Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare MOH

b. 13/03/1914 St Louis, Missouri. d. 23/11/1943 South Pacific.

DATE OF MOH ACTION: 20/02/1942 South Pacific.

Edward H “Butch” O’Hare MOH

Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Selma Anna (Lauth) and Edward Joseph O’Hare. He was of Irish and German descent. 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. After he graduated and was commissioned as an ensign on June 3, 1937, he served two years on the battleship USS New Mexico. In 1939, he started flight training at NAS Pensacola in Florida, flying the Naval Aircraft Factory N3N-1 “Yellow Peril” and Stearman NS-1 biplane trainers, and later 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 and killed, most likely by Al Capone’s gunmen. During Capone’s tax evasion trial in 1931 and 1932, O’Hare’s father had 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; it certainly at least partly involved an attempt to distance himself from Capone’s activities. Whatever the motivation, the elder O’Hare was shot and killed while driving his car a week before Capone was released from incarceration.

When Butch finished his naval aviation training on May 2, 1940, he was assigned to Fighter Squadron Three (VF-3) on board USS Saratoga. O’Hare then 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.

In early 1941, VF-3 transferred to USS Enterprise (CV-6), while carrier Saratoga underwent maintenance and overhaul work at Bremerton Navy Yard.

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, Butch on Saratoga, which had completed modifications at Bremerton, and Rita on the Matson liner Lurline. Butch was called to duty the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

On Sunday evening, January 11, 1942, as Butch 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 on January 31.

O’Hare’s most famous flight occurred during the Pacific War on February 20, 1942. O’Hare and his wingman were the only U.S. Navy fighters available when a second wave of Japanese bombers were attacking his aircraft carrier Lexington. O’Hare was on board the aircraft carrier Lexington, which had been assigned the task of penetrating enemy-held waters north of New Ireland. While still 450 miles (720 km) from the harbor at Rabaul, at 10:15, the Lexington picked up an unknown aircraft on radar 35 miles (56 km) from the ship. A six-plane combat patrol was launched, two fighters being directed to investigate the contact. These two planes, under command of Thach, shot down a four-engined Kawanishi H6K4 Type 97 (“Mavis”) flying boat about 43 miles (69 km) out at 11:12. Later two other planes of the combat patrol were sent to another radar contact 35 miles (56 km) ahead, shooting down a second “Mavis” at 12:02. A third contact was made 80 miles (130 km) out, but reversed course and disappeared. At 15:42 a jagged vee signal drew the attention of the Lexingtons radar operator. The contact then was lost but reappeared at 16:25 47 miles (76 km) west. O’Hare, flying F4F Wildcat BuNo 4031 “White F-15”, was one of several pilots launched to intercept nine Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers from the 4th Kōkūtai’s 2nd Chutai. O’Hare’s squadmates shot down eight bombers (with the ninth falling to an SBD later), but he and his wingman, Marion “Duff” Dufilho, were held back in the event of a second attack.

At 16:49, the Lexingtons radar picked up a second formation of “Bettys” from the 4th Kōkūtai’s 1st Chutai, only 12 miles (19 km) out, on the disengaged side of the task force. With the majority of VF-3 still chasing the 2nd Chutai, only O’Hare and Dufilho were available to intercept. Flying eastward they arrived 1,500 feet (460 m) above the “Bettys” 9 miles (14 km) out at 17:00. Dufilho’s guns jammed, leaving only O’Hare to protect the carrier. The enemy was in a V-of-Vs formation, flying very close together and using their rear-facing 20mm cannon for mutual protection. O’Hare’s Wildcat, armed with four 50-caliber guns, with 450 rounds per gun, giving him about 10 three-second bursts.

O’Hare’s initial maneuver was a high-side diving attack from the formation’s starboard side employing deflection shooting. He managed to hit the outside “Betty”s right engine and wing fuel tanks; when the stricken craft of Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryosuke Kogiku (3rd Shotai) abruptly lurched to starboard, he switched to the next plane up the line, that of Petty Officer 1st Class Koji Maeda (3rd Shotai leader). Maeda’s plane caught fire, but his crew managed to put out the flames with “one single spurt of liquid … from the fire-extinguisher” Both Maeda and Kogiku would catch up with the group before bomb release.

With two “Bettys” out of formation (albeit temporarily), O’Hare began his second firing pass, this time from the port side. His first target was the outside plane, flown by Petty Officer 1st Class Bin Mori (2nd Shotai). O’Hare’s bullets damaged the right engine and left fuel tank, forcing Mori to dump his bombs and abort his mission. O’Hare then targeted the plane of Petty Officer 1st Class Susumu Uchiyama (1st Shotai), which became his first definite kill.

As O’Hare began his third firing pass, again from the port side, the remaining “Bettys” were nearing their bomb release point. First, O’Hare shot down Lieutenant (junior grade) Akira Mitani (2nd Shotai leader). This left the lead plane, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Takuzo Ito, exposed. O’Hare’s concentrated fire caused the plane’s port engine nacelle to break free from its mountings and fall from the plane. The resulting explosion was so violent that the 1st Chutai pilots were convinced that an anti-aircraft burst had struck their commander’s plane. With a gaping hole in its left-wing, Ito’s plane fell out of formation.

