BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare was born March 13, 1914, in St. Louis, Missouri to Edward Joseph O’Hare and Selma O’Hare. Butch had two sisters, Patricia and Marilyn. When their parents divorced in 1927, Butch and his sisters stayed with their mother Selma in St. Louis while their father Edward moved to Chicago. Butch’s father was a lawyer who worked closely with Al Capone before turning against him and helping convict Capone of tax evasion
Butch O’Hare graduated from the Western Military Academy in 1932. The following year, he went on to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Graduated and appointed an Ensign on June 3, 1937, he served two years on board the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40). In 1939, he started flight training at NAS Pensacola in Florida, learning the basics on Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-1 “Yellow Peril” and Stearman NS-1 biplane trainers, and later on the advanced SNJ trainer. On the nimble Boeing F4B-4A, he trained in aerobatics as well as aerial gunnery. He also flew the SBU Corsair and the TBD Devastator.
In November 1939, his father was shot to death, most likely by Al Capone’s gunmen. During Capone’s tax evasion trial in 1931 and 1932, O’Hare’s father provided incriminating evidence which helped finally put Capone away. There is speculation that this was done to ensure that Butch got into the Naval Academy, or to set a good example. Whatever the motivation, the elder O’Hare was shot down in his car, a week before Capone was released from incarceration at Alcatraz..
When O’Hare finished his naval aviation training on May 2, 1940, he was assigned to USS Saratoga (CV-3) Fighter Squadron Three (VF-3). O’Hare now trained on the Grumman F3F and then graduated to the Brewster F2A Buffalo. Lieutenant John Thach, then executive officer of VF-3, discovered O’Hare’s exceptional flying abilities and closely mentored the promising young pilot. Thach, who would later develop the Thach Weave aerial combat tactic, emphasized gunnery in his training. In 1941, more than half of all VF-3 pilots, including O’Hare, earned the “E” for gunnery excellence.
On Monday morning, July 21, 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 hospital that afternoon, O’Hare met his future wife, nurse Rita Wooster, proposing to her the first time they met. After O’Hare took instruction in Roman Catholicism to convert, he and Rita married in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Phoenix on Saturday, September 6, 1941. For their honeymoon, they sailed to Hawaii on separate ships, O’Hare on Saratoga, which had completed modifications at Bremerton, and Rita on the Matson liner Lurline. O’Hare was called to duty the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
On Sunday evening, January 11, 1942, as O’Hare and other VF-3 officers ate dinner in the wardroom, the 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 (CV-2) on January 31.
O’Hare’s most famous flight occurred during the Pacific War on February 20, 1942. Lt. O’Hare and his wingman were the only U.S. Navy fighters available in the air when a second wave of Japanese bombers were attacking his aircraft carrier Lexington.
O’Hare was on board the aircraft carrier USS 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, at 1015, 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 Lieutenant Commander John Thach shot down a four-engined 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 Lex’s radar operator. The contact then was lost, but reappeared at 1625 forty-seven miles west and closing fast. Butch O’Hare, flying F4F Wildcat BuNo 4031 “White F-15”, was one of several pilots launched to intercept the incoming 9 Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers from 2. Chutai of 4. Kokutai, at this time five had already been shot down.
At 1649, the Lexington’s radar picked up a second formation of Bettys from 1. Chutai of 4. Kokutai 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: O’Hare and his wingman “Duff” Dufilho. As the Lexington’s only protection, they raced eastward and arrived 1,500 feet above eight attacking Bettys nine miles out at 1700. Dufilho’s guns were jammed and wouldn’t fire, leaving only O’Hare to protect the carrier. The enemy formation was a V of Vs flying very close together and using their rear-facing guns for mutual protection. O’Hare’s Wildcat, armed with four 50-caliber guns, with 450 rounds per gun, had enough ammunition for about 34 seconds of firing.
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 right engine and wing fuel tanks; when the stricken craft of Nitō Hikō Heisō Tokiharu Baba (3. Shotai) 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 of Ittō Hikō Heisō Bin Mori (3. Shotai) 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. The five survivors managed to drop their ordnance, but all ten 250kg bombs missed. O’Hare’s hits were so concentrated, the nacelle of a Betty literally jumped out of its mountings, after O’Hare blew up the leading Shōsa Takuzo Ito’s Betty’s port engine. O’Hare believed he had shot down five bombers, and damaged a sixth. Lieutenant Commander 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.
In fact, O’Hare destroyed only three Bettys: Nitō Hikō Heisō Tokiharu Baba’s from 3. Shotai, Ittō Hikō Heisō Susumu Uchiyama’s (flying at left wing of the leading V, 1. Shotai) and the leader of the formation, Shōsa Takuzo Ito’s. This last (flying on the head of leading V) Betty’s left engine was hit at the time it dropped its ordnance. Its pilot Hikō Heisōchō Chuzo Watanabe tried to hit Lexington with his damaged plane. He missed and flew into the water near Lexington at 1712. Another two Bettys were damaged by O’Hare’s attacks. Ittō Hikō Heisō Kodji Maeda (2. Shotai, left wing of V) safely landed at Vunakanau airdrome and Ittō Hikō Heisō Bin Mori was later shot down by Lt. Noel Gayler (“White F-1”, VF-3) when trying to escape 40 miles from Lexington.
