Flyboy Valor

Good morning. It’s Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. That was some debate in Nevada last night — and when television cameras are involved, what happens in Vegas definitely doesn’t stay in Vegas. I was up too late watching and up too early this morning editing, so I’ve reached into the vault to reprise a topic I’ve written about before — the legendary U.S. Navy pilot for whom Chicago’s busiest airport is named.

On this date in 1942 Edward “Butch” O’Hare became the first American flying “ace” of World War II. Two months later, he was at the White House receiving the Medal of Honor from Franklin D. Roosevelt. Soon after that he was back in the thick of the fight.

“As World War II fades to sepia, so does the public memory of Edward ‘Butch’ O’Hare. For the millions of travelers who pass through every year, O’Hare International Airport might be dedicated to one of the Irish politicians, captains of commerce and industry, or press lords whose names are attached to so many other Chicago landmarks such as the Dan Ryan Expressway and Wentworth Avenue.”

Chicago Tribune writer John Blades wrote those words 23 years ago this week. They’re even more true today. The last veterans of that great war are leaving us now — only their families remember them all. So we remember a few of them, stand-ins for an entire generation that fought freedom’s fight. But doing so requires vigilance.

Five years ago, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hinted at renaming either O’Hare or Midway airports, presumably after Barack Obama. “We have airports named after battleships,” Emanuel said dismissively. This wasn’t even technically correct. Midway International Airport (once named Chicago Municipal Airport) was renamed in 1949. Like the aircraft carrier (not a battleship), it was named after the Battle of Midway, a decisive 1942 engagement that turned the Pacific war against Japan in favor of the United States.

O’Hare International, of course, was named for a genuine American war hero. The only possible argument against it is that Butch O’Hare wasn’t really a Chicagoan. He was born in St. Louis, where he remained for much of his childhood after his parents divorced. St. Louis is the city that held a parade for him in 1942, and where his funeral was held after he died in combat the following year.

Born on March 13, 1914, O’Hare had been trained as a pilot while still at the Naval Academy. At Pensacola, Fla., he practiced carrier landings. He made his first one on July 1, 1940, and promptly pronounced it “just about the most exciting thing a pilot can do in peacetime.”

Twenty months later, while piloting an F4F Wildcat, he was facing a formation of Japanese G4M1 bombers – “Bettys,” as they were called. With extraordinary flying and perfect marksmanship, the son of “Easy Eddie” O’Hare shot five of them out of the sky in less than four minutes, almost certainly saving his home ship in the process. His feat was celebrated across the country, and the pilot was decorated, feted, paraded, and offered up as a motivational speaker.

Today, it’s inconceivable that a national icon would be rotated back into harm’s way. At the time, however, it seemed to his military commanders that Lt. O’Hare was far too good a pilot to waste on a publicity tour, so the following year he was back in action. He was sent to Hawaii to train Navy pilots. By August he was back in combat, flying missions over Wake Island and other hot spots. He went missing in the skies over the Gilbert Islands on Nov. 26, 1943, while flying an experimental nighttime mission without radar.

For years, rumors circulated that he was killed by friendly fire, but this was untrue. In their authoritative biography of O’Hare, authors Steve Ewing and John B. Lundstrom addressed the old gossip in a chapter titled “What Happened to Butch.” Their conclusion was straightforward: “Butch fell,” they wrote, “to his old familiar adversary, a Betty.”

Unlike many Americans, Edward O’Hare did not underestimate Japanese pilots — or their aircraft. At his Medal of Honor ceremony, President Roosevelt asked him what kind of fighter plane he needed to defeat the Japanese.

“Something that will go upstairs faster,” he replied — a plane that could climb higher, more quickly, to get on top of the enemy. The commander-in-chief listened, and acted; by the end of the war, Allied pilots had thousands of such fighter planes. By then, however, Butch O’Hare had slipped into the mists of history, like so many other brave young men in their flying machines.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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