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This Day in History: Butch O’Hare, the Navy’s first flying ace during WWII

On this day in 1914, Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare is born. Perhaps you recognize his last name? A big airport in Chicago is named after him!  The actual person, of course, was so much more than Chicago O’Hare International.

Butch O’Hare was a Medal of Honor recipient and the Navy’s first flying ace during World War II. He was also the son of a man who helped prosecutors to convict Al Capone. The elder O’Hare was later shot and killed on a Chicago city street. Many believe that Capone ordered the hit.

You have to wonder what lessons the younger O’Hare would learn from these events. Just a few years after his father’s death, he would earn both his Medal and his status as an Ace. His Medal citation calls the feat “one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation.”

O’Hare saved USS Lexington from severe damage—maybe even complete destruction. It had then been less than three months since Pearl Harbor. O’Hare’s save was an important one, to say the least.

Lexington was in the South Pacific on February 20, 1942, when a wave of Japanese planes was spotted approaching its position. American F4F Wildcats were scrambled to ward off the attack. O’Hare took off, too, but by the time he reached combat altitude “there were so many of our fighters, I couldn’t get in on the brawl.”

Just then, another wave of nine Japanese twin-engine heavy bombers was spotted coming toward Lexington. O’Hare and his wingman were the only planes still in a position to protect their carrier from this second attack. O’Hare didn’t hesitate. “[H]e repeatedly attacked this enemy formation,” his Medal citation says, “at close range in the face of intense combined machinegun and cannon fire.” Nor did he change course when it was discovered that his wingman’s guns were jammed.

O’Hare was the only one with ammunition to take down the enemy bombers. He’d have to go it alone.

O’Hare made multiple passes at the Japanese planes, shooting down five of them in a mere four minutes. He severely injured another. The Japanese launched a few bombs, but had to do so hurriedly and missed their targets. O’Hare soon landed on Lexington, depleted of ammunition but ready to reload and take off again. “Just load those ammo belts,” he reportedly said as he landed, “and I’ll get back up.”

Fortunately, the Japanese had already broken off their attack.

“He was a legitimate American hero at a really desperate time for the United States,” one aviation historian later said. “He kept the Lexington from being bombed or torpedoed, and his action may have altered the course of the war in the Pacific. The damaged carrier wouldn’t have been able to take part in the Battle of the Coral Sea, two months later.”

The feat earned O’Hare a promotion to Lt. Commander. He would also receive the Medal of Honor.

Unfortunately, O’Hare’s story came to a sad end the following year. His plane went down during a conflict on the night of November 26-27, 1943. Neither he nor his plane were ever found.

“Butch O’Hare died in much the same way he had earned his Medal of Honor,” one historian concluded, “protecting his carrier from an overwhelming air attack.”

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