Your Captain Speaking
Lieutenant Edward “Butch” O’Hare
February 20, 1942. The USS Lexington, an aircraft penetrates enemy waters north of Ireland. Throughout the day, the Lexington responds to several radar contacts of enemy aircraft by launching its own fighter aircraft. At 4:49PM, a wave of 9 Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers is engaged by the American F4F Wildcat fighters launched from the aircraft carrier. Lieutenant Edward “Butch” O’Hare and his wingman, Marion Dufilho, were climbing to combat altitude and not yet engaged when they received a distressed call from officers onboard the Lexington. A second wave of Bettys were approaching the carrier from the opposite direction, 12 miles out, and unopposed.
O’Hare and Dufilho approached the V-shaped enemy formation from 1,500 feet above it with 450 bullets, or 34 seconds of firing, in each of their four, 50-caliber machine guns. Or so they thought. They soon discovered Dufilho’s guns were jammed. Now, only O’Hare stood between a wave of enemy bombers and an otherwise unprotected aircraft carrier.
Butch swung into a diving attack on the bombers with concise, swift, bursts of fire into one bomber’s engine after another. By his fourth pass at the eight Japanese aircraft, the Betty’s were within range of the Lexington and its antiaircraft guns. Five bombers managed to drop ordinance but all ten bombs missed their target. Of the 8 planes, O’Hare destroyed three and damaged two more before running out of ammunition. In return, the Japanese gunners managed to place a single bullet in the port wing of O’Hare’s F4. Butch lost his airspeed indicator, but none of his calm demeanor that carried him through the most intense five minutes one could dare experience. In fact, Butch’s only response to drawing friendly fire from the Lexington during his approach to landing back on the carrier was a light rebuke of the young gunner, “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.”
Those five minutes transformed O’Hare’s life. He became an ace, the first naval aviator to receive the Medal of Honor, was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and became somewhat of a spokesman for the Grumman Aircraft Corporation (who built the Wildcat), saying, “You build them, we’ll fly them and between us, we can’t be beaten.” He was removed from combat duty until late in 1943 when he took command of 24 F6F Grumman Hellcats. The introduction of the Hellcats, and new aircraft carriers, immediately shifted the balance of power in the Pacific toward the U.S. For his actions with the Hellcat’s first combat mission on August 31, 1943, O’Hare received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Just a month later he was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second DFC.
The Japanese quickly changed their tactics in response to the American’s air superiority by implementing low-altitude, nighttime air assaults. The American response to the nighttime raids consisted of an Avenger, and its radar capabilities, leading Hellcats toward the enemy bombers hidden by the night. O’Hare volunteered to lead the mission and on the night of November 26, 1943, the first-ever nighttime fighter attack from an aircraft carrier launched to intercept the Japanese torpedo bombers. On that fateful night, Commander Air Group O’Hare found himself caught in the crossfire between a friendly Avenger and enemy Bomber. His plane slid from view and was never seen again.
The universally adored St. Louis-native would be declared dead a year later. His widow, Rita, received his posthumous decorations of a Purple Heart and Navy Cross on November 26, 1943. The destroyer, USS O’Hare, was commissioned on January 27, 1945. On September 19, 1949, the Orchard Depot Airport in Chicago was renamed the O’Hare International Airport (KORD). Within the airport’s second terminal, a replica F4 Wildcat is displayed as part of a tribute to the airport’s namesake.
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