We’ve all read the story of “Easy Eddie” O’Hare, the mob lawyer who had everything but a good name, who gave it all up to show his son that personal integrity was more important than all the riches of the underworld. Easy Eddie went on to testify against Al Capone and lost his life for it, Eddie’s son “Butch” going on to become a WWII flying Ace.
The story is true, kind of, but it lays the morality play on a little thick.
Edward Joseph O’Hare, “EJ” to friends and family, passed the Missouri bar exam in 1923 and joined a law firm. Operating dog tracks in Chicago, Boston and Miami, O’Hare made a considerable fortune working for Owen Smith, the high commissioner for the International Greyhound Racing Association, who patented the mechanical rabbit used in dog racing. EJ and Selma Anna (Lauth) O’Hare had three children between 1914 and 1924, – Edward (“Butch”), Patricia, and Marilyn.
EJ developed an interest in flying in the 1920s, once even hitching a ride on Charles Lindbergh’s mail plane. For a time he worked as pilot for Robertson Aircraft, occasionally giving his teenage son a turn at the controls.
One day EJ came home to find 13 year old Butch sprawled on the couch, munching on donuts and banana layer cake. He enrolled the boy in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. The kid was getting way too lazy.
EJ and Selma divorced in 1927. He left St. Louis for good, moving to Chicago while Butch attended WMA. It was there that the elder O’Hare met Al Capone, later earning his second fortune working as the gangster’s business manager and lawyer.
In 1930, O’Hare approached John Rogers, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, asking that he arrange a meeting with the Internal Revenue Service, which was then after Capone on grounds of tax evasion. It may have been to restore his good name, or maybe he saw the writing on the wall. Possibly both. The two are not mutually exclusive. Whatever the motivation, an Agent Wilson of the IRS later said “On the inside of the gang I had one of the best undercover men I have ever known: Eddie O’Hare.”
Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion in 1931 and sentenced to Alcatraz, becoming eligible for early release in 1939 due to syphilitic dementia. On November 8 of that year, EJ left his office at Sportsman’s Park racetrack in Cicero in his black ’39 Lincoln Zephyr. Two shotgun wielding gunmen pulled alongside, firing a volley of big game slugs and killing O’Hare, instantly. No arrest was ever made.
Butch had graduated from WMA and the Naval Academy at Annapolis by this time, receiving his duty assignment aboard the USS New Mexico. Shortly after his father’s assassination, the younger O’Hare began flight training at Naval Air Station in Pensacola.
Assigned to the USS Saratoga’s Fighting Squadron, Butch O’Hare made his first carrier landing in 1940, describing it as “just about the most exciting thing a pilot can do in peacetime.”
It was February 20, 1942, when Butch O’Hare became the first American flying Ace of WWII. The carrier Lexington was discovered by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft, 450 miles outside of Rabaul. Six Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters and Lexington’s anti-aircraft guns were engaged with an incoming formation of nine Japanese bombers, when nine more bombers were reported incoming.
Six more Wildcats roared off the flight deck of the Lexington, one piloted by Butch O’Hare. He and his wingman Marion William “Duff” Dufilho were the first to spot the V formation, diving to intercept them and leaving the other four fighters too far away to change the outcome. Dufilho’s guns jammed and were unable to fire, leaving Butch O’Hare alone on the unprotected side of his flotilla. One fighter against nine enemy bombers flying in tight V formation, mutually protecting one another with their rear-facing machine guns.
O’Hare’s Wildcat had four 50-caliber guns with 450 rounds apiece, enough to fire for about 34 seconds. What followed was so close to the Lexington, that pilots could hear the carrier’s AA guns. Full throttle and diving from the high side, O’Hare fired short, accurate bursts, the outermost bomber’s right-hand engine literally jumping from its mount. Ducking to the other side and smashing the port engine on another “Betty”, O’Hare’s Wildcat attacked one bomber after another, single handedly taking out five bombers with an average of only 60 rounds apiece.
O’Hare’s Medal of Honor citation calls it “…one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation…”
Butch O’Hare disappeared in a confused night action on November 26, 1943. Some say he was cut down by friendly fire, mistakenly shot down by TBF Avenger gunner Alvin B. Kernan. Others say it was a lucky shot by a gunner aboard his old adversary, a Rikko (Betty) bomber. A third theory is that his Hellcat caught a wingtip on a wave, and cartwheeled into the ocean.
The Orchard Depot Airport in Chicago was renamed O’Hare International Airport in tribute to the fallen Ace, on September 19, 1949. Neither the body, nor the aircraft, were ever recovered.