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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Butch O'Hare Disappears, November 26, 1943

On November 26, 1943, Edward “Butch” O’Hare disappeared in the Pacific Ocean near the Gilbert Islands. Thus ended the life and career of one of the greatest naval aviators of the Second World War. O’Hare, and thousands of others like him, formed the core of the pre-war military aviation community in the United States. When the war came, they held the thin line of defense and helped train the raw recruits who would come to dominate the skies all over the world.

Butch O’Hare was born in St. Louis, Missouri in March, 1914. He entered the US Naval Academy in 1933 and spent the first two years after his graduation in 1937 as a line officer. He reported for flight training in 1939, the same year that his father was gunned down in Chicago for providing evidence at Al Capone’s tax evasion trial some years before. It was rumored that the elder O’Hare testified against Capone to ensure that his son received an appointment to the Naval Academy, but no documentation has ever surfaced linking the two events.

In Spring, 1940, O’Hare was assigned to VF-3, the USS Saratoga’s fighter squadron. His executive officer was John Thach, who would also become famous as a navy fighter pilot. Lieutenant Thach immediately recognized O’Hare’s natural flying skill and became his mentor, teaching him everything he had learned in his more than ten years of flying for the navy. Their routine was one of practice, practice and more practice, for it was clear to the men of VF-3 that the war raging in Europe would soon come to them.

O’Hare was newly married and still stationed aboard the Saratoga on the morning of December 7, 1941. Five weeks later, the ship was hit by a Japanese torpedo in the waters near Hawaii, necessitating a trip to California for repairs. O’Hare’s squadron was transferred to the USS Lexington, the ship from which he would first meet the enemy.

Today, it is hard to fathom how delicate the position of the US Navy was in the early months of 1942. The Japanese task force that had attacked Pearl Harbor contained six aircraft carriers; that was more than the US Navy had in the entire Pacific at that time. So when the navy’s carriers sailed from Pearl Harbor in early 1942, not only was each ship worth it’s weight in gold, but so were the crews on board. Although new pilots were in the training pipeline by December, 1941, precious few of them had reached the fleet. Thus, the few hundred pilots on US Navy carriers, along with the Pacific Fleet submarines, were all the nation had with which to defend herself and strike a blow at the Imperial Japanese Fleet.

The USS Lexington was preparing to strike one such blow on February 20, 1942. The ship and her escorts were 450 miles from Rabaul when radar operators spotted a group of enemy bombers. Fighters were launched from the Lexington and met the bombers. Since O’Hare and his wingman were the last craft off the flight deck and were not engaged, they were the only two in position when a group of eight Japanese bombers appeared on the other side of the task force only 12 miles away. Already outnumbered, O’Hare’s situation grew worse when his wingman announced that his guns had jammed. 27-year old Lt. Butch O’Hare was about to take on 8 Japanese bombers by himself. 

Years of pre-war gunnery training was put to good use as O’Hare, with only enough ammunition for 34 seconds of firing, went to work on the bombers’ wing fuel tanks. He made four passes over the formation, each time working to avoid return fire from the bombers’ guns. By the time he had shot down his fifth plane and damaged a sixth, the formation was within range of the task force’s anti-aircraft guns. The three remaining bombers dropped their ordnance, but scored no hits. Out of ammunition, O’Hare returned to the Lexington, only to be fired on by an over-eager gunner while on final approach. The shots missed; during the entire affair, O’Hare’s plane had only been hit by one enemy round.

It was clear to all present that O’Hare, along with the pilots who had attacked the other bomber groups, had saved the Lexington from serious damage. When the ship and her escorts returned to Pearl Harbor on March 26th, reporters and photographers scrambled to see O’ Hare. He became an instant celebrity. The Grumman Aircraft plant at Bethpage, New York, where O’Hare’s F4F Wildcat was made, sent him 1,150 cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes. By shooting down five aircraft, he became an ace, the Navy’s first during the Second World War. He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and was the first naval aviator to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Through it all, O’Hare maintained his modesty and seemed, to one observer, to be embarrassed by the entire fuss. At a time when the United States needed heroes, O’Hare filled the bill.

Over the next 18 months, O’Hare attended publicity shoots and parades. More importantly, he was made a squadron commander and used his experience to teach new pilots the art of aerial combat. It was not until August, 1943 that O’Hare and his squadron (now comprised of the newer F6F Hellcat) embarked on the USS Independence, an escort carrier. In his absence, the war had changed. While still a potent enemy, the Japanese were on the defensive. American industrial might had turned out new carriers and planes while young men from every walk of life had learned how to fly them. The end of the war was still a long way off, but victory for the Allies was all but assured.

O’Hare was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for his actions in combat over the next few months. In September, he was made the Commander Air Group on the USS Enterprise, meaning that he would be in charge of not just the ship’s fighters, but her bombers and torpedo planes as well. At that time, it was traditional for the CAG to fly in a TBM-1 Avenger, a slower aircraft with better radios than the fighters and a crew of three. Instead, O’Hare requested and was given permission to continue flying his Hellcat. It would be a fateful decision.

Knowing that the Americans owned the skies during the day, the Japanese began sending their bombers on night missions against the carriers. The attacks were incredibly hard to defend against. O’Hare and a small group of officers began to develop counter-tactics. Instead of sending groups of fighters to search the darkness for the bombers, they began to use the Avenger aircraft and her radar set as a sort of guide plane for the fighters. Once the Japanese bombers were found by the airborne radar, the fighters would be vectored to their position. 

The first of these missions was scheduled for the night of November 26, 1943. As the CAG, O’Hare volunteered to lead the mission. It was rough from the start as the fighters had trouble finding their escorting Avenger. Then, once the Japanese bombers were found, there was difficulty giving the fighter pilots the right directions. In the confusion, a Japanese bomber ended up behind the American formation. The Avenger’s gunner fired on the bomber, which fired back. In between the two aircraft was Commander O’Hare’s plane, which was seen to fall out of formation towards the ocean below. He was never heard from again.

A search was conducted in the area of O’Hare’s last position, but nothing was found. He was reported missing in action; it was not clear if he had been hit by the Japanese bomber or friendly fire. He was declared dead one year later. He was award the Navy Cross and Purple Heart posthumously on November 26, 1944.

In 1945, a Gearing-class destroyer was named in O’Hare’s honor. After the war, Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, suggested re-naming Chicago’s Orchard Depot Airport in O’Hare’s honor. The name change became official on September 19, 1949. Today, O’Hare International is one of the world’s busiest airports.

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