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The Butch O'Hare Story

The namesake of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport never lived in Chicago—he was born and raised in St. Louis. Butch's father helped snag Al Capone, and Butch helped win World War II

The airliner levels out of its banking turn and continues in a gentle descent. The passengers hear a whir and feel a clunk as the pilot lowers the landing gear and locks it into position. A flight attendant's voice comes over the intercom: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our final approach into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The captain has turned on the seat belt sign. Please make sure your seat belt is securely fastened ..."


The most interesting word in this routine announcement, which occurs more than 3,000 times daily in the skies over Chicago, is "O'Hare." Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare never lived in Chicago. He was born and raised in St. Louis, and he became a shining hero in the country's darkest days of World War II.

It was Butch's father, Edgar Joseph "EJ" O'Hare—also a St. Louis native—who lived in Chicago for a time. Did big business there. Came back and agreed, after a 1930 luncheon meeting at the Missouri Athletic Club in downtown St. Louis, to turn over to the Internal Revenue Service certain financial records of Al Capone's.

The O'Hares did nothing halfheartedly.


Born in 1893, EJ O'Hare was an Irishman whose name meant, in Gaelic, "sharp, bitter, angry." He was just the opposite, outgoing and exuberant. At 19, he married Selma Anna Lauth, and they started their family in an apartment above her father's Soulard grocery store.

When Butch was a boy, EJ came home long enough to gulp dinner, then headed for business classes at Saint Louis University. He burned with ambition. When he saw his son sprawled on the couch reading books and munching sweet rolls, he decided that Butch was showing signs of laziness and enrolled him at Western Military Academy in Alton.

With Butch at WMA and his two younger sisters, Patricia and Marilyn, busy at school, EJ began to expand his business interests from the St. Louis levee to Chicago. He passed the Missouri bar exam in 1923 and joined a law firm. By 1930, he'd moved his family into a new house--with a swimming pool and a skating rink--in Holly Hills.

EJ could afford the house because one of his first clients was Owen Patrick Smith, commissioner of the International Greyhound Racing Association. Smith retained EJ to apply for a patent for a mechanical rabbit to entice greyhounds to sprint around the track. EJ later bought the patent rights from Smith's widow and took the rabbit to Chicago.

The man who ran Chicago during Prohibition was Al Capone. His was the dominant gang in the city, and an entrepreneur new in town, as EJ was, had to choose a gang, just as today he would have to choose a business insurer.

EJ went straight to the top. Between 1925 and 1931, he and Capone operated dog tracks in Chicago, Boston and Miami. The profits were enormous.

It was during this time that EJ became fascinated with flying, even hitching a ride in Charles Lindbergh's mail plane. He flew commercially whenever possible, and he found chances for his teenage son to briefly take the controls.

But EJ grew tired of working with thugs. He and Capone argued repeatedly about the dog tracks, but Valentine's Day 1929 may have been the final straw, with the brutal executions of several rival gang members in a Chicago whiskey warehouse.

Capone's alibi was airtight. He was at his 14-room Miami mansion, which he had bought from Clarence Busch of the brewery family.


In 1930, EJ, who had maintained his St. Louis contacts, asked John Rogers, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to arrange a meeting with the IRS. Rogers organized a luncheon at the Missouri Athletic Club with IRS agent Frank Wilson. After lunch, EJ agreed to turn over key financial records of Capone's.

Wilson led a group of IRS agents that worked with Eliot Ness' band at the Justice Department. The Untouchables' overall goal was to wreck Capone financially by destroying his bootlegging business. Wilson's job was to convict Capone of tax evasion.

He began his offensive after the IRS determined that Capone had never filed an income-tax return. His business card stated that he was a "secondhand furniture dealer," and there was a storefront, stocked with junk, next to a Chicago brothel he operated.

The records provided by EJ helped prove, in federal court, that Capone's income came from more than secondhand furniture.

Convicted of tax evasion, Capone arrived at the federal prison on Alcatraz Island in August 1933. He was released in January 1939.

On November 8, 1939, EJ was driving his new Lincoln Zephyr home from the dog track when he was killed by a shotgun blast, fired by one of two men in a car that sped past him.


