy’s highest honors, for further heroics in combat.
In Nov. 1943, O’Hare volunteered to participate in a risky night mission. O’Hare and another pilot would fly Grumman Hellcats in formation behind a radar-equipped Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber. The Avenger would spot the enemy bombers and lead them to them, then the pilots would pick off the planes by following their exhaust.
It didn’t go as planned. The Avenger spotted two Japanese Betty bombers and somehow shot them down. Continuing for more than an hour, they looked for more. Suddenly the Avenger spotted a bomber behind the two Hellcats. The Avenger’s rear gunner fired. Moments later, O’Hare failed to respond on his radio.
No one knows whether the Avenger’s target was actually O’Hare’s Hellcat, or whether the Japanese bomber got lucky and shot O’Hare down, or whether O’Hare lost control of his plane taking evasive action. He was never seen again. A year later, O’Hare was officially declared dead.
O’Hare’s home town decided to reward his war heroics. But O’Hare wasn’t from just any town. O’Hare grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Chicago had an airport named Orchard Field. The editor of the Chicago Tribune led a movement to rename the airport, which ended in success in 1949. Orchard Field is now known as O’Hare International Airport. You’ve probably heard of it.
Eddie was a seedy character. He was a lawyer and a businessman. His biggest client and business partner was a used furniture dealer named Al Capone. Of course, Capone was into more than just furniture. Eddie ran Capone’s track and kept him out of trouble, successfully.
Eddie’s one love in life was his son and his two daughters.
The e-mail says Eddie had a change of heart and wanted to give his son an example. That’s hard to say, because by the time Eddie had his supposed change of heart, his little boy was 18. He graduated from Western Military Academy in 1932. In 1933, Eddie’s son went on to the US Naval Academy.
But for one reason or another, Eddie fessed up and told the Feds a few things. A few things about Al Capone, in fact. Some speculate he did it in order to get his son into the Naval Academy.
Whatever his motivation, within a few years Eddie’s son was a sailor in the Navy and Al Capone was in jail for income tax evasion. Did Eddie know he’d pay with his life? Doubtful. Eddie had a new girlfriend and was going to marry her as soon as they found a priest who’d do the ceremony.
In Nov. 1939, Eddie was gunned down by Capone’s men, gangland-style.
Supposedly, Eddie was carrying this following poem, clipped from a magazine, in his pocket when he died:
The clock of life is wound but once
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour.
Now is the only time you own.
Live, love, toil with a will.
Place no faith in time.
For the clock may soon be still.
Eddie’s son came home for the funeral, and afterward, he returned to Pensacola, where he had been learning how to fly.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Eddie’s son was Butch O’Hare.
The sad thing about this e-mail is that the real story is so much better.
Oh yeah, and even though Butch O’Hare grew up on Chicago’s South Side, Eddie O’Hare was from St. Louis and got his start here, and Butch O’Hare was born here.