Remembering an Illinois Navy ace, ‘Butch’ O’Hare

With much of our Pacific fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor just 75 days earlier, the captain of the carrier USS Lexington knew how important it was to strike back at the enemy and keep his ship afloat. As he saw those nine Japanese twin-engine bombers headed straight for his ship Feb. 20, 1942, he wished he had more fighter planes to throw at them, but the six he launched would have to do.

His Navy fighter pilots did their job by knocking out those bombers, but in the process, one of the Navy pilots spotted a second formation of nine more Japanese bombers headed for the Lexington. Realizing the rest of his squadron was too far away to engage the second formation of enemy planes before they bombed his ship and its crew of 2,000 men, one Navy pilot and his wingman banked and dived down to attack the enemy formation themselves. Could two Navy F4F Wildcat fighters take out nine Japanese bombers and survive? The odds weren’t very good, but they got even worse when the wingman’s .50-caliber guns jammed.

That left only one fighter pilot, a man from Chicago who had just learned to fly three years earlier, to do the job.

With Japanese machine gun and cannon fire exploding all around him, and his Wildcat fighter diving at full throttle, this Navy lieutenant shot off the starboard engine of one enemy bomber at the rear of their formation. Then, he shot down another bomber; then another; then another; then another; then…he ran out of ammo.

By this time, the rest of his squadron had returned to help, and it was none too soon. The remaining bombers were shot down, and the USS Lexington was spared to fight another day.

For his extraordinary display of courage and skill in single-handedly shooting down those five bombers and crippling a sixth, Navy pilot Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare was promoted to Lt. Commander and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lt. Commander O’Hare became the first Navy “ace” in WWII.

President John F. Kennedy dedicated the O’Hare Airport March 23, 1963. For many years now, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport has been recognized as the busiest airport in the country. The next time you think you are busy, think about how busy Lt. Commander O’Hare was on that February day in 1942 over the Pacific Ocean.

This article was provided by the Illinois State Rifle Association. For more information about the Association, call 635-3198 or visit

From the Aug. 2-8, 2006, issue

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