Edward “Butch” O’Hare (1914-1943)

Edward “Butch” O’Hare is one of the most famous US fighter pilots in history, made so not just because of his skill and bravery but because of his own family life. Edward O’Hare was born in St Louis on 13th March 1914.  Edward had two sisters Marilyn and Patricia but was separated from his father when his parents Edward J and Selma divorced in 1927. Edwards’s father moved to Chicago where he famously ended up working for the gangster Al Capone.

The story of how Edwards’s father turned against Al Capone and testified against is often repeated on the internet.  In some versions of the story his father is determined to make sure that the reputation he passed on to his son is redeemed and not one associated with organised crime. Other commentators are less generous and attribute the motivation for turning against Al Capone as based on self preservation rather than concern for his son. Whatever the truth the fact remains that Edward J O’Hare’s evidence did help convict Al Capone and in 1939 Butch O’Hare’s father paid the ultimate price when he was gunned down by some of Capone’s men.  The killing made the headlines and is covered in the biography mentioned at the end of this article.

Edward “Butch” O’Hare was destined for a military career. He was sent at the age of 13 to the Western Military Academy by his parents where he proved to be a fine marksman and president of the rifle club.  He graduated at 18 and the following year (1933) started at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. When he graduated on 3rd June 1937 Butch got his first choice of duty on the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40). Butch had always been interested in naval aviation but like all new officers he had to spend two years on surface warships before specialising. Once his two years surface ship duty was done Butch quickly moved onto flight training in 1939 learning his basics on Stearman NS-1 Biplanes. By early 1940 he had completed his training on patrol planes and advanced land planes, and was posted to VF-3 USS Saratoga. Flying Grumman F3F-1 Biplanes and Brewster F2A-1s O’Hare learnt carrier landings which he found very exciting and soon impressed more experienced pilots with his skill. 1941 saw O’Hare join the USS Enterprise and meet and marry his wife Rita Wooster six weeks after meeting her in July. O’Hare also started flying Wildcat fighters.

Brewster F2A-1 'Buffalo' of VF-3, 1940
Brewster F2A-1 'Buffalo'
of VF-3, 1940

On 20th February O’Hare earned his reputation and his place in US Naval Aviation history. The USS Lexington was deep in enemy waters in preparation for an air strike against the Japanese ships in the harbour of Rabaul. The plan quickly started to go wrong when the Lexington was spotted by a Japanese Kawanishi Flying boat. The enemy spotter plane was quickly shot down but it had already reported the sighting of the US carrier. The first enemy response was an attack by 9 Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ bombers. Six Wildcat fighters attacked them destroying six with the ship's anti aircraft guns finishing off the survivors before any damage was done. A second wave of nine Japanese bombers was soon incoming, another six Wildcat fighters were dispatched to intercept them, including O’Hare. The intercept was far from perfect with four of the Wildcats too far from the bombers to reach them before they released their bombs, this left O’Hare and his wingman within intercept distance. The wingman’s guns jammed leaving only O’Hare between nine enemy bombers and the US Carrier. O’Hare attacked the V shaped bomber formation and quickly downed five with considerable skill and impressive speed with three bombers going down in flames at the same time. More US fighters now entered the fray just as O’Hare ran out of ammunition. By now the attack was ineffective and the Lexington escaped without damage. It was estimated that O’Hare used only 60 rounds per enemy bomber destroyed an impressive display of marksmanship, especially considering the Wildcat had ammunition only for 34 seconds of firing. His skill earned ‘Butch’ O’Hare a promotion to Lieutenant Commander making him the US Navy’s first fighter ace and first Congressional Medal of Honor winner in World War 2.

Award ceremonies and public relation duties kept O’Hare out of combat until late October 1943 where he flew in the attacks on Wake Island. By November 1943 O’Hare was leading fighters to counter Japanese attacks with torpedo armed Betty bombers which attacked at night at low level. Interestingly the pilots on the Enterprise developed a clever counter which in many ways was the forerunner of future carrier defense tactics. Once spotted the US carrier would launch Avenger bombers which had radar and the more nimble radarless Hellcat fighters which would be guided into position by the Avenger’s radar until they could spot the enemy bomber's exhaust flares.

27th November 1943 saw ‘Butch’ O’Hare leading one of these teams of two Hellcat fighters and one Avenger. It is not clear what then went wrong but a confused dogfight in the darkness took place with the Avenger taking down two Japanese bombers. O’Hare was lost to radio contact and three suggestions have been put forward, firstly that a Japanese bomber killed O’Hare outright with a lucky burst, secondly that O’Hare was shot down by the other Hellcat in the darkness, and thirdly O’Hare took evasive action and clipped the ocean crashing the Hellcat. Ironically the other two US pilots were awarded the Navy Cross for their part in defending the carrier against the night attack. Despite a search O’Hare’s fighter was never found, he was officially listed as dead one year later.

Edward ‘Butch’ O’Hare was described as a modest and humorous man who was a popular leader among his men.  He was demanding of the pilots under him and worked hard to teach them techniques which would aid their survival. He was unassuming and insisted on his men calling him “Butch”. He was a keen swimmer and spear fisherman and would often get his squadron out swimming with him and cook the fish they caught later. His wife Rita received his posthumous Purple Heart and Navy Cross on 26 November 1944; O’Hare also had a daughter Kathleen.

O’Hare has been honoured in many ways, in 1945 a US Navy Destroyer (D-889) was named after him and most famously on 19th September 1949 Chicago Airport was named O’Hare International. In March 1963 US President J F. Kennedy laid a wreath at O’Hare International Airport in his honour.

Wildcat Aces of World War 2, Barrett Tillman. The usual high standard Osprey book packed with photos and facts about the early US Navy Aces in World War two. cover cover cover
Fateful Rendezvous: The Life of Butch O'Hare, Steve Ewing. A well researched book which tends to focus on O’Hare’s early life with over half the book relating to pre World War Two events. Contains good detail on Butch’s father and on the likely events of Butch’s death. cover cover cover


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How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (25 April 2007), Edward “Butch” O’Hare (1914-1943), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_butch_ohare.html

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