On the day of EJ's death, Ensign Butch O'Hare had made two training flights at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle. The sky he was flying in was a brilliant azure, dotted by a few white puffs. He landed at sunset—and heard the news of his father's death.

Heart-to-heart talks with his father had inspired Butch to become a Navy pilot, and Congressman John J. Cochran, one of EJ's St. Louis' politician friends, had appointed Butch to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Butch took emergency leave for his father's funeral, then reported back. He donned his gold naval-aviator wings in May 1940 and went on to train with an air squadron, learning aerial combat, night carrier landings and gunnery. He was good at gunnery. During childhood summers, his family had escaped the St. Louis heat to river camps on the Meramec and Gasconade rivers, and EJ had given Butch a .22-caliber rifle. Plinking at cans and bottles tossed in the river, Butch became quite a marksman.

In July 1941, Butch took a break from training to ferry aircraft, picking up a F4F-3 fighter from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Less than a year later, he would fly a plane of this type into history. But for now he just wanted to fly it to St. Louis to visit his mother.

Before the visit was over, he had met Rita Wooster, a nurse at Deaconess Hospital, and asked her to marry him. He told her he loved her. Rita pointed out that she didn't love him, she had just met him and, besides, she was quite a bit younger than he was.

"It doesn't matter," Butch said.

She said she was Catholic and could only marry a Catholic.

"I'll convert," he said.

Just six weeks after meeting, Butch and Rita were married in St. Mary's Catholic Church in Phoenix. Immediately after the wedding, Butch had to report back to his squadron aboard the USS Saratoga carrier.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the squadron was waiting for the Saratoga to return from scheduled maintenance, so Butch was off duty. Driving home for lunch with Rita, he heard of the Pearl Harbor attack on the car radio.

The Saratoga left for Pearl Harbor the next day.

In January, Butch's squadron was transferred to the USS Lexington. The same month, the Japanese stormed ashore at Rabaul, several hundred miles north-northeast of Australia. Butch's squadron and the Lexington became part of a task force commanded by Vice Adm. Wilson Brown, who had clear orders: Leave Pearl Harbor, cross the equator into the South Pacific and attack the Japanese.

As they steamed toward Australia, Brown realized that he was in uncharted waters for the U.S. Navy. He had to rely on navigation surveys completed by the British Royal Navy a century earlier.

When he pointed his ships at Rabaul, a Japanese scout plane saw them coming.

The Japanese commander at Rabaul had 18 land-based Mitsubishi bombers, nicknamed "Bettys" by the Americans because of their voluptuous shape. (The real Betty was said to be a well-endowed American Army nurse.) At 2 p.m. February 20, 17 Bettys took off to attack Brown's task force in two waves. Through his periscope, an American submarine commander saw them coming and risked surfacing to radio the task force.

All nine Bettys in the first wave were shot down by anti-aircraft fire and the Lexington's Wildcat fighters.

Butch and his wing man, Duff Dufilho, were launched from the Lexington, and they watched the aerial battle as they climbed to combat altitude. Then the Lexington's combat-information center radioed them to say that the remaining eight Bettys were on the way.

As the second wave of bombers approached, Butch and Duff realized that they were the only American fighters positioned to attack. They charged their machine guns and attempted to fire test bursts. Butch's four machine guns worked fine, but Duff's four jammed.

The Japanese were about three minutes from dropping their bombs on the Lexington when Butch zoomed down to attack. The Japanese were flying in a V formation. Butch let the lead bombers pass, took aim at the last two on the right and fired short machine-gun bursts. His hours of gunnery practice paid off as the bombers dropped out

It was this ship, the USS Lexington--his home carrier--that Butch O'Hare was defending when he dove into anti-aircraft fire on the mission that won him the Medal of Honor.

Butch was back on the Lexington shortly after 5:45 p.m. He had shot down five Japanese bombers in less than four minutes.


In the after-action report, Capt. Frederick Sherman, the Lexington's commander, recommended that Butch be decorated. Butch said he didn't want a medal, insisting, "The other officers in the squadron would have done the same thing."

On March 4, Butch learned that he was front-page news throughout the United States. Up to this point, the war news had been consistently bad. Wake Island had fallen on December 23, Hong Kong on Christmas and Singapore on February 15. President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized that the country badly needed a live hero. And Butch was a young, handsome naval aviator who had slugged it out with a superior Japanese force and won.

He was summoned to the White House.

At 10:45 a.m. April 21, 1942, Butch and Rita were ushered into Roosevelt's office, where the president promoted Butch to lieutenant commander and awarded him the Medal of Honor. Photographers' flashes exploded as Rita hung the medal around her husband's neck.

On the following Saturday, a parade was held in St. Louis. Arriving at 16th and Wash-ington shortly before noon, Butch was guided to the back seat of a long, black open Packard, where he sat between his wife and mother.

The parade began at noon, led by a police motorcycle escort. Then came the Jefferson Barracks band, marching veterans, a truck packed with photographers, Butch's car and other open cars carrying dignitaries. Bringing up the rear were 350 students from Western Military Academy.

The next day, as Butch's mother and sisters clipped newspaper stories and photos, his place in history began to dawn on them. One headline read, "60,000 give O'Hare a hero's welcome here." The parade was compared with those honoring the St. Louis Cardinals' 1926 National League championship and Charles Lindbergh's 1927 homecoming after his New York-Paris flight.


In early June 1942, Butch arrived in Hawaii to take command of his old squadron amid the fleet's celebration of its victory at Midway, which would put the Japanese on the defensive for the remainder of the war.

In Fateful Rendezvous, their authorized biography of O'Hare, Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom describe a peaceful interlude of a year and a half for the new lieutenant commander. His squadron was based on Maui, where his pilots could train almost every day in perfect flying weather. According to the biography, one of the pilots, Lt. Sy E. Mendenhall, originally wasn't too pleased about being assigned to the Maui backwater, but he had heard about Butch—that he was a hero and "a peach of a guy personally." A local couple, Frank and Ethel Hoogs, gave Butch the use of a small beach cottage that became the social center for the squadron's officers and enlisted men. Butch wrote his sister Marilyn for Thanksgiving 1942, "I've put on 20 pounds ... just living too well I guess."

In February 1943, his squadron boarded ship for San Diego, where Butch would be reunited with Rita and see their daughter, Kathleen, for the first time.

The squadron, meanwhile, was joining an air group that would fly the new, bigger and more powerful F6F Hellcat fighters off newly constructed carriers. The Hellcats had modern landing gear; pilots would no longer have to retract the gear as they had in the old Wildcats by hand-cranking a mechanism made of sprockets and bicycle chains.

Butch said goodbye to Rita and Kathleen in June, and his squadron returned to Maui. On July 26, the Hoogses threw a fabulous luau on the beach at Maui as a sort of graduation party for the squadron's rookies.

The luau marked the end of Butch's peaceful interlude.


In August 1943, Butch was promoted to air-group commander, overseeing three squadrons. But he still insisted that everyone call him Butch.

On November 10, 1943, his air group was assigned to the USS Enterprise, which joined a task force bound for the Gilbert Islands southwest of Hawaii.

The attacks on two atolls in the Gilbert Islands, Tarawa and Makin, would be the first American amphibious attacks on the Central Pacific route leading directly to Japan.

Beginning on November 19, Butch's air group supported the assault on Makin. A prisoner later said a dawn air strike killed the Japanese commander.

At dusk the next day, Bettys made a low-level attack on the USS Independence. Hellcats rose to confront the Bettys, but one managed to damage the Independence with a torpedo. The task-force commander, Rear Adm. Arthur W. Radford, asked Butch to devise a defense against such dusk attacks.

He created three-plane teams--two Hellcats and an Avenger torpedo bomber carrying radar. The Enterprise would launch these night-fighter teams at dusk, and the fighter-director officer in the carrier's combat-information center would direct them toward Japanese planes as they appeared on radar. The Avenger pilot would follow the center's directions, flying toward the Japanese planes until they showed up on his plane's radar screen, too. When the pilot could see the enemy plane's blue exhaust flares, he would direct the two Hellcats to attack.

Butch called his night-fighter teams "Black Panthers."

On the afternoon of November 26, the Enterprise's combat-information center alerted Butch to a group of about 20 inbound Bettys. He asked Radford to order the Black Panthers aloft.

As night fell, the Enterprise launched Butch and another Hellcat, piloted by his usual wing man, Ensign Andy Skon. The Avenger that was to guide them, piloted by Lt. Cdr. Phil Phillips with Hazen Rand as the radio/radar operator and Alvin Kernan (now an eminent literary critic) as the gunner, had not yet been launched when the Enterprise's fighter- direction officer abandoned Butch's plan.

The FDO sent Butch and Skon on a search for low-flying Bettys. After an hour, Butch decided that it was time to find Phillips' Avenger.

At 7:05 p.m. the incoming Bettys, flying at wave-top level, attacked.

The American ships protecting the carriers raised a dense curtain of anti-aircraft fire, and Radford maneuvered the entire task force to deny the Bettys any good torpedo-attack angles. Phillips shot down one Betty. To the east, Butch and Skon in their Hellcats fired at several fleeting Bettys but hit nothing. Gunners in the Bettys fired back.

The FDO directed Butch and Skon toward Phillips' Avenger.

As Butch approached, he asked Phillips to turn on his "turtleback" light, a white light behind the pilot's headrest. Butch turned his on, too. Shortly afterward, the Avenger's rear-facing gunner, Kernan, saw the two Hellcats slide in behind him from above. Butch was to the gunner's left, Skon to the right.

At almost the same instant, Kernan saw a fourth plane appear above and behind Butch. "There's a Jap on your tail," Phillips radioed Butch as he ordered Kernan to fire.

But the intruder fired first, from its nose down into Butch's Hellcat.

The Hellcat dropped gently. Shortly afterward, Skon and the Avenger's crew saw something "grayish-white" appear below, splashing into the sea.


In Phoenix, Butch's sister Marilyn was returning by car from Thanksgiving dinner with their mother, Selma, when the radio announced that several Japanese planes had been shot down, with the loss of only one American plane.

"That's Edward," Selma said instantly.

"Oh, Mother, don't be ridiculous," Marilyn responded.

"It's Edward," Selma insisted.

Official word arrived on December 9 that Butch was missing in action. Selma left for San Diego to be with Rita and Kathleen.

Lt. Cmdr. Bob Jackson wrote Rita from the Enterprise to describe the extensive but unsuccessful search for Butch. In his letter, Jackson quoted Rear Adm. Radford saying of Butch that he "never saw one individual so universally liked." Paul Tibbets, a good friend of Butch's since their days together at Western Military Academy, says today, "He was a hell of a fine man."

Tibbets also went on to become a pilot, but in the Air Force. A year and a half after his classmate's death, he would lead a special group of bombers trained to drop at least two atomic bombs--one on Germany and one on Japan. Germany surrendered before the drop, but Tibbets, flying a B-29 bomber named for his mother, Enola Gay Tibbets, dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945.


A solemn pontifical Mass of Requiem was offered for Butch at the St. Louis Cathedral on December 20, 1943.

After the war, on April 19, 1947, Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, proposed that Chicago's new airport be named for Butch, who had often visited his father in the city. The next week, EJ's role in ridding Chicago of Al Capone was revealed in the April 26 issue of Collier's magazine. IRS agent Wilson was quoted saying, "On the inside of the gang, I had one of the best undercover men I have ever known: Eddie O'Hare."

On September 17, 1949, O'Hare Field was dedicated to EJ's son, Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare.

O'Hare International Airport describes its namesake as "a World War II fighter pilot from Chicago"—even though Butch never lived in Chicago. The online history of the USS O'Hare, a ship commissioned in 1945 and sponsored by Butch's mother, says the ship's namesake "grew up in Chicago, Illinois." On February 20 of this year, the CBS program Sunday Morning aired a segment celebrating O'Hare's Medal of Honor flight. CBS showed a National Archives photo of the St. Louis parade and called it a Chicago parade, then named Chicago as O'Hare's hometown.

They were wrong.


Christina Jesson and Shaun Snyder assisted with research for this story. Photos are from the U.S. Navy, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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