With his ammunition expended, O’Hare returned to his carrier, and was fired on accidentally but with no effect by a .50-caliber machine gun from the Lexington. O’Hare’s fighter had, in fact, been hit by only one bullet during his flight, the single bullet hole in F-15’s port wing disabling the airspeed indicator. According to Thach, Butch 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.”
Thach calculated that O’Hare had used only sixty rounds of ammunition for each bomber he destroyed; an impressive feat of marksmanship. In the opinion of Admiral Brown 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. By 1900 all Lexington planes had been recovered except for two F4F-3 Wildcats shot down while attacking enemy bombers; both were lost while making steady, no-deflection runs from astern of their targets. The pilot of one fighter was rescued, the other went down with his aircraft.
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 (CV-5) including BuNo 4031 “White F-15” that O’Hare had flown during his famous mission. The pilot assigned to fly this aircraft to Yorktown was admonished by O’Hare just before take off to take good care of his plane. Moments later, the fighter unsuccessfully took off, rolling down the deck and into the water; the pilot was recovered, but “White F-15” was lost.
On March 26, 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, 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, Butch 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 O’Hare became a flying ace, was selected for promotion to Lieutenant Commander, and became the first naval aviator to receive the Medal of Honor. With President Franklin D. Roosevelt looking on, O’Hare’s wife Rita placed the Medal around his neck.
Medal of Honor
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare (NSN: 0-78672), United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in aerial combat, at grave risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, as section leader and pilot of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3), attached to the U.S.S. LEXINGTON, on 20 February 1942. Having lost the assistance of his teammates, Lieutenant O’Hare interposed his plane between his ship and an advancing enemy formation of nine attacking twin-engine heavy bombers. Without hesitation, alone and unaided, he repeatedly attacked this enemy formation, at close range in the face of intense combined machinegun and cannon fire. Despite this concentrated opposition, Lieutenant O’Hare, by his gallant and courageous action, his extremely skillful marksmanship in making the most of every shot of his limited amount of ammunition, shot down five enemy bombers and severely damaged a sixth before they reached the bomb release point. As a result of his gallant action–one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation–he undoubtedly saved his carrier from serious damage.
Action Date: 20-Feb-42
Company: Fighting Squadron 3 (VF-3)
Division: U.S.S. Lexington (CV-2)
/S/ Franklin D. Roosevelt
On the night of November 26, 1943, the Enterprise introduced the experiment in the co-operative control of Avengers and Hellcats for night fighting, when the three-plane team from the ship broke up a large group of land-based bombers attacking Task Group TG 50.2. O’Hare volunteered to lead this 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, 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 night fighter unit consisting of 1 VT and 2 VF was catapulted between 1758 and 1801. The pilots for this flight were O’Hare and Ensign Warren Andrew “Andy” Skon of VF-2 in F6Fs and the Squadron Commander of VT-6, LCDR John C. Phillips in a TBF1-C. The crew of the TBF torpedo plane consisted of LTJG Hazen B. Rand, a radar specialist and Alvin Kernan, A. B., AOM1/c. 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. The Hellcats first had trouble finding the Avenger, the FDO had difficulty guiding any of them on the targets. O’Hare and Ensign W. Skon in their F6F Hellcats finally got into position behind the Avenger. O’Hare had been well aware of the deadly danger of friendly fire in this situation – he radioed to the Avenger Pilot of his section, “Hey, Phil, turn those running lights on. I want to be sure it’s a yellow devil I’m drilling.”
O’Hare was last seen at the 5 o’clock position of the TBF. About that time, the turret gunner of the TBF, Alvin Kernan (AOM1/c) noticed a Japanese G4M Betty bomber above and almost directly behind O’Hare’s 6 o’clock position Kernan opened fire with the TBF’s .50-cal. machine gun in the dorsal turret and a Japanese gunner fired back. O’Hare’s F6F Hellcat apparently was caught in a crossfire. Seconds later O’Hare’s F6F slid out of formation to port, pushing slightly ahead at about 160 knots and then vanished in the dark. The Avenger pilot, Lieutenant Commander Phillips, called repeatedly to O’Hare but received no reply. Ensign Skon responded “Mr. Phillips, this is Skon. I saw Mr. O’Hare’s lights go out and, at the same instant, he seemed to veer off and slant down into darkness.” Phillips later asserted, as the Hellcat dropped out of view, it seemed to release something drop 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.
Lieutenant Commander Phillips reported the position 1°26′0″N 171°56′0″W
O’Hare’s name is recorded in the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
Much of the information in this article was gleamed from Wikipedia.
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