Lightning from the Lexington
In the hour when America most needed a champion, this was a strange place to find one. Spoiled, mischievous, and undisciplined, the child of a broken home and the son of a mobster, nobody ever expected him to be or to do anything outstanding. But when all seemed lost and hopeless, facing overwhelming odds during four decisive minutes of mortal combat, when eminent disaster providentially turned into the overwhelming triumph of freedom over tyranny, the nation discovered to its amazement the hidden hero that lived inside of Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare.
The beginning of the hero was forged in the mold of his father. Edward O’Hare Sr., also known as “E. J.” or “Easy Eddie” among friends and family, was born on September 15, 1893 to Irish American parents, Patrick Joseph and Cecelia Malloy. E. J. grew up to marry Selma Anne Lauth, of St. Louis on June 4, 1912. Family life began modestly, living in an apartment above the grocery store of Selma’s father with their three children: Edward, born in 1914, Patricia, born in 1919, and Marilyn, born in 1924.
Easy Eddie managed to put himself through law school and joined a law firm after passing his bar exam in 1923. Success as a lawyer came quickly. Among other things, E. J. represented a successful inventor named Owen P. Smith who patented a mechanical rabbit device used in dog racing. Easy Eddie bought the rights and used the new invention in his own dog racing business.
The business boomed, and income flourished. The family moved into a new home in a neighborhood named Holly Hills in St. Louis where they built a swimming pool and were able to purchase a family car. But unfortunately, E. J.’s family relationships were not doing as well as his law practice.
Easy Eddie felt very devoted to his son Edward, but saw him as lazy and undisciplined. Young Edward was overeating and had a weight problem. One busy day, as the father hurried home from work for a quick lunch to rush back to his job, he was appalled to se young Edward, sprawled out on the couch, reading books and stuffing sweet rolls into his mouth. Shortly thereafter the boy asked his father to borrow the family car to go next door to the bakery and buy more doughnuts. Why? Too far to walk? That was it! E. J. had to do something for his son, or there was no telling what he might turn into.
E. J. promptly enrolled his son Edward at Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois where young Edward studied from eighth grade until he finished high school in 1932. He never excelled in academics or in sports, but he turned out to be an excellent marksman and became president of the rifle club.
About the time that young Edward went off to school, his parents divorced. His mother, Selma, kept the two sisters, Patricia and Maryland, and his father, E. J., moved to Chicago. There he continued the business he knew of horse racing and dog racing, and he continued to support his family well.
Easy Eddie thought he needed to align himself with a gang for his own protection. He began a romantic relationship with Mary Sue Granata, the sister of a state representative with ties to Al Capone and his mob, who at that time ruled the streets of Chicago.
E. J. proved to be just the man Al Capone needed. Their mutual interest in dog and horse racing brought them together, and Easy Eddie became Capone’s business manager. But that was just the start. As America’s most notorious mob leader, with an empire in bootlegged booze and prostitution, Capone needed a lawyer working full time to keep him out of jail, and E. J. proved himself to be very capable. Having proved his worth, Capone rewarded Easy Eddie with lots of cash and with a fenced-in residence that filled an entire city block in Chicago.
But while E. J.’s business was booming his conscience was busting. He was still very devoted to his son, Edward, who was still in military school. He had been trying to teach his son the difference between right and wrong, and he wanted young Edward to be a better person than he was himself, but he could not give him a good name or a good example. What if Edward learned what his father was really doing? Would he want to be like his dad?
The last straw may have been the Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929 when seven men from the North Side Gang, Capone’s rival mob, were lined up and machine-gunned down. And it was E. J. that was keeping Capone out of jail so that he could kill more people!
Easy Eddie asked the help of John Rodgers, a reporter with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, to arrange a meeting with the IRS. In a secret meeting with Frank J. Wilson, an investigator with the treasury department, E. J. agreed to be an undercover informant. He turned over Capone’s financial records, resulting in his arrest for income tax evasion.
Easy Eddie also helped to crack the code in Capone’s ledgers for his gambling houses throughout the 1920’s. It was also E. J. who alerted the government that Capone, after his arrest, had fixed his jury, so the judge and jury were changed. He became a key witness in the trial, which resulted in the conviction of Capone on 5 of 22 counts, for which he was sentenced to 11 years in prison at Alcatraz where he started serving his sentence in 1933.
But the mob had always paid Easy Eddie well, and there was still one more payment to make. Payday came on November 8, 1939, just one week before Al Capone was scheduled for early release from prison due to declining health. E. J. must have known that his severance pay was coming. His friends say that as he left his office at the Sportsman’s racetrack that day he carried a semi-automatic pistol – very unusual for Easy Eddie.