Shortly afterwards, O’Hare made a fourth firing pass, likely against Maeda (who had now caught up), but ran out of ammunition. Frustrated, he pulled away to allow the ships to fire their anti-aircraft guns. The four surviving bombers dropped their ordnance, but all their 250 kg bombs missed. O’Hare believed he had shot down six bombers and damaged a seventh. Captain Sherman would later reduce this to five, as four of the reported nine bombers were still overhead when he pulled off. Thach, hurrying towards the scene with reinforcements after mopping up the 2nd Chûtai, saw three enemy bombers falling in flames at the same time. 

In fact, O’Hare destroyed only three “Bettys”: Uchiyama’s, Mitani’s, and Ito’s. The last plane, however, was not yet finished. Ito’s command pilot, Warrant Officer Chuzo Watanabe, regained enough control to level his damaged plane and attempted to crash it into Lexington. He missed, and flew into the water near the carrier at 17:12. Another three “Bettys” were damaged by O’Hare’s attacks. Of these, Maeda and Kogiku safely landed at Vunakanau airdrome at 19:50, while Mori became lost in a storm and eventually ditched at Simpson Harbor at 20:10. 

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, O’Hare 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.”

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 19:00 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 F4F Wildcat O’Hare flew was BuNo. 4031 as discovered in his Aviator Logbook. The side number was found out to be F-15 based on Captain Burt Stanley’s Diary. After Lexington returned to port, 4031 was transferred to VF-2 and flew from Lexington at Coral Sea. It was one of the six VF-2 Wildcats to survive as it landed on Yorktown. After Coral Sea it served in VF-42 and later Marine Air Group 23 before being struck in July 1944.

Credited with 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. After receiving the Medal of Honor, then-Lieutenant O’Hare was described as “modest, inarticulate, humorous, terribly nice and more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing”.

O’Hare received further decorations later in 1943 for actions in battles near Marcus Island in August and subsequent missions near Wake Island in October. O’Hare was not employed on combat duty from early 1942 until late 1943. Important events in this period included flying an F4F-3A Wildcat (BuNo 3986 “White F-13”) as Lieutenant Commander ‘Jimmy’ Thach’s wingman for publicity footage on April 11, 1942, the Medal of Honor presentation at the White House on April 21, and the welcome parade in O’Hare’s hometown on Saturday, April 25, 1942.

On June 19, 1942, O’Hare assumed command of VF-3, relieving Lieutenant Commander Thach. He was relocated to Maui, Hawaii, to instruct other pilots in combat tactics. U.S. Navy policy was to use its best combat pilots to train newer pilots, in contrast to the Japanese practice of keeping their best pilots flying combat missions. On March 2, 1943, O’Hare met Rita and hugged his one-month-old daughter, Kathleen, for the first time. His family resided in Coronado at 549 Orange Avenue, near North Island NAS. At the end of March 1943, O’Hare made Ensign Alexander Vraciu, a young Naval Reservist just out of flight school, his wingman. On July 15, 1943, VF-3 swapped designations with VF-6 squadron.

Equipped with the highly successful follow-on to the Wildcat, the new Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, two-thirds of VF-6 (twenty-four F6F-3s) under O’Hare’s command embarked on August 22, 1943, on the light carrier USS Independence. The arrival of the F6Fs with their powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines in late 1943 combined with the deployment of the new Essex-class carriers and the Independence-class carriers immediately gave the U.S. Pacific Fleet air supremacy wherever the Fast Carrier Force operated. The Hellcat’s first combat mission occurred on August 31, 1943, in a strike against Marcus Island. The F6F did well against Japanese fighters and proved that with the right tactics and teamwork the Japanese Zero need not be considered a superior enemy. VF-6’s combat debut on the Independence also went reasonably well. For his actions in battles near Marcus Island on August 31, 1943, O’Hare was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. For his actions in subsequent missions near Wake Island on October 5, 1943, O’Hare was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Distinguished Flying Cross.

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, Butch 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 17:58 and 18:01. The pilots for this flight were Butch 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 TBF-1C. 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. Butch 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 (300 km/h; 180 mph) 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 that fell 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) to the ship. After dawn, a three-plane search was made, but no trace of O’Hare or his aircraft was found. On November 29 a PBY Catalina flying boat also conducted a search with no positive result, and O’Hare was reported missing in action. For 54 years there was no definitive answer as to whether he had been brought down by friendly fire or the Japanese bomber’s nose gunner. As O’Hare went missing on November 26, 1943, and was declared dead a year later, his widow Rita received her husband’s posthumous decorations, a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross on November 26, 1944. Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, suggested that the name of Chicago’s Orchard Depot Airport be changed as a tribute to O’Hare. On September 19, 1949, the airport was renamed O’Hare International Airport to honor O’Hare’s bravery. The airport displays a Grumman F4F-3 like the one flown during the Medal of Honor action.

The same month, O’Hare’s name was engraved on the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific “Wall of the Missing” in Honolulu. In March 1963, President John F. Kennedy performed a wreath-laying ceremony at O’Hare Airport to honour Butch O’Hare. The Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum is honoring O’Hare with an F4F-3A on display and a plaque dedicated by the USS Yorktown CV-10 association, “May Butch O’Hare rest in peace …”.



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 3 on 20 February 1942. Having lost the assistance of his teammates, Lt. O’Hare interposed his plane between his ship and an advancing enemy formation of nine attacking twin-engined heavy bombers. Without hesitation, alone and unaided, he repeatedly attacked this enemy formation, at close range in the face of intense combined machine-gun and cannon fire. Despite his concentrated opposition, Lt. 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.