As he approached an intersection on his way home, a dark sedan pulled up beside his car. Two gunmen blasted him with big-game shotgun slugs, and then, before anyone knew what was happening, the hit car sped away and lost itself in traffic. The assassins were never found. Several months later Frank Nitti, Capone’s second in command, married Ursula Sue Granata, E. J.’s fiancée of several years.
The newspapers, ignoring his heroic efforts that had finally put Capone out of circulation, made good use of the story, calling E. J. “Al Capone’s billionaire front man.” These stories were a hardship on Easy Eddie’s surviving family, even on his two daughters who were pushed out of the school where they were attending because some parents at the school said they didn’t want their daughters attending school beside the daughters of a mobster.
Some speculated that the real reason why E. J. cooperated with authorities is because police were already closing in on Capone and would have put Easy Eddie away, too, if he hadn’t cut a deal. But Frank J. Wilson, the treasury inspector with whom E. J. had worked undercover, tells the story differently. In 1947 Wilson published an article in Collier’s Magazine called, “The Undercover Man: He trapped Capone.” There he said of Easy Eddie, “On the inside of the gang I had the best undercover man I had ever known: Edward O’Hare.”
E. J. had encouraged his son Edward to pursue a military career. He was granted an appointment and applied in 1937 to Annapolis Naval Academy in Maryland. Though a bit overweight, Edward did pass the physical, but he only passed the academic test after the second try. He did well at the Academy, but nothing outstanding. It was there that he was first called “Butch” by his peers, and thereafter insisted that everyone, including his subordinates, called him by his nickname. Butch was loved and respected by his friends, but was occasionally known to break the rules for a little fun.
Graduation came in 1937. Butch had been interested in flying for quite some time and had even been taken to fly with Charles Lindberg. As soon as he completed the mandatory two years on a surface war ship, the USS Mexico, Butch followed his true passion in flight school where he was when struck by the news of his father’s assassination.
First there was the basic training in the Sherman biplane. Training was completed in 1940 on patrol planes and advanced land planes. Butch was assigned duty aboard the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga under the command of Jimmy Thatch, who was famous for developing maneuvers by which the American navy Wildcat fighters could counter the superior speed and maneuverability of the Japanese zero. Thatch mentored Butch closely and soon recognized him as one of a kind with a unique combination of mental, physical, and personal attributes that made him perfect for flying and an outstanding pilot.
In the summer of 1941 Butch met a nurse named Rita Wooster. He knew instantly that she was just the one he had been looking for, and he proposed the same day that he met her. They were married on September 6, just six weeks later. They sailed to their Hawaiian honeymoon on two different ships, Rita on a passenger liner, and Butch on the USS Saratoga. Later, in February of 1943, their daughter, Kathy, was born. Unfortunately, she would not be old enough to remember her father.
Just three months after their marriage, war broke out with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Butch shipped out the next day. The USS Saratoga, on which Butch had served previously, escaped the carnage of Pearl Harbor by being in homeport for upkeep. He, along with his Third Squadron, was reassigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. That’s where the excitement began.
For the first few weeks of the war all the news was bad. Japan, which had been preparing for war, was doing its utmost to push the US Navy through a meat grinder in an effort to completely exterminate it before American industry could bring its military up to par. The people needed some good news. America needed a hero – someone who could prove that the enemy could be vanquished – and that champion was about to emerge out of obscurity in a very unlikely person.
It was February 20, 1942, just six weeks after the beginning of the war. The USS Lexington was en rout to engage the Japanese fleet at Raball, New Britain off the Solomon Islands. The Navy Wildcat planes, the best available at the beginning of the war, were woefully inadequate in quality and in number to face the vastly superior Japanese Zero fighters and “Betty” bombers.
And the young and inexperienced American pilots, many, like Butch, fresh out of flight training, were no match for the veteran Japanese pilots. But the Navy had to make do. There was no other alternative. Somehow they had to hold off the Japanese juggernaut till American industry could equip the military. Everything depended on a miracle – from somewhere.
Ship radar had detected a wave of Japanese aircraft approaching to attack the Lexington. There was no time to lose. Butch was in one of the Wildcat fighters that were scrambled to engage them. Just after launching, Butch O’Hare noticed to his horror that someone had neglected to top off his fuel tank. He didn’t have enough fuel to engage the enemy and return. There was nothing anyone could do. His commander ordered him back to the carrier. Reluctantly, Butch withdrew from formation.
Suddenly, Butch spotted a much greater threat. A formation of eight Japanese Betty bombers, undetected by ship radar, was closing in fast on the carrier. There was no time to launch more planes. There was no time to call the other Wildcats already in the air. Only Butch and his wingman were close enough to engage, outnumbered eight to two.
Then, as though the situation were not already hopeless enough, the guns on the plane of Butch’s wingman jammed! Butch would now have to face the Japanese Bettys alone, outnumber eight to one. He could not back down. There was too much at stake. America depended on its carriers for her very survival, and the fate of thousands of servicemen aboard this virtually defenseless aircraft carrier depended on the skill and courage of just one man.
In a surge of reckless unselfishness, Butch dove his Wildcat through the Japanese plane formation at full throttle. The enemy pilots, startled and bewildered, fell out of formation. Under constant fire, Butch made four death-defying passes. He had only 34 seconds of ammunition in his guns. He had to make it last.
Firing short bursts, Butch charged the first Betty, still reeling and disorientated after avoiding the near collision of Butch’s dare devil dive. First one Betty fell from the sky, then another, and then another. By the time the ammunition was spent, five Japanese Bettys had crashed into the sea, and a sixth was badly damaged. The ammunition was done, but Butch wasn’t. Again and again he rammed his wildcat against the two surviving Bettys, doing his best to clip a wing or damage a rudder.
In the confusion of battle, O’Hare caught friendly fire from his own carrier as well as from the enemy. Yet he survived and continued his assault. Under constant harassment from Butch, the two remaining enemy planes released their bomb loads at the Lexington – and missed!
Humiliated and demoralized, the remaining Japanese planes withdrew. There just wasn’t enough room in the sky for both them and Butch O’Hare. The enemy had sacrificed six of its best planes with their veteran crews, and had accomplished nothing. The might of Imperial Japan had been stopped by the courage of just one man. With the skies clear and his mission complete, the wounded Wildcat returned to the safety of its carrier.
E. J. O’Hare never realized what a champion he had fathered. Having shot down five enemy planes in his first combat mission, Butch O’Hare became the first ace pilot of World War II. He was quickly returned to Washington where he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Then, in the presence of President Roosevelt, Butch’s wife Rita decorated him with the Congressional Medal of Honor “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in aerial combat… for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.” Butch O’Hare became the first American serviceman in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor, and the first aviator in history to receive the decoration.
Butch didn’t like the publicity, but he came to see it as a necessary part of the job now. He was used on recruitment posters and films. In a radio interview, recounting the battle, he made it sound as though it were all just part of the job. Butch wanted to share the credit with all his fellow servicemen. He said that he would rather face the Japanese again than the reporters and photographers. One newspaper headline read, “Bashful Air Hero Blushes At Talk Of Achievements.” A parade was organized for him at home in St. Louise where he gave a short speech and where he was given the key to the city.
What Butch really wanted was to get back to his carrier, but he was far too valuable to send back into combat just yet. His flight skills and knowledge of aerial combat made him invaluable as a flight instructor. He spent much of the next year and a half in Hawaii teaching aerial tactics. Many of his students who survived the war testified that the tips they learned from Butch saved their lives more than once.
Finally, Butch was allowed to return to carrier duty in 1943. This time he served aboard the USS Enterprise. The Japanese had developed some advanced night aerial combat tactics, and Butch was given the assignment of countering those tactics by coming up with some of his own. His squadron of night fighters was nicknamed the “Black Panthers.” Radar had been installed on some of the torpedo bombers. These were slower planes, but they had more room for the bulky equipment. The idea was for the newer and faster Hellcat fighters to follow the radar-equipped planes who would guide them to their targets. Then, when the enemy was visible, the Hellcats would attack.
Of course, in the darkness it would be much harder to distinguish between a friendly aircraft and the enemy planes, and so the danger of friendly fire was great. Butch led his Black Panther squadron on two expeditions. The first was uneventful. He never returned from the second. He was the only one that didn’t return that night. There are conflicting reports of what happened. Some say that Butch was shot down from behind by a Japanese Betty. Others say that in the darkness and confusion of battle he was shot from the sky by friendly fire. What we know is that America never saw her champion again.
The nation mourned the loss of her champion, Edward Butch O’Hare, dead at the age of 29. His hometown of St. Louis tried to honor the fallen hero in ways that he would never have permitted. They tried to name a bridge and a high school after him, but his mother, Selma, wouldn’t allow it. She insisted that all the servicemen who fought are heroes. But the family couldn’t keep the city of Chicago from naming its new airport in his honor, named O’Hare Field in 1949. Later, in 1963 an expansion of the facility made this the largest airport in the nation. Shortly before his assassination, President Jack F. Kennedy, himself being a veteran and a decorated hero of the Second World War, renamed it the O’Hare International Airport in memory of the nation’s greatest aviation warrior and champion of